Enamel A Current Perspective

Enameling, like other mediums in the vast world of art, has seen ebbs and tides of production, enthusiasm, and admiration. We proposed this exhibition on the premise that enamel has experienced renewed interest and growth since the mid-1990s. When considering current cultural conditions affecting art, economy, and technology, it is surprising, even to us devotees, that a strong interest in enameling persists. Enamel has survived, and at times thrived, since it’s ancient beginnings, despite the meager support it has received through the formal avenues of education, museums, and the marketplace. Enamelists’ devotion to their craft has no doubt contributed to the endurance of the medium through history.

This Exhibition in Print examines an array of current works in enamel, assembled from a broad call for entries and through our personal knowledge of work seen in exhibitions, publications, educational venues, and the craft and art marketplace. We have selected works in which enamel is an integral element that reinterprets or exceeds traditional enameling approaches. We have discovered a number of new artists with similar concerns, who are generating challenging and stimulating work.

After the mid-twentieth-century surge of interest in enameling, noted in the essay here by Toni Greenbaum, three departments devoted to the medium emerged in higher education: Kent State University (KSU), San Diego State University (SDSU), and The Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). State and government cuts to education in the mid-1980s struck a great blow to the field, with significant reductions to the programs at KSU and SDSU; the already small number of artists able to focus on enamel within a broader formal art education was reduced to the bare minimum. CIA remains the only department with an entire curriculum, facility, and faculty devoted to the study of enameling. There are, however, many notable artists teaching enameling in jewelry and metals programs in the U.S. and abroad, many of whom are included in this exhibition. Unfortunately, the depth and breadth of investigation into enamel is limited in comparison to the ever-increasing techniques of the jewelry and metals disciplines.

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This void in higher education affects the ability of the field to grow within the broader scope of the art world. It also accounts for the high percentage of practitioners who have excellent technical skills, but make work that seems to exist outside of any visible concern for art theory and practice in the last half century. At the same time, we found a strong base of activity in enamel, with definite influences and trends paralleling contemporary art and craft issues. We also witnessed highly skilled enamelists who hold true to traditional process and values, while continuing to make new and pertinent pieces.

Through this search we found specific trends, centers of activity, and various techniques in use. Jewelry comprised close to half of the work submitted for consideration and more than half of our selections. All other formats, including wall pieces, sculpture, and vessels, composed the other half of the entries, with the majority in wall-based pieces. CIA, KSU, and SDSU continue to have an influence, considering the number of enamelists from those regions or holding degrees from the programs. Seattle and the Northwest region, and the New York/New Jersey region, also support a great amount of activity. Out of several hundred artists, we only received 38 international submissions. Unfortunately, we did not readh many of the international artists who practice throughout Europe and Asia; notably absent were Japanese enamelists. Of the international work reviewed, that from England, Germany and Israel appears to be the most consistent and advanced.

Insofar as techniques being practiced, cloisonné still reigns in the traditional category, and is found predominantly in the jewelry format. We were, however, disappointed to find that many of the forms, images, and patterns we viewed were rather antiquated. Despite these observations, leaders in the field are producing work that is arguably outstanding in its traditional mastery and technical feats. While Marilyn Druin’s work remains loyal to its lineage, her pieces transcend any time frame due to a exceptional comprehension of the medium. Her combination of cloisonné and basse-taille produces an intrinsic depth through intricately layered and embellished surfaces. Harlan Butt demonstrates virtuosity over his materials by fusing metalsmithing and enameling techniques into a coherent language. Through the vessel form, Butt captures and contains moments of our daily existence. Valeri Timofeev suspends enamel and consistently astounds the viewer through his command of the plique-à-jour process.

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With its origins in fifteenth-century Limoges, France, and having quickly spread throughout Europe, the process of painted enamel continues to intrigue artists whose work traverses different historical, cultural, and technical strategies. JoAnn Tanzer, an important and influential artist in the San Diego area and the first American to be included in The Limoges Museum of Art, pushes the medium through large, abstract, painterly pieces, which incorporate contemporary applications of industrial enamel products and sgraffito on steel panels. Enlisting similar materials and techniques, Helen Elliot’s fluid color fields defy opacity, producing layers that are simultaneously absorbent and reflective, reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s and Joan Mitchell’s paintings. In contrast, Keith Lewis’s images are more closely related to historical miniature portraits executed in the Limoges technique. In the style of ancient frescoes, the enameled images reside as gemstones in elaborate filigree- and pearl-encrusted settings. Blatantly seductive, the pieces draw the viewer in to be confronted and humored by their sexual references.

In eighteenth-century England, the industrial application of “transfer printing” was developed as a means of commercializing and expediting traditional enameling procedures. This process has evolved to the current technology of ceramic decals. Elizabeth Turrell has revived the decal process through research at the University of the West of England at Bristol. She curated the exhibition “Print on Enamel,” and has conducted numerous workshops that introduce ceramists, printmakers, metalsmiths, and enamelists to the exploration of decals. Embracing this process, Kathleen Browne appropriates historical portraiture while introducing humorous, if not ill-starred, images from the 1950s. By elevating this commercial-industrial output to the status of a “jewel,” Browne is in effect commenting and challenging current constructs of value and preciousness. For printmakers Kate Ward Terry and Margaret Kimura, the technology to produce the decals is closely aligned to their own processes, and has allowed them to explore imagemaking, color, and surface texture in an entirely new medium. The work of Morgan Brig, Browne, and Turrell reveal the minimal influence of digital technology on the medium.

