Rezac Gallery, a space devoted to avant-garde jewelry and decorative arts, opened in May, 1988 on West Superior Street in Chicago. With the stated aim of identifying and promoting the conceptual relationships between fine and decorative arts, the gallery has aggressively pursued new territory, with an ambitious schedule of changing shows on a six-week cycle that includes the work of European and American jewelers and artists.

Chicago jeweler Lisa Bernfield Ben-Zeev spent an afternoon recently talking with gallery owner and director Suzan Rezac in an effort to provide insight as to her stance and assessment of her goals to date.

What prompted you to open a gallery?

I was trying to make a living as a jeweler and had to do production items that weren’t very interesting. I found that situation rather frustrating. I wanted to do interesting work and show it in interesting places. Looking at galleries I noticed a lot of wrong things – poor presentation, overcrowded cases, not getting paid and so forth. I know enough jewelers who were feeling pretty much the same way about the gallery situation. That’s why I decided to open a gallery. It was basically to satisfy a need and try to do a good job.

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Do you consider your gallery to be a jewelry gallery and what is your philosophy in showing jewelry?

No, I don’t consider my gallery to be “a jewelry gallery.” I do show jewelry but I also show other things. Now, for example, I’m having a weaving show. The next exhibition is going to be jewelry, and the next three exhibitions will be contemporary fine art.

The reason I ask is because I think most people would consider it to be a jewelry gallery.

Well, it may appear a strange agenda to show jewelry and fine art, particularly because the fine art I like to show has a conceptual bent, but I just try to consider the gallery as a space to show whatever is good art without any restrictions. It’s actually a port of the philosophy of the gallery to fight against the idea of specialization. I’m excited about many art forms, so why not show them? The space is big enough. Also one of the problems with jewelry is that there aren’t enough jewelers to have one person exhibitions or even group shows every month.

Well, there are a lot of jewelers out there.

Believe me, there aren’t that many excellent jewelers in the world, and that’s actually one of the reasons I look in other countries besides the United States.

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Why do you show jewelry in the first place?

This was my training. I love it. I think that it’s a very interesting art form. It has incredible potential. It has not really been discovered by a wide public.

Why do you show predominantly European jewelry?

Well, first of all, I don’t show only European jewelry. Yet, the jewelry from Europe is very good.

In that case, what is your criterion for selecting artists? What kind of work do you find most beautiful or interesting? What ore some of the things that intrigue you? Maybe that will help to explain why you’re showing predominantly European work.

The work has to be good. The criteria for something being good is very vague. What’s “good” to me might not be what’s “good” to you. The ideas hove to be interesting, the work well executed, well thought out. I also want the artists to have a professional attitude towards their work and towards the gallery space. I should emphasize that the space is very demanding. To have a one-person exhibition of jewelry in 1400 square feet is not so easy.

Are there any particular artists (not necessarily jewelers) whom you most admire, and are their influences a basis for your choosing the people you choose? You definitely have a certain “Rezac” style.

I don’t really see that.

I see you as showing more minimalist work.

Hmmm, that’s not true. For example the work of Daniel Kruger is not minimal.

Someone like Otto Künzli is very concept-oriented and also very tongue-in-cheek. Most of the work you show has a lot of wit.

Yes, I am interested in ideas and in concept. This is maybe a personal preference – the notion of convincingly materializing on idea fascinates me. But I am also interested in the decorative or ornamental.

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I guess what l’m saying is that one can see someone like Eva Eisler here more than someone like Jamie Bennett.

I had on Otto Künzli exhibition immediately followed by a Daniel Kruger exhibition. There is a tremendous difference in the work. Daniel is more interested in the decorative aspects thon Otto is.

I’m trying to get you to set some parameters as to why some work fits in and some doesn’t.

I don’t work with recipes. I don’t know beforehand what fits in and what does not. When I look at work I don’t have a predetermined idea. I don’t follow a scheme. I am trying to stay as open-minded as possible.

Let me go on. Does European jewelry have its own esthetic, i.e., minimalist, well-crafted, a virtuosity of technique? Could you characterize European jewelry?

