1985 SNAG Conference Review

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By Pamela J. RitchieMore from this author

The statement below could well have been made by many individuals upon reflection on their friends and colleagues. But in this case it is an excerpt from the International Exchange panel of the 1985 SNAG conference. Our professional ties, and relentless curiosity, are indeed what bind us together and brought us together to mark the 14th SNAG conference. Over 400 metalsmiths and interested individuals from 6 countries gathered in Toronto, Canada from June 12 to 15. They came to participate in seminars, panel discussions, lectures and workshops by influential artists, curators and critics.

"What binds us together are quarrels, gossip, envy, jealousy, rows, noisiness, lack of consideration and moderation, but also endless talks, long nights and lots of love."

- Otto Künzli

"It is very appropriate that this first SNAG conference outside of the United States should be held in Toronto," Chairman Don Stuart explained in his welcoming remarks: "It was here that the concept of the Society of North American Goldsmiths was formulated. Philip Morton was teaching in Toronto in the late 1960s and in consultation with Hero Kielman the idea grew until together they flew to Chicago to meet with the others to found the society." With emphasis on exchange of ideas, the SNAG 85 committee aimed that the conference be, according to Stuart, "a time for professional stimulation and social interaction." Panel discussions and lectures were a key focus for this exchange, although with inconsistent success.

The International Exchange panel, which could have been construed as the keystone of this conference, was moderated by Robert Ebendorf and composed of Paul Derrez, the Netherlands, Otto Künzli, West Germany, Gillian Packard, England, Heidi Sand, Norway and Marjorie Schick, United States. Ironically, the host country was not represented on this panel. After an introduction by Ebendorf, which reviewed previous exchanges made by organizations such as SNAG and the World Craft Council, each panelist gave a personal account of his or her experience or efforts towards international exchange.

Ebendorf also stated, optimistically, that an objective for this discussion was to lay new groundwork for the next 10 years. It quickly became apparent (and was later confirmed by a panelist) that the panelists had not been briefed by questions or statements in advance, an approach normally taken when organizing panel discussions in order to encourage formal discourse. Each panelist did, however, raise potentially valuable issues: Heidi Sand of Norway spoke of her experiences living and studying in the United States and stressed the importance of exchanges between schools. Sand also announced the 1986 exhibition of Norwegian jewellers to be held in the United States and expressed her hopes for continual international contacts.

Gillian Packard extended a warm welcome to groups and students to Goldsmiths' Hall, London. She spoke of educational exchanges, noting that there were 23 schools teaching jewellery and silversmithing in the United Kingdom. Packard also commented on the economic problems that restrict employment exchange in England. Marjorie Schick simply encouraged everyone to pursue an exchange of ideas through reading, travelling and exhibiting abroad, Otto Künzli, quoted earlier, spoke of personal exchange between individuals and of the recent "Cross Currents" exhibition held in Sydney, Australia, which showed works by artists from Britain, Holland and Germany, as well as Australia.

Although pertinent issues of education, employment and exhibition were raised, one could not help but notice that new approaches towards laying a future groundwork were not being examined. Nor was there any rigorous investigation of the already established vehicles through which exchange presently occurs.

Fortunately, Paul Derrez, owner of Galerie Ra in Amsterdam and himself a jeweler, went somewhat beyond a personal account to discuss the significance of exchange and to query its existing means. He advocated an increased interest in communication and an acceptance of responsibilities in this direction, stressing the need for more awareness of different artistic approaches, ideas and issues, for more analysis and comparison and for cultural research. To paraphrase Derrez: "Jewellery is just a vehicle to communicate an idea of the artist . . . the gallery is a place to explore ideas for an audience . . . . In a small country you can have a lively art scene but it may also become dull." Ipso facto, professional stimulus through exchange is a necessity; it promotes and creates healthy competition. Derrez advocated individual responsibility for certain aspects of exchange, i.e., teachers for students and curators for exhibitions, He also asked: "Why doesn't an international magazine exist? Who will do this?" Later, he clarified this by stating that it must be a new initiative and not rely on existing publications such as Craft International. After a brief summary, Ebendorf opened the discussion to the floor. Concern over the disparity of tuitions was brought up as an inhibiting factor in student exchange. Joyce Chown from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design remarked that this problem was overcome there by setting up a system with other schools, to have students pay tuition at their home school. Paula Letki asked that calls for entry to juried exhibitions be extended beyond local boundaries to include more international submissions.

