This article showcases various exhibitions in the form of collected exhibition reviews published in the 1987 Winter issue of the Metalsmith Magazine. This features the Alberta College of Art, Quadrum Gallery, Moshe Zabari, and more!
Alberta College of Art, Calgary, Alberta
January 9-Feb 5, 1986
The Works, Edmonton, Alberta
June 27-July 6, 1986
by Mary Beth LaViolette
“Body Work” not only offered a tantalizing look at contemporary Canadian artists but also brought into focus a number of developments that have characterized the new international movement in jewelry. This includes the obvious shift from precious to nonprecious materials as well as the response of jewelry artists to the many crosscurrents lapping our visual culture.
Another highlight of the exhibition was the attempt to go beyond a purely decorative orientation into the realm of content. One of the strongest examples is the iconic jewelry of Pamela Ritchie. Using postage stamps combined with wood, acrylic and sometimes silver and gold, Ritchie’s brooches, earrings and neckpieces cleverly play on the political and social order so often reflected in stamps. Also meaningful, David Didur’s sculptural brooches made from ebony and metals like silver and copper are quiet reflections on the archeological probings of tribal arts.
Ornament as statement—which is how Nancy Tousley, author of “Body Work’s” excellent catalog, describes the major thread in contemporary jewelry—is further demonstrated by the theatrical work of Kai Chan. Chan’s sinewy forms of bamboo, rattan and papier-mâché envelop the body in a statement that is boldly exotic.
Although Chan’s wearable objects, at least in a Western sense, stretch the boundaries of ornamentation, there are other examples from Betty Walton, Kye-yeon Son and Jackie Anderson—that also reflect on how jewelry is seen and worn. With Walton, the shoulder is used to support a contoured metal brooch, while, in another piece, the back of the head is beautifully accented with a fountainlike spray of metal threads. As for Kye-yeon Son, her stickpins find two places of habitation, on the body and in plastic stands that evoke a sense of serene landscape. Some of Jackie Anderson’s brooches and earrings also have a duality of purpose—belonging not only on the figure but also on flat surfaces as objects d’art. Anderson’s jewelry is based on commercial signs whose visual elements have been appropriated and reworked into a quirky pastiche of forms and colors. They contain strong echoes of architecture and design, ranging from the elegant gestures of Art Deco to the tackiness of 50s neon.
By taking inspiration, particularly from popular culture, Anderson and others in “Body Work” have created work that is immediate in its currency, exciting in its transformation and exuberant in its eclecticism. It also seems to have some fun, as evident in the asymmetrical New Wave accessories of Michael and Paula Letki and the helmetlike head piece of Ken Vickerson with its overtones of an interplanetary future.
An illustrated catalog with essays is available from the Alberta College of Art Gallery, 1407-14 Avenue N.W., Calgary, Alberta T2N 4R3, Canada.
Billie Jean Theide: Perspectives
Quadrum Gallery, Chestnut Hill, MA
July 8-31, 1986
by C.M. Jacobi
Billie Jean Theide addresses the essential idea of function in jewelry not with a vocabulary about the wearing of it, but rather, a combined vocabulary of ideas in techtonics, architecture and sculpture. The idea that the function of the wearable object is to speak of nothing but itself is surpassed by the idea that this object is, and indeed must be, built.
The major work in the exhibition, a mirror fabricated to sterling and plastic, presents itself as a dialogue of materials and construction. In other pieces, the organization of similar formal elements and the establishment of systems for these elements carries on the dialectic. In Complements, a sterling and plastic brooch, these elements and the systems of their organization are simultaneously analyzed within each side of the piece. Basic formal elements on each end of the brooch are bridged to a restructured version of these elements on the opposing ends.
It is in this topic of techtonic dialogue that the strength of the work lies. Theide redirects the source of the functional aspect of her work in this manner. Unfortunately, the decontextualization of these pieces in the exhibit’s display diluted that strength. Ideas of building and architecture were displayed not with the attitude of being individual statements, but that they are, as a group, jewelry.
Moshe Zabari: A Twenty-Five Year Restrospective
The Jewish Museum, New York City
May 25-September 7, 1986
The Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum, Los Angeles, CA
September 30, 1986-March 1, 1987
The Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne
by Bernard Bernstein
If you do not enjoy reading exhibition reviews you can treat the next sentence as a concluding statement, resolve to act on it, and go on to something else. A one-person exhibition of this type is so rare, significant and of such high quality that you should afford yourself the gift of seeing it, and if that is not possible, the next best thing is to buy and absorb the superbly written and illustrated catalog. If this sounds hyperbolic, try to recall how many 25-year retrospectives featuring holloware you have seen in your lifetime; and of these, how many were exclusively Jewish ceremonial art.
There are a few unique professionals, who appear outside the established norms, who work at their craft as if driven, and emerge years later with a burst of achievement. Moshe Zabari seems to have followed this pattern. He hasn’t been involved with craft groups. He doesn’t publish. He doesn’t exhibit very much. He doesn’t make speeches, attend conferences or travel the craft-fair circuit. He is so unconnected to the conventional channels of craft world publicity that there was no mention of this major exhibition in the calendar of the June/July issue of American Craft magazine. Although Zabari is very well known in the world of Jewish ceremonial art, he is hardly known in the metalsmithing world, and one goal of this review is to rectify this situation.
