Expecting the Unexpected

As this century draws to a close, the position of craft within the fine arts continues to shift and change. The tradition of singular handmade objects has been challenged by the creation of multiples. Handwork techniques employed by solitary artists have been influenced and replaced by industrial methods adapted for use on a smaller scale. An array of materials, including plastic and titanium, never before considered for use in craft has been employed by late-20th Century artists, and these elements are now accepted as media for finely hand-crafted objects. Artists create forms and designs which pointedly ask viewers to blur the distinctions between the functional, sculptural, and decorative. While these trends and developments are debated in the press and at symposia, the most important part of this dialogue is raking place in studios across the country where crafts artists are producing their work.

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Penn DOT Serving Spoon, 1993, Trussware Serving Spoon, 1993, silver, re-used aluminum traffic sign, 15 x 2¾ x ⅝”, 12 x 2¾ x ¾”. Photos: Dean Powell

The career of Boris Bally is an example of this development within the craft field during the 1980s and 1990s. Since receiving his BFA at Carnegie Mellon University in 1984, he has managed to create a growing national reputation for an inventive body of jewelry and hollowware. With these works he actively engages the viewer in his inventive interpretations and re-interpretations of the possibilities inherent in metals techniques for the creation of personal adornment and functional objects. Combining a range of influences, from industrial machinery to architectural sites, in his explorations, Bally fabricates works which advance broader criteria for design and materials within the metals field.

Bally has altered the function of jewelry, using it as a springboard for pieces that simultaneously conform to and act in opposition to the body they have traditionally been meant to adorn. With Constrictor, 1990, Bally creates an intriguing mix of adornment and confinement. A sterling, brass, and titanium band punctuated with rubies encircles the forearm. Instead of a conventional closure, the artist devised a system of plunger-like screws that effectively bolt the band to the body. These attachments are both closures and major decorative elements. The appearance of this piece suggests a wide range of references, from Rube Goldberg’s elaborate contraptions, to medical harnesses or halo braces, to a measuring apparatus borrowed from a mad scientist’s lab. In making his objects, Bally does not neglect a witty look at the world around him. There are references to comic books and computer games as well as visual puns on architecture and functional and wearable objects. This wit allows him to ask serious questions about the nature of adornment and its possibilities.

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Constrictor is connected to traditions of fine jewelry by its quality of craftsmanship and its luxurious materials. The title suggests the restrictions implicit in wearing the object as well as the restrictions associated with certain, more sinister, items related to body decoration. Constrictor makes its presence known to the wearer by its size (eleven inches in diameter) and the immobility that results from wearing it. This immobility recalls metal objects worn for reasons other than adornment from manacles to handcuffs. It also comments upon society’s willingness to endure discomfort for the sake of beauty.

The piece mounts onto the arm with a series of screws which, on a visual level, are reminiscent of children’s tinker toys and precision instruments. This provides a lighthearted counterpoint to the restriction in the piece and additionally questions the role of jewelry as a display of wealth and status. In the case of Constrictor, the wearer becomes subservient to the object. Adornment’s role as a display of wealth and taste becomes a device suggesting issues not normally discussed by jewelry makers and collectors. If jewelry ordinarily communicates messages about social status, Bally subverts this message by creating adornment that requires a specific commitment to be worn.

75% Bowl, 1993, re-used traffic signs, bottle caps, silver rivets, aluminum tube/wire, 20 dia x 2¾”

Regarding a similar work from this series, Caress, Bally states: “Caress becomes an ominous presence. Its function is to measure and to confine the wearer’s wrist with the pressure produced by the spring-loaded pistons. The wearer is forced to become part of this performance.” Wearing Caress, as with other Bally jewelry, the owner finds that the piece demands a specific level of conscious involvement.

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EAT WEAR and DIG WEAR, 1992, exemplify Bally’s continued explorations into the role of jewelry. These gold plated silver bracelets are bands from which radiate eating utensils such as forks, spoons, and knives on the former and garden tools including trowel, rake, and hoe on the latter. In these pieces the utensil becomes a decorative element similar to charms on a bracelet. Bally’s blending of exquisitely rendered handmade jewelry with the pedestrian functions of growing and consuming food provide these pieces with an edge of satire and amusement. They also recall that for many cultures in earlier times, jewelry performed specific functions, including serving as easily transportable wealth, as objects of trade and barter, and as legal tender. Historically, individuals were also responsible for providing their own silverware when traveling. Jewelry’s function in contemporary Western society may no longer be as utilitarian, but Bally creates an opportunity to examine its role by implying a tongue-in-cheek function in these works.

