This article is one of a series of articles from Metalsmith Magazine “Art and Technics” talking about techniques in craftsmanship and design. For this 1989 Fall issue, Tim McCreight talks about technical mastery.
Technical mastery is almost always a pleasure to experience. From opera to country music, from polished marble to welded steel, when something is done just right it has a presence that sets it apart. This power is most obvious to a knowledgeable audience, but it usually transcends the necessity for intellectual understanding. I don’t know anything about ballet, for instance, but when I see a strong performance, I know it.
This phenomenon is, of course, present in the field of metalworking. In fact, for better or worse, it is one of the most often used avenues of approach by which people come to jewelry and holloware. On one level this is the “Oh, my, look how shiny!” syndrome. What metalsmith has not inwardly cringed when a well-meaning customer has commented on this kind of technical accomplishment? But on another level, there are a lot of pieces that really are dazzling. In museums and galleries I see work that demonstrates such exquisite technical skill that it can take my breath away.
While this is true of almost any field of endeavor, it seems to be an especially tricky point in our field. The metalworking tradition seems particularly vulnerable to the confusions that come with a technical vocabulary that is large and complex. And so pretty to look at too! Whether we’re speaking of the delicate inlay of gold into a Persian gun barrel or scores of gems floating in a platinum web, pieces of extreme technical accomplishment exert an almost hypnotic power.
Perhaps it is because of this power and the fact that it has dominated metalworking for centuries, that our work is evaluated principally by that standard. Until recently, jewelry was too often assessed only as precious and well-made objects. Period.
It was in response to the seductive (and deflective) power of technique that a number of jewelers and metalsmiths developed work that was aggressively antitechnical. I’m thinking of Fred Woell’s found-object brooches and Robert Ebendorf’s wall pieces made up mostly of flattened Coke cans. Such pioneering work of the 60s was sometimes called “Anti-Art,” which, of course, missed the point entirely. It was, in fact, work that wanted to be evaluated as art without the Technique Factor getting in the way. These pieces succeeded in breaking the hold of the technical mystique.
I was thinking of all this recently as I became aware of a new link in the evolutionary chain. If we had moved from high tech to low tech, I now see work I’d call no tech. This work may involve traditional techniques and it may not. It may use conventional jewelry materials and findings, and it may not. It is characterized by a freedom from the technique mystique. Artists in this category do not try to impress us with their skill, nor do they repudiate technique as a camouflage for design. They simply make things, using materials, equipment and techniques in any way that makes sense at the moment. The result is a barrage of highly personal, energetic work that is turning up at every level of the marketplace.
Another forum in which this cavalier attitude toward technique shows itself is in the annual conference pin swap. I’m continually delighted by the whimsical and often provocative ideas that turn up here. More than once I’ve been handed a delightful piece that employed unusual materials with unexpected connections to create a statement that was strikingly poignant. What a lot to accomplish in a piece of give-away jewelry!
This no-tech work often uses non-precious and found materials. It can rely on simple processes such as roll printing, piercing and gluing. Is there a danger, then, of losing ground? Might our next generation of designers lose interest in more time-consuming techniques and pass them by? Might we create a consumer ignorant of demanding techniques, undermining a clientele that is just beginning to emerge? These pedantic and paranoid questions probably have some merit, but, in my opinion, not much. I have too much faith in the integrity of creation and the commitment of these artists. A response I got from one person I spoke with is typical. “When I need to know more, I’ll learn it.” she said. “This work is selling and so I’ll continue to make it. But I have lots of ideas and look forward to the time when I will be pushed into more demanding work.”
In the meantime, this refreshing attitude about technique can force each of us to examine our own preciously held conceptions. No evolution is static, nor is it as neatly delineated as I have suggested. We have elements of the high-tech-low-tech-no- tech assortment with us all the time. And as the spotlight of magazine coverage, gallery choice and popular opinion swings from one to the other, it serves us well to remain open to the lessons that each can teach us. Now, where’s my epoxy?
Tim McCreight is head of the metals department at Portland School of Art, Portland, ME and a contributing editor to Metalsmith.