The setting for Zabari’s work is the Tobe Pascher Workshop at the Jewish Museum in New York, where he functions as workshop director, artist-in-residence and instructor. Until I am corrected, I will say that the workshop is the only one of its kind in the world.
Founded in 1956 by Dr. Abram Kanof and his wife Dr. Frances Pascher, the workshop’s purpose is to encourage and teach the design and execution of Jewish ceremonial objects in a contemporary style. This might not seem unusual, but it was when one considers that Jewish ceremonial objects remained trapped in the baroque, rococo and neo-classical modes until the 1930s when the legendary Ludwig Wolpert introduced a Bauhaus-inspired esthetic. Wolpert had been the director of the workshop from its founding in 1956 until his death in 1981. Zabari, who had been his student in Israel came here to assist him in 1961 and became workshop director in 1982.
The catalog of this exhibition, written by its curator, Nancy Berman, gives a detailed, sensitive, chronological account of the development of Zabari’s career, the evolution of his style and range and, most important, the tributaries that feed the formal and iconographic content of his work. If you have even a superficial interest in holloware in general or Jewish liturgical art in particular, you should send for this book so I need not repeat here what Nancy Berman has already said so well.
For Zabari, the dozens of ceremonial objects, from the small marriage rings to the monumental Torah arks, bring their content with them. He doesn’t have to invent content as much as uncover and interpret it. Aside from the technical wizardry and formal ingenuity that characterize his pieces, the quality that lifts them out of the ordinary is the subtlety and variety of their iconography. Ceremonial art, Jewish and Christian, past and present, suffers from a monotonous repetition of a few basic symbols presented in stereotypical ways. Zabari doesn’t let this happen. He has taken as a foundation the intimate knowledge of religious observance and ritual that was part of his daily experience of growing up in Israel and built on it with a scholar’s drive for sifting through the layers of Jewish history, tradition, folklore, art, archeology and literature.
Moshe Zabari’s forms, surfaces and decorations are not arbitrary but contain messages, symbols and references. His triangular plate, used on Purim, is based on the triangular shape of the hamantasch, a pastry eaten during that festival. The original source of the triangular shape is the hat worn by Haman, the villain of the biblical Book of Esther, which inspired the Purim festival itself. Texture also has significance. A randomly etched surface or one with irregularly shaped and spaced openings may remind us of the ancient scrolls, with their eroded surfaces and edges. The Hebrew alphabet, for centuries the subject of mystical interest, enjoys a special place in Zabari’s visual inventory. It identifies the piece as a ritual object; it refers to its special function and it plays a role in ornament.
Formally, Zabari’s work has been strengthened as it evolved out of the early phase, which was Bauhaus-rooted, functionalist, geometric, sparsely ornamented and safe into his recent work, which is organic, emotionally expressive, more involved with surface embellishment and riskier. When viewed against the background of the traditional conservatism of ceremonial art, this new work is downright revolutionary.
To repeat, these few words are only here to tease you about the work of a prolific but not widely recognized master. He is one of the few who has cultivated the secluded garden that is Jewish ceremonial art and made it bloom. In this sense, he is part of the extended family of pioneers who did the same for the desert that was Palestine.
The 48-page catalog is available from The Jewish Museum, 1109 Filth Avenue, New York, NY 10028 for $7.95 plus $2.50 packing and shipping. NY State residents, add $.66 tax. Address inquiries on catalog sales in California to Hebrew Union College, Skirball Museum, 3077 University Mall, Los Angeles, CA 90007.
June 11-July 11, 1986
Helen Drutt Gallery, Philadelphia, PA
by Michael Dunas
Paul Opočenský’s first solo show at the Helen Drutt Gallery breathes the salubrious air of sculptural abstraction. As contemporary jewelry gracefully weaves its way through the parade of modern styles—Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimalism—it was only a matter of time before someone rediscovered the organic work of Brancusi, Arp and Moore for their purity of form, amorphous shapes and polished surfaces.
Born and trained in Czechoslovakia, Opočenský has maintained an independent studio in the United States since 1982. His 54 pieces on exhibit, carved primarily of ivory and ebony, maintain the dignity and austerity of their sculptural predecessors, though at times they seem enervated by the gratuitous pin backs and clasps that signal their function as jewelry.
A superb craftsman, Opočenský imbues his material with elusive feelings tor process. Through meticulous carving he responds to the subliminal attraction of instinct and fancy that is the craftman’s communicative experience. Where sculpture in the round depends upon the eyes to discern its esthetic suitability, the reduced scale of jewelry trusts the corresponding sense of tactility. For the spectator, these objects are meant to be held, caressed, fingered in the manner of an ancient idol or talisman. They are the ineluctable workings not of the forces of nature but of a craftsman searching for the élan vital of nature.