Cables, trusses, and other architectural elements appear regularly in Bally’s jewelry, underscoring the artist’s interest in the application of large-scale construction techniques to the creation of small-scale works. His metalwork exhibits an elegance based more upon technical ability than on the fineness of the materials used. This industrial/architectural sensibility finds its most succinct and intense statements in Bally’s hollowware. This interest in industrial design is not surprising when one considers that Bally’s family includes architects and designers.

EAT WEAR wearable flatware, 1992, goldplated brass, cast silver, riveted, 10½ x 11 x 1½”

Tripod Vessel and Suspended Vessel Set, 1988, combine oxidized brass and gold plated silver with concrete to create restrained works that address the historic role of the container form while presenting its possibilities for the future. In both cases, the containers are themselves contained, held and suspended in space by a trio of vertical poles, as if poised above ground to stay dry or to be held above a heat source. Their structure suggests the beakers and boilers of scientific laboratories and the storage hoppers of factories and farms, while also recalling the food storage and cooking containers of ancient peoples.

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Both display the evidence of their construction. Miniature rivets, which bind the sections of these containers, are not hidden or covered, but are used as decorative patterning. Twisted silver wire links elements of the vessels. This visible means of support, reminiscent of sutures or chain link fencing, serves as a reminder of the hand of the artist, as when painters allow pencil marks to show through the surface of a painting or watercolor. The twisted wire is also evidence of process. It refers to metal construction techniques in which steel binding wire is used by metals artists to hold two pieces for soldering. The bowls of these containers seem to float in space between the tripod arrangement of poles, but the use of the twisted silver wire tethers and ties these forms to reality. The concrete in the bases creates a counterbalancing weight for the vessels as well as a textural counterpoint to the more precious materials used in the body of the vessel.

There is an intense urban sensibility in his work. Bally echoes the concrete and metal architecture of the city. He contrasts the dark of urban night (oxidized metals) with the flash of electric light (polished silver surfaces). This contrast is often repeated in his combinations of oxidized and polished surfaces and his use of gold plated silver combined with rubber and concrete. Pepper Cone and, Sodium Urn, 1992, have conical shapes which are reminiscent of household salt and pepper shakers but which also suggest the tops of water towers on urban high rise buildings. There is something futuristic in these gleaming, streamlined works, a space-age quality suggesting Sputnik and UFOs, but in this case the takeoffs and landings are restricted to the dinner table.

Constrictor Armform, 1990, silver, oxidized brass, rubies, titanium, 10½ x 11 x 1½”

Bally has hand-crafted flatware multiples since 1988. Tablewear, 1988, pairs ebony with silver for an angular approach to eating utensils. Long, black, rectangular, wooden handles meet diagonally with the bowl of a spoon, the tines of a fork and the shaft of a knife. This angular meeting of metal and wood is continued with a squared-off fork and a knife whose diagonally-shaped blade is the mirror image of the slanted ferrule.

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When asked about the creation of multiple functional objects Bally states: “From the perspective of a fine jeweler, my goal has been to merge the disciplines of craft and design in my tabletop objects … successful work must retain a quiet humor as well as flawless details… My designs are experimental and flirt with the contemporary issue of studio production. Some pieces are designed to become multiples yet never grow past the prototype stage. Other pieces are intended as original art pieces but become accepted as production pieces. One design may become a hit song which must be sung over and over; another may become a private poem never to leave the studio”.

While the simplicity of the functioning portions of his silverware illustrates an awareness of classic 20th Century design, Bally’s handles provide these pieces with a feeling specific to contemporary America. X-Panded Flatwear, 1994, has the motif of an x created out of pierced and stretched sterling making up the entire handle of each piece. This repeating pattern suggests the crisscrossing of girders on the exterior of large buildings and their repeated pierced openings present an image of refined strength combined with light vulnerability. The service actually derives from the pattern of expanded metal, a split and pulled sheet metal used by industry to conserve manufacturing materials.