Imagery from nature has been an enduring element of art, serving as a source of inspiration and engagement. The unique beauty belonging to the natural world enchanted Fabergé, Lalique, Bates, Winter, Drerup, and Miller. Creating work that was either representational or abstract, each artist managed to explore nature’s innumerable characteristics. This appreciation and interpretation continues to be visible in the work of many of our selected artists. Employing the process of champleve, Michal Bar-on’s grave wreaths expose the contradiction of beauty and pain associated with death; beneath a fabricated arrangement of flowers resides a cluster of thorn-like forms destined to mar and imprint the ground below. Proving to be both compelling and moving, Bar-on’s wreaths serve as a platform to address current social and cultural concerns. Linda Darty draws inspiration from foliage in her immediate surroundings, as well as her intuitive response to the natural occurances yielded in the firing process. Marjorie Simon’s botanicals convert realistic forms into unique interpretations through the processes of origami and kirigami. Repetition, a dominant characteristic of nature, proves to be an engaging stratagem for many practitioners. Jacqueline Ryan reinterprets natural configurations through the repetition of geometric shapes. Generating seductive surfaces and forms, her jewelry solicits interaction from both the wearer and viewer. Indirectly referencing nature, Sarah Turner’s blossom composition introduces a unique presentation of the wearable object. Exploiting form, pattern, and repetition, Turner probes the essence of identity within a mass. As the individual pieces are removed from the whole, do they obtain a level of individuality or does the collective structure begin to disintegrate?

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Trained as a painter, Jamie Bennett has returned to more direct painterly applications of enamel, evident in his neckpiece, Florilegium. Rather than striving for the botanically correct, Bennett is “more interested in the liberty I have to concoct and unravel whatever I work from, for the sake of maximizing a willfully emblematic object.” While Bennett strives to make nature resonate through the transcendent capability of ornament, David Freda mimics inhabitants of the natural realm, occasionally altering their inherent physical traits, producing jewelry pieces that are at once beautiful and disturbing. His technical accomplishment of en ronde bosse on cast surfaces is commendable.

Many artists addressed the inherent fragility of enamel. Within a collection of delicate objects, Bettina Dittlmann references both the wearable and the natural. Encrusted with a sugar coating of enamel, the objects are enticing, yet seem precarious as wearables. Dittlmann’s interest resides in breaking and pushing the laws of the enamel, even if it proves to be a futile pursuit. Meanwhile, her densely enameled wire and garnet brooches appear sound and impervious to the process endured for their completion. By recreating paper-thin floral elements, Lydia Gerbig-Fast achieves a sensual and temporal semblance of the ancient Mediterranean artifacts she references. Hye-young Suh simulates the forms and colors of sea life and allows the enamel to separate and crack, exposing copper and achieving a physical layer of depth and time in her surfaces. In contrast to this pursuit of fragility, John Iversen relies on the physical strength of the glass as the sole structure of his pieces. His bold and saturated works invite and disclose the adroit accomplishment of its maker, achieving a backless and solid plane of enamel that is simultaneously astonishing and deceptive.

“Simply sifting” might be the process of the age, the new millennium. There is a recognized trend towards enamel as pure color, not unlike patina. Due to the overwhelming presence of this simple and direct application, we have included several artists who employ enamel in a manner that advances it beyond the traditional and functional items of the past. The resulting work is extremely diverse and provocative. Sarah Krisher’s brooches overlap pierced planes in congruous color fields; upon closer inspection her alternating surface textures complement and fascinate. Jan Baum elicits a sense of place and time by lightly dusting and under firing her enameled brooches. Echoing one another, decorative exterior forms function as containers, protecting the delicate steel filigree that inhabits the interior. Through varied surface applications, Ester Knobel’s work communicates a sense of pathos. Sparse and over-fired enamel bears witness to the state of decline in her neckpiece Garland, while the densely layered enamel appears burdensome in her series of knitted brooches. Devices such as these that subvert, embrace, and exaggerate enamel’s inherent qualities allow the field to move beyond the traditional interpretations and assumptions about the medium.

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Surprisingly few artists applied enamels to three-dimensional forms, most likely a result of the skill required. Jessica Calderwood’s forms feign anatomical structures, whose integrated imagery alludes to visceral and emotive inquiry. June Schwarcz’s vessels are an endless source of inspiration, consistently inventive and contemporary. Johan Van Aswegen’s cast cocktail ring of skulls humorously exaggerates the notion of the gemstone, whereas his tube-twig forms are somber and graceful. Veleta Vaneza assumes a much larger pursuit and exploration of enameling as an art form through the format of installation. A collection of amorphous forms saturated with brilliant colors, it investigates an interesting combination of relief, color interaction, and the spatial relationship of installation.

After viewing thousands of pieces by several hundred artists, we have confirmed our initial premise: there is a renewed and rejuvenated interest in enamel. We are enthusiastic about our selections and observations of the different approaches being pursued. As enamelists, we sought to uncover artists who challenge and expose new and alternative applications of the medium. Furthermore, there is evidence of a real knowledge of current art and craft concerns. It is obvious that the field of enamel resides in two intersecting arenas: that of decoration and function and that of fine art. There is strength in both directions and an auspicious future for this ancient enduring medium.

Gretchen Goss is associate professor and department head of enameling at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she has taught enameling for fourteen years. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and she has taught workshops throughout the country and in the U.K.
Maria Phillips is a visiting faculty member at the University of Washington, Seattle, and has conducted workshops at several other universities. She is the recipient of a Warhol Foundation Visiting Artist Grant at the Penland School of Crafts, and was an Artist in Residence at the John Michel Kohler Arts Center.