Opočenský’s shapes are starkly primitive. The shells, masks, ovoids, arrows, spears exude a lyrical affinity for him just as others experience a mysterious attraction for the unknown. His improvised works are free from cultural reference, as the process of carving these scaled-down forms inhibits all but the “bare bones” of the artist’s gestural hand. The reductive esthetic, the restraint of authorial expression, the ambiguity of shapes places a burden on the spectator to summon a subconscious affinity in their appreciation.
The limits of the carved gestures and the constant focusing of details, especially of the surface silhouettes, contribute an immediacy to the overall effect that is achieved far less in larger sculpture. The opacity of material and the finely worked patina that is Opočenskýidiom deny the contingency of light that interferes with our viscenal response. Opočenský relies on the illumination of grain in supplementary materials like horn and tortoise shell, inlaid and carved into an unbroken surface to create variety in contrast and chiarascuro. The evocative use of exotic woods like Cocobola, Lignum Vitae and Padauk magnifies the striations and color of an inchoate graphic language. The explorations of abstract patterning continue in the hazy bluish cast achieved by laminating ivory into ebony, while tension is ultimately achieved in the “veins” of tinted glue that float sinuously about the surface.
In display, these mystical globules appear as artifacts from a recent archaeological dig. Yet, like all good abstraction, their mesmerizing simplicity encourages a deeper introspection into elementary forms. As the dialectic of release and restraint, of fear and security play on our perceptions, we become respectful of the inherent power of material to elicit intimacy.
All That Glitters: Personal Ornaments
Cudahy Gallery of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
July 19-August 24, 1986
by Karl J. Moehl
No matter how rewarding the experience of viewing these works may have been, this exhibition had the appearance of being a jumbled affair, a chartless gazetteer. Fifty-six artists were represented by 285 works. Wisconsin claims them all.
The small works were scattered about the Cudahy, displayed on the sides of truncated pyramids as well as within more conventional horizontal and vertical cases. No consideration was given to grouping according to artist or stylistic affinity nor any other perceivable plan, although the total effect was not inharmonious. There was in fact a certain excitement of discovery involved in the puzzle. Each work was tagged by a miniscule number that did not relate to anything in the otherwise adequate catalog but could be traced to a price list.
This apparent return to the concept of the anonymous artisan is curious, and seemed at odds with the prevailing individualism evidenced by the artifacts. Pluralists to a fault, the Wisconsonians work in almost every conceivable medium, “ancient and otherwise,” and, most of it doesn’t glitter at all, unless you count “with ingenuity,” which is all right by this reviewer.
Richard C. Schneider commanded the most space with what amounted to a ceramic précis of the history of human ornament. Seven female torsos, displayed characteristic adornment from as many historical figures, from Cleopatra to Belle Starr. This was witty, albeit predictable.
Beyond Schneider’s scene-stealer, all one can do is single out personal favorites in a collection as wide and varied as this. No one could ever accuse Wisconsin for lacking in artistic talent, but on the other hand, any temperamental or geographic unity would be impossible to define. If there were any “trends.” the installation managed to discourage their recognition.
Work by recent M.F.A. graduates, and even some currently working on their degrees, was shown along with that of their instructors. Young and old were shown intermixed without fear or favor. Robert Joseph Farrell, one of the youngest and least accredited, was also one of the boldest. His sterling and amber Amazon Neckpiece no. 4 together with six of his other pieces attested to this fact. Agnes Chwae’s Paint Brush Sheath, copper on bronze with a sawdust patina, is a “svelte” piece from another talented newcomer.
There were two outstanding works by Mary Dickery, Primordial Stew and Neckpiece for Martha. These are lumpy, but rich conglomerations of precious and nonprecious metals and stones, along with various textiles variously worked. Dickey has studied as far afield as West Africa, to great advantage. Her sensitivity to both modern and primitive esthetics result in an admixture that was perhaps the most gifted statement in the show.
Eleanor Moty offered eight small works, though termed brooches, they were outstanding for their inherent sculptural qualities. These were blocky, cubist, monumental in implication and splendid. Each piece involves silver and gold along with topaz and some sort of quartz (seven listed as “rutilated” and one as “tourmalinated”). All were fabricated with a refined touch.
Other than these, there was notable amusement in Elizabeth Tuttle’s use of crocheting with glass and copper beads into stiff collars, cuffs and earrings. The real comic relief, however, came from Catherine Lamb Irion, who does nothing more than laminate small watercolor and pencil sketches in plastic. These glitter with real wit and imagination. So many try the childlike approach and achieve only tedium. Irion’s is both high sophistication and low comedy, and they fit as well in the Cudahy as in the museum bookstore where they may also be found.
A statement in the catalog tells us that this Wisconsin show was held in conjunction with the Objects of Adornment show, also at the museum. The subtitle of this latter A.F.A. traveling show is Five Thousand Years of Jewelry from the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. The assumption is that the juxtaposition was purposeful and fruitful. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
As technically brilliant and clever as the Wisconsin artists may be, thrown into visual competition with the Walters’ ageless treasures, the Badgers face the dilemma of our eclectic culture. The contemporary work lacks the sumptuousness, the glory, the splendor of old. At least, the locals make honest work with a flair and have not retreated into petulance and despair.