Suspended Vessel: Large, 1988, oxidized brass, goldplate, silver, concrete, 11 x 8 x 8”

In Trussware, 1993, Bally incorporates open girder beam designs as the handles of this fabricated, pressed, and riveted sterling flatware. The image of crossed steel girders with their sense of the impersonal city form an intriguing contrast to the intimate activity of eating with these utensils. Bally has said, “The Trussware flatware set extracts elements from Pittsburgh’s rust-industrial scenery… it was inspired by the ceiling beams of a local gas-supply company.” By taking designs from bridges, overpasses, and structural steel, reducing them in size, and executing them flawlessly, Bally turns urban images into sources for designs that remind the viewer of the beauty and visual power in the constructed urban environment.

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A part of Bally’s Swiss family heritage, involves presenting family members with ceremonial corks to seal wine bottles between use and this activity served as the impetus for the creation of an ongoing series of sculptural/ceremonial bottle stoppers. These stoppers evoke the sights and sounds one finds in any large urban area where a variety of cultures come together. T-Fan Stopper, 1992, combines silver, brass, and four rows of discarded white painted wooden golf tees with a functioning cork. The tees create a pattern reminiscent of a Northwest Coast Indian mask or other Native American feathered headdresses. Bally’s use of cast-off tees for the stopper also recalls the use of found objects for the creation of sculpture in African societies, where the value of the work was not derived from the materials employed as much as from the handwork of the artist and the function of the piece.

Cross-cultural references appear in many of Bally’s stoppers. Kalimba 6, 1992, continues a series which has specific African influences in its designs. Topped with six spines, similar to the forms on an African finger harp, the stopper’s title is obviously related to the African musical instrument of the same name. The Calthrop Bottlecork, 1992, appears tool-like and it is based upon medieval war weapons, though it is equally suggestive of darker contemporary urban influences such as the shapes and configurations of martial arts weapons and Ninja stars. The forms that Bally uses are rich in allusions to their original sources but his works are never overpowered by those allusions. Rather, there is a gentle sense of influence and an overall impression that the works are the products of an inquisitive, contemporary mind and flawless design and execution.

Bally comments: “I enjoy forms which are derivatives of shapes common to my urban environment – ranging from the crafts of ancient cultures to the most ordinary objects and tools found in hardware stores and scrap yards”.

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DIG WEAR wearable garden tools, 1992, goldplated and oxidized brass, silver, 14 x 16½ x 3”

In 1990 and 1991 Bally’s collaborative experiments with his then studio mate ROY resulted in combinations of recycled aluminum street signs, found metal bottle caps, and sterling silver. The impetus for this unusual meeting of materials was both economic and ecological as the artist sought ways to make products more affordable and available to a broader public combined with his growing concern for the environment and the waste by-products produced in the making of objects.

Combining the traditional metal’s techniques of hand-raising, riveting, and planishing with industrial methods, such as lathe-turning and press-die-forming, Bally opened the door to the use of materials and processes once thought unsuitable for a craftsman. Street signs are powerful components of these works. In their original state, the signs have words or visual instructions that are universally recognized. In their new life as fine art, these signs still carry some of their original associations; however, they are truncated and fragmented so only portions of their former messages are revealed.

X-panded Flatware (5 piece set), X-panded Serving Spoon, 1994, silver, goldplated knife: 8” tall, spoon: 1⅞” dia. serving spoon: 8⅞ x 23/16 x 2”

75% Bowl, 1993, is made from a sign advising that the driver was ¾ mile from some destination. Portions of the fraction show through in the bowl’s center. That fraction suggested both the title of the piece as well as the inspiration for its decorative surface, in which 75% of the lip is inset with metal pop bottle caps. That this piece is intentionally only ¾ completed is indicated by the scribe marks on the remaining quarter of the bowl’s lip indicating where other bottle caps could have been inserted. Signs which included “½” and “1” in their texts predictably became the genesis for 50% Bowl and 100% Bowl. There is a fragmented, Cubist quality to these numbers which partially reveal themselves in a Bally bowl as if one were reading a highway sign obscured by tree branches or deciphering a semi-folded note.

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Vessel With A Silver Heart, 1993, silver, re-used aluminum, street signs, 16” dia. x 8½”

Bally’s interest in solutions to environmental issues through actions is exemplified in his 35 Layer Bowl, and Nest-Vessels, 1993. In 35 Layer Bowl, thirty-five pre-cut portions of street signs were pressed together under great force and trimmed internally to create a bowl which contrasts with the painted portions of the signs that now make up a brightly patterned lip. Lathe-turned scrap produced from this piece was pressed on die-forms, creating a pair of basket-like, but non-woven, metal vessels. Bally states: “These pieces…reflect an ongoing need to break away from more traditional metalsmithing media by using discarded materials… Artists must consider the environment and find new ways of using these friendlier materials.” With the Nest pieces he believes that: “On a much smaller scale my process simulates trash compacting. This trash is now useful. Ironically, the scrap of one piece created two pieces of comparable size.”