Well, there seems to be a more minimal esthetic coming out of Europe. But there is well-crafted work everywhere and poorly crafted work everywhere.

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There is also the issue that Europeans are not offended by the term “goldsmith,” but Americans are?

I don’t understand why Americans are. Maybe because it is on old word. One should be proud of where one comes from. Goldsmithing has been a respected profession in Europe for centuries.

So you don’t think European jewelry necessarily has its own esthetic?

No, it is not possible to generalize, lf you look at the work of European goldsmiths you will notice a tremendous difference in concerns and esthetics from one individual to the next. For instance, a lot of the jewelers I show are graduates from the Munich Academy, and it is striking to see how different the work is from one person to the next, yet they can have graduated from the some class.

Still on the differences between American and European jewelry: where does European jewelry fit in the continuum of the arts? What is its status? Is it a separate entity or does it blend in? Does it shore the some burden that American jewelers face – the art vs craft, second-class citizen dilemma?
Gerd Rothmann, Installation view, 1989

With all the studio visits I do in Europe I have found that the subject of “Is jewelry art?” never comes up. The European goldsmiths seem to be clear about what they are doing; they are not obsessive about categorizing it.

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In response to your other question: “The grass is not always greener on the other side.” The problems are similar. The attitude of artists or museums towards the jeweler can be condescending, as some people or institutions are incapable of viewing jewelry outside of a fashion context.

Gerd Rothmann, Installation view, 1989
As a follow-up: Why do you think European jewelers have their own museums to showcase their work where American jewelers lock serious collectors and museum representation?

I think that this has to do with the state’s sponsoring system. They have tremendous opportunities with grants, and the museums in Europe are state-run, which, of course, gives more power to the curator to pursue his interests without needing the approval of a meddling board of trustees. However the “fine arts” have, as usual, better opportunities, and the distinctions between what is “decorative” and what is “fine” are the same, and it is simply taboo to mix the two.

But your gallery is just doing that.

Yes, but I am not doing it because I think that jewelry is art. Jewelry cannot be fine art because it is jewelry and it has to deal one way or the other with its inherent functional aspect. What I am trying to say is that jewelry is as legitimate and can be as powerful and as interesting as painting or sculpture. Therefore, I find it absolutely essential to present jewelry with the same quality of display and with the some professionalism that one takes for granted in a painting or sculpture exhibition.

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Gerd Rothmann, Installation view, 1989
If we did have the galleries that would display the work in a professional manner or in an interesting way, maybe there wouldn’t be this debate in the first place. Maybe we’d get serious collectors.

Maybe. This would be a first step, and it is what I am trying to do.

It’s a long struggle. We’ve seen what has happened with ceramics and with glass, but jewelry is still lagging behind.

Yes, and we will not convince anyone by just proclaiming that jewelry is art; we have to represent it as art. There is a value in press releases, in well-designed invitations, in updated resumes and in documenting the work. All this is port of doing things right, and that is expected from any gallery but not usually found in a “jewelry gallery.”

So, it’s basically the same anywhere. Jewelry is jewelry. It comes from the history of the decorative arts. It has a different status from art, as it should. We can’t compare the two; they come from different histories. The point is that both need to be displayed in a professional manner so that both can get collectors to buy and museums to represent them.

Yes. Although you can compare jewelry to art on some levels, you can’t say “It is art”; you will have to prove that.

I even hated to bring up art vs craft in this discussion because it’s something that I think is old hot, but it is obviously something that is in the back of our minds because we complain about not getting the some price range as the arts.

It is difficult to sell jewelry for its real value, and that problem is going to take a very long time to change, if ever. I wish that there were a lot more galleries dealing with jewelry and this issue.

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I’m sure that you’ve been flooded with slides of work?

No, actually I am a little disappointed, I thought I would receive tons of slides and make great discoveries. I am getting more fine art slides than jewelry slides.