A relevant issue not covered by this panel (although much discussed throughout the conference) is the need for an international jewellery resource center and library. This facility, ideally, would catalogue and call for documentation of current and past work without bias towards materials or ideologies. Its main function would be as a research centre for critical and historical studies.

Perhaps it was too short a time period, too impersonal a space or too broad a subject to facilitate active dialogue. This panel discussion did, however, at least introduce the subject, which should now continue to be addressed in all its ramifications.

In "Developing Jewellery Criticism: Issues, Attitudes and Frameworks" moderator James Evans set out, constructively, to raise more questions than answers. He felt these questions might lead to "a formulation of an approach," but a resolution was not expected. The panel was asked to prepare a statement in response to all or some of the following questions: "Is the very notion of an academic jewellery discourse desirable? Is it perhaps pretentious? Does the notion need justification? What do you envision as the most critically profitable path on which to embark, i.e., formal, contextual, etc? Are there critical practices already in place or will the crafts' (jewellerys') critical ground be different and require its own theoretical grounds? Perhaps just modification? What might these special considerations be? How best can assessments be made? To whom are we addressing such criticism anyway?"

The panelists, Sarah Bodine, Helen Drutt, Paul Derrez, Carol Hanks, and Joke van Ommen rose to the occasion. The consensus was that: we must eliminate the mediocre from our magazines, raise opinions and disagreements, lay new groundwork (citing photographers as exemplars in this area). Derrez noted, "We can't wait for art historians to make studies; we mustn't be dependent in this way . . . everybody on each level should develop more theoretical discussion." In short, three areas of criticism were covered; justification, methodology and change.

The need to discuss and justify the basic premise of jewellery criticism seems to still abound. In fact, too much time is spent on this issue. Evidence can be seen in the following excerpts from both audience and panelists: Why do we need it at all? It is not helping us . . . are we using critique in order to make ourselves legitimate? What are galleries looking for in criticism? . . . Criticism is needed to create a community dialogue, to document work, to stimulate discussion for the artist, as a proper intellectual format to look at work historically, to clarify work for the public, to create an appreciation and an understanding, finally, and significantly, to raise issues. Certainly a more definitive justification than these collective statements is not necessary!

When considering which path of criticism would be the most profitable to take, Sarah Bodine astutely said "all . . . If formal properties are paramount in the work, then a formalist critic should apply his perspective and so on." Bodine also suggested that there are two types of theory that underlie critical writing 1) comprehensive theory, e.9., Marxism, Feminism, and 2) conjecture. Carol Hanks suggested that we free ourselves from the overwhelming concerns of methodology and simply encourage statements in print as much as possible. She felt that in the beginning this may be a free-for-all approach but that it would eventually build up a solid dialogue. Comments were made on the processes of description, analysis and interpretation. Joke van Ommen voiced her opinion that critical talk and pictorial information were more profitable than formal writing. Helen Drutt and Sarah Bodine addressed the importance of change in the discourse of art history and criticism, where pluralism is seen to have broken down set structures. Mention was made several times during the conference of this concern. It is an obvious issue to many other art disciplines, as evidenced by the recent Vanguard article by Dennis Lessard "Art Criticism and Contemporary Art History, Towards a Transformation."