Cathrop bottlecork, 1992, oxidized brass, silver, 5⅜ x 4½ x 4¾”

Vessel with a Silver Heart, 1993, is formed of aluminum signs, turned inside out to create a convex, shiny, aluminum-gray vessel. The exterior has been pierced with decorative holes to provide glimpses of the colors emanating from the painted portions within, as if from the interior of a cave or body. The piece normally rests, tilted, on the lower convex half. The upper portion is hollow in its center and lined with a hand raised silver vessel within a vessel – the heart of this piece. This work becomes the visual equivalent of a poem. The heart is the center of the body and its emotions. Silver, the heart of the metalsmith’s media, forms the center or heart of this bowl. The meeting of the refined and the everyday is especially effective and the artist’s ability to impart a regal quality to the once-humble signs is based on his mastery of metalsmithing techniques and the interesting dichotomy that results when society’s castoffs meet the hands of an intelligent craftsman.

T-Fan Stopper bottlecork, 1992, silver, golf tees, oxidized brass, cork, 6¾ x 6½ x 6½”

Litmus Bowls, 1994, are wall mounted, shield-like pieces which, for Bally, relate to Medieval Art. “As a kid, visits to museums and castles in Europe allowed me to appreciate medieval metalwork and heraldry. The timeless techniques and forms discovered in the armories… continue to intrigue me. The scrap street signs are materials ripe for the battles of this decade; their obvious environmental message: the mockery of precious materials which are symbolic of the American struggle for wealth and success and their subtle defiance of authority. “

Trirod Vessel, 1988, oxidized brass, goldplate, silver, concrete-filled, 10 x 7 x 7”

Bally’s work does have the same paradoxical sense of menace and attraction that many feel upon entering a large city with its mixture of thrills and unknown dangers. Litmus Bowls is both a contemporary descendant of European heraldry and evocative of a prized hubcap collection hanging on the wall of a teenager’s urban clubhouse. It is this cross referencing that provides Bally’s work with much of its intellectual strength and weight, as the viewer is encouraged to gather nuances of both art historical and contemporary cultural references.

Pepper Cone pep shaking object, 1992, oxidized brass, silver, 2½ x 5 x 5”

There is a poetic quality to Bally’s work that stems from the viewer’s personal associations with the artist’s found materials and blending of cultural references and techniques that is peculiar to our place and time in history. Bally blends traditional European craft techniques, contemporary American urban detritus, and an interest in the found object seen in many non-Western cultures. The purity of his forms, the quality of his intellectual constructs, and the witty way in which he assembles disparate images and elements into working, cohesive wholes have been hallmarks throughout this young artist’s career. Boris Bally has investigated the potential of making handmade jewelry and hollowware more visible in contemporary culture. The metals field and its followers can expect this development to proceed and they can also continue to expect the unexpected in his work, as his achievements define new territory for craft media.

Nest-Vessels, 1993, lathe cuttings from 35 Layer Bowl (re-used street signs), 6” dia. x 5” each
Bruce Pepich is the Director of the Wustum Museum in Racine Wisconsin.
NOTES
  1. Quote by the artist, “Pittburgh Regional Crafts Exhibition”, exhibition catalogue, Diane M. Douglas, Juror, Pittsburgh Crafts Consortium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1993, p. 4.
  2. Quote by the artist, “More Than One-Studio Production Now,” exhibition catalogue, John Perreault, curator, forward by Janet Kardon, American Craft Museum, New York, New York, 1992,. p. 14.
  3. Brunelle, Lynn, “Urban G(Litter),” Metalsmith, Winter, 1994, p. 37.
  4. Quote by the artist, “Pittburgh Regional Crafts Exhibition,” exhibition catalogue, Diane M. Douglas, Juror, Pittsburgh Crafts Consortium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1993, p. 4.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Quote by the artist, “Challenge V: International Lathe-Turned Objects,” exhibition catalogue, William Daley, Albert B. LeCoff, Michael Monroe and Davira Taragin, jurors, The Wood Turning Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1994, pp. 2-3.
  7. Quote by the artist, “Metals Invational ’94,” exhibition catalogue, guest curator, Christina DePaul, Emily Gallery, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, 1994, p. 3.