Most patrons would consider your gallery to show avant-garde, cutting-edge European work. Yet, the work being shown in Europe today is quite different. Do you consider the work you’re showing to be avant-garde? How do you feel about the new guard?

The work that I show is definitely contemporary; all of the artists are alive – some well engaged in their careers, others just beginning. I am on the mailing list of most European jewelry galleries and I can assure you that similar work or the same artists are currently shown in Europe.

I see a lot of work stemming from the radical jewelry movement – jewelry that either skims the edge or crosses the line of what is to be considered jewelry and what is not. That’s what I consider to be avant-garde. Some of Otto Künzli’s pieces definitely are avant-garde. The Big American Neckpiece, if it were to be worn, would certainly physically burden by its weight, not to mention its ideas.

Yes, Otto’s work is special – definitely one of the most convincing and successful “crossovers.”

Or Gerd Rothmann?

Although Gerd Rothmann did make some object-oriented pieces in the past, most of his recent work is wearable and extremely seductive when worn. His is a concept that emphasizes all aspects of the body. Otto’s recent work, on the other hand, seems to be moving farther and farther away from any traditional concern with wearability, except, of course, on a psychological level. He is basically on artist who deals with the theme of jewelry, and maybe that’s the future.

Do you think he was influenced by the radical jewelry movement, by Gijs Bakker and Emmy Von Leersum or Caroline Broodhead?

No, I think that he is influential rather than being influenced. His work is not particularly derivative of any goldsmith.

Do you think work such as Otto Künzli’s is acceptable as ornament or jewelry, or is it just work to be showcased in museums or gallery exhibits? What function does it serve?

I was just at a client’s art opening and she was wearing a very expensive dress with Otto’s Wolperfinger as a pendant, Gold Makes Blind as a bracelet and beautiful “bucket” earrings by Gabriele Dziuba. She looked great; obviously the idea of showcasing the work never crossed her mind.

The reason why I ask is because one of the critics of “The Jewelry Project” said that this more radical body-oriented work really only has its place in museums or gallery exhibits and can’t really exist otherwise.

It can and does exist in homes. Owners of such pieces are well aware of the fact that they are difficult to wear and obviously purchase them for other reasons than comfort. They are willing to adopt the piece to their environment as they would a painting or sculpture. They put it on the wall or on a shelf. The jewelry piece becomes an object; the owner gives it its new status as a work of art.

What has the response been to this “jewelry” in Chicago?
Rezac Gallery - Otto Künzli installation "Everything Goes to Pieces," 1989
Otto Künzli installation “Everything Goes to Pieces,” 1989

Most people don’t care for it. The general public views it as something very eccentric, bizarre and amusing. They don’t take it terribly seriously. It is difficult for most to get the point of it. But, there are curators, other artists and the few interested people who can appreciate it.

Would there be a difference in the response if this gallery was in Europe or New York City? In other words, why did you decide to showcase the avant-garde in Chicago?

Fate. I did consider New York but the rents were just too high. I’m not sure that I’d get a better response there. With the current status of the economy, I would rather open a gallery in Paris than New York.

No Americans, or very few, are doing the kind of minimalist work you’re showcasing. Why do you think the minimalist, conceptual or body-oriented jewelry has not spread here?

I don’t know. There are some young people like Rebecca Batal who do work that, as you say, is more European. Robin Quigley does more minimal, less ornate work.

One of the reasons I believe your gallery is so intriguing, aside from the work you’re showing, is the attention to detail apparent in your displays, catalogs and concepts behind each show. What has inspired you? How do you come up with the ideas for each show?

About the displays, I think that it’s sad to have built-in, permanently attached cases to the wall, not to mention the routine of filling them up with different items month after month. To create a unique display for every exhibition is one of the best ways to emphasize the work. I like the display to come as a surprise. The patrons don’t walk in and see the same old cases. Instead they can always expect something new. I’ve found that it’s better to suit the display to the show, rather than the reverse.

I recall the unique display used for the Gerd Rothmann exhibit. When entering the gallery one wondered if you hadn’t set the show up or if you were in the process of it. One saw only a series of block boxes on the floor in the center of the gallery.