It seemed that the buzz words tor the conference (and to some extent during this panel discussion) were plurality, individualism and subjectivity. This does not hold any surprise, as they are common in art vocabulary today. One wonders where the issues surrounding them will take us and how they will be perceived retrospectively. This concern will no doubt be raised at the next conference: How will the plurality of styles and values continue to affect our work? Will this diversity and stress on individualism strengthen or weaken our art? Is the subjective approach to viewing art breaking down barriers to art production or is it building new ones upon the established? Is it indeed a kind of self-imposed naiveté or historical amnesia?

Certainly Evans and his panel were successful in their attempt to raise questions. Questions poured out, not only about criticism itself but also about the very issues it raises. It is a very timely subject and one worthy of continued dialogue.

But the piece de résistance of the conference was Otto Künzli's "Walpertinger and Other Short Stories." To do this performance/lecture justice in a description would be impossible. Suffice to say that it was an intelligent and humourous retrospective of his work—a work where the concept, content and materials balanced to produce an effective whole.

Other lectures and discussions, though perhaps less entertaining than Künzli's, were certainly thought provoking and noteworthy: The methodology Carol Hanks used to put together "Canadian Jewellery in Context" was one of stylistic analysis to include form and content. In her lecture she discussed the dichotomy of form (natural or organic as opposed to manmade or geometric) and the contemporary efforts to combine these polarities. Hanks broke the evident plurality of styles into four groups:

  1. The decorative—purely for aesthetic worth.
  2. Talismanic—not symbolic but enigmatic/suggestive of a spirit within.
  3. Situational—related to performance and that which can often be ephemeral.
  4. Discursive—political, environmental or social statements—power or money display—cultural or religious commentary. The structural clarity of Hanks's presentation made her potentially confusing material surprisingly accessible.

Helen Drutt's anecdotal and informal lecture on "Contemporary Jewellery in the United States: Two Decades—Its Presence and Influence" showed us a diversity of styles, influences and philosophies. Her closing remarks were couched in optimism for continuing a dialogue among Canada, Europe and the United States.

The fundamental question of how to develop ideas of form was addressed by Michael Rowe. He expressed his interest in creating holloware for contemplation more than domestic function. In developing his ideas he aspires to set a new paradigm that does not rely on trends but embodies a personal concept.

Lois Betteridge presented an excellent documentary-style survey of Canadian metalwork. Betteridge effectively covered the history of metalwork from the French regime 1534-1890 to the contemporary scene 1969-1985. In her closing remarks Betteridge acknowledged the problems arising in education today, i.e., closures of art and metal departments in colleges and universities. She stated that we must "muster our resources and fight . . . to create an awareness of the need to reinstate our educational facilities."

Paul Denez included both historical insight into the development of Dutch jewelers as well as a comprehensive survey of other artists represented in Galerie Ra in his slide lecture "From National Identity to International Diversity." When speaking about this exemplary gallery he said that his aim is to support experimental jewellery. His policy involves three aspects; to introduce artists by solo, retrospective, group and theme shows, to exhibit a variety of work and to provide information on the work.

The overall tone of the conference could be characterized as thoughtful. Perhaps there were indeed "quarrels, gossip, envy" but altogether the 14th gathering of the Society of North American International Goldsmiths resulted in a well-organized, theoretical, inquisitive and frank exchange of many of those issues most important to our future success as artists.

If any general criticism of the conference could be made, it would be that the topics were sometimes too broad and the time too short. We are at a point now in our development as artists where we must narrow our fields of discussion and begin to examine them more carefully in a scholarly fashion. These conferences and this magazine provide an excellent opportunity for such reports, but perhaps they are not enough. Perhaps we need an international publication which would deal solely with issues of criticism. Perhaps we need one for history or for technological papers. But, again, we must ask ourselves: Who will take on this responsibility?

SNAG 85 was cohosted by The Metal Arts Guild and the Ontario Crafts Council on behalf of the Society of North American Goldsmiths.

Pamela Ritchie is Head of the Jewellery Department at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and has exhibited her work internationally.

By Pamela J. Ritchie
Metalsmith Magazine – 1985 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Pamela J. Ritchie

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