They weren’t on the floor. We built something that looked like a large table, two-feet high, and covered it with a white tablecloth. The custom-mode, blacklinen boxes were laid, closed, around the table. When people walked into the gallery they thought this was yet another art installation, and if I didn’t tell them anything, they would just look and walk out. So, I would hove to tell them, “Please open the boxes.” They would crouch down and open a box and were surprised to find precious jewelry inside. The funny thing was that they would open a box and then respectfully close it again. They wouldn’t leave it open. They would open and close again and again until they had seen the whole show.

They would contain the preciousness by refusing to leave a box unopened.

Yes, and it was a lot of fun at the opening, seeing 15 people crouching at the table. It was an experience for them to hove a direct physical contact with the piece – no glass in between. I was worried about security; sometimes I’m here alone, and it would have been so easy to take a box. The door is always open.

The idea for this display was Gerd’s. I like it when artists have ideas about the installation of their work. I always take it into consideration. Most artists have a pretty good sense of space and how to work with it.

What has been your favorite display?

Therèse Hilbert’s exhibit was also very beautiful, and so was Otto Künzli’s.

What did you like about these exhibits?

For her exhibition, Therèse decided to build three-foot-long panels that were much longer than they were wide. We covered them with black silk and hung them onto the wall. On each panel she attached one silver pendant. So there was this strong contrast of black and white; it looked very elegant, almost austere. Except that in the back room we displayed the two pieces that were essential to the exhibition; a black Rose made in silver and the Chain that went with it, which was mode from the cast thorny stem. These two pieces were presented on individual pedestals, one on red silk, the other on green. These were the only two accents of color in the entire show. One had to go behind a wall to see it and establish a relationship with the abstract pendants and brooches displayed in the front.

Your displays definitely add to the artist’s ideas. They leave you thinking and they aid in what the viewer is going to get from the exhibition. Let’s go back to the question about how you get the concepts for your group shows such as “Information as Ornament.”

“Information as Ornament” was actually my husband and partner Kevin’s idea. “Function-Non-Function” was my idea. The themes for the exhibitions come from discussions, reading or looking at work. Sometimes an artist proposes a good idea for a show.

How important is it to have a theme?

If you are going to mix fine and decorative arts the work really must be thematically linked. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing people and looking like a supermarket.

How important is the catalog for each show and why do you get outside writers, sometimes more than one for the catalogs?

For the Künzli catalog, for example, I couldn’t make up my mind. One of the writers was a very serious, traditional art historian and the other was a young freelance art critic. I thought it interesting to present both points of view. How do I choose a writer? I ask around. I call writer friends or artists and I ask them for recommendations. I tailor my choices according to the mood of the show. For “Function-Non-Function,” I chose David Sedaris, who is a playwrite and has an excellent sense of humor.

How important is the catalog?

Very important and quite a luxury also. The catalog documents and outlasts the exhibition; in a sense the exhibition can never be forgotten. It’s also good for the artist and for the gallery’s image. But in terms of marketing, catalogs are useless; they are not designed to make sales. I give the some attention to catalogs as I would to display. We try to match the typeface and the layout with the artist’s work and ideas so as to produce a coherent publication.

So your purpose in being here is basically to showcase good art and not necessarily to educate the public?

The public is not willing to be educated. Most people are very prejudiced and not inclined to hove their minds changed. Of course, if someone expresses interest or has questions, I am always very hoppy to give on answer.

Is there anything you want to add?

I want to go bock to the first question you asked me, why did I open my gallery? There just was nobody out there. I would make work and then what would I do with it? It was very depressing. One of the reasons that there are so few jewelry galleries is because it is very difficult to sell jewelry. There are few people who buy the work. Of the few so-called jewelry galleries, I am really the only one who devoted the entire space to a one-person show of jewelry, I don’t show ceramics or glass alongside on exhibition, and I don’t carry production lines. I don’t try to play it safe. I am willing to take a risk. It is so powerful for on artist to have the entire space. It says, this is important and worth looking at.