This article showcases various exhibitions in the form of collected exhibition reviews published in the 1994 Summer issue of the Metalsmith Magazine. This features Julie Anne Mihalisin, Paulette J. Werger, Don Stuart, and more!
The Ideal Home: 1900 – 1920
American Craft Museum
New York, New York
October 21, 1993 – February 15, 1994
By Matthew Kangas
American Craft Museum director Janet Kardon has her work cut out for her: a decade-long effort to create The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft. After a series of symposia introducing the topic, the first in a projected series of eight annual exhibitions, The Ideal Home 1900 – 1920 opened late last year. Kardon concedes three previous exhibitions on American Arts and Crafts (Princeton, Boston, Los Angeles) antedated hers, (she left out a forth, The Oakland Museum’s recent survey of California Arts and Crafts, Living the Good Life.) Compared to all those exhibitions, The Ideal Home 1900 – 1920 is smaller but measures up well.
First of all, two major contributions to the scholarship of the period in the accompanying 304-page catalog, Arizona State University professor Beverly K. Brandt’s essay, “The Critic and the Evolution of Early Twentieth-Century American Craft,” and “Metalsmithing and Jewelrymaking 1900 – 1920” by W. Scott Braznell, a former American Silver Museum curator are worthy of note.
Brandt’s essay defends the early artist-critics such as ceramist Charles Fergus Binns who sagely counseled “to destroy that which is below standard and to exercise self-denial to resist temptation to sell an unworthy product.” More astutely, A. Clutton-Brock noted in 1920 that: “The question to be asked about the critic is not whether he is an amateur as an artist but whether he is an amateur as a critic.”
Brandt further draws the sharp contrast between today’s often theory-ridden critics and those early in the century who: “sought within their own discipline the same refinement of expression that they hoped to instill within the crafts.”
In an unusual turnabout, one art critic, Frederick W. Coburn, complained about the St. Louis World’s Fair metal show jurors being too restrictive in excluding work “of exuberance and jollity of design.”
Braznell’s essay complements the objects Kardon and former senior curator John Perreault selected for the show. He points out how metalworking was used as an activity for political reform and a raising up of the lower classes. Indeed, training often took place right on the factory floor. Early corporate professors were Joseph Aranyi (Tiffany), William Codman and Charles Hansen (Gorham).
At the other end of the economic spectrum, wealthy women like Frances Glessner studied with Madeline Wynne, and Laurine Martin taught Elizabeth Copeland and Mildred Watkins. With amateur magazines, summer school workshops, elementary school training, and World War I disabled veteran instruction, Arts and Crafts metals caught on nationwide. In The Ideal Home 1900 – 1920, women who made significant early contributions are recognized. Jane Carson Barron and Frances Barnum Smith’s cross necklance (1904) outdoes Robert Ebendorf’s recent fashionable efforts. Copeland’s 1914 enamel box revives Celtic illumination and Jessie Preston’s bronze jewelry box (1904) also accentuates curving arabesque forms more akin to Art Nouveau than Arts and Crafts. A 1903 silver-and-enamel bowl by Mary Catherine Knight has the decoration on the interior of the bowl only. And, compared to Samuel Yellin’s 1918 Gothic Chest of wrought iron, 1920 bronze-and-crystal candelabra by Marie Zimmerman is equally strong and powerfully constructed. Others, however, far from their native lands, also made major contributions in the United States: Karl Leinonen (Finland), Arthur Stone (England), Carl Schon (Germany), Julius Randahl (Sweden), Kristopher Haga (Norway), and Yellin (Russia). The point is, American Arts and Crafts was truly international in its origins, as well as intricately dependent upon women at every level. American craft today is exactly the same in the latter sense with, if anything, more control, cultural administration, sales, and production by women.
The highlights of Kardon’s exhibition blend late Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, and, significantly, proto-modern styles to give a broader picture of the period than have prior exhibitions. This reinforces the rich, diverse and non-monolithic range of artistic expressions the period contained. From Leinonen’s smooth un-ornamented sterling bowl and spoon, or George Blanchard’s equally plain 1904 silver bowl, to the George Washington Maher 1912 coffee and tea century metals in the U.S. sparkled amidst the mostly dark and gloomy ceramics, furniture, and textiles.
We are left contemplating a heyday of achievement for American metal arts but with the nagging question of how much credit critics of the day deserve for the flowering. At the very least, it looks like more was written then than today.
In our current zeal for serious commentary instead of just promotion and publicity, we must allow for tolerance of coexisting styles, an openness for new expressions, and (learning from the first two decades of this century,) an atmosphere that does not see high moral purpose as a guarantee of superior esthetic quality. As they did at the turn of the century, politics and esthetics must, today, allow for the idiosyncrasies of the individual artist rather than conspiring together to squelch freedom of expression in the name of one high ideal over another.
The next two exhibitions in the series The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft will be Within Our Shores: Affirming Cultural Identities and Craft in the Machine Age: European and American Modernism. They will cover the years 1920 – 1945.
Matthew Kangas, a former Renwick Fellow in American Crafts, is a Seattle based art critic and curator who is a frequent contributor to Metalsmith and other magazines.
Fabergé, Orfèvre des Tsars
Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris
September 24, 1993 – January 2, 1994
by Anne McPherson
One of the rewards of glasnost is the beginning of artistic exchanges between East and West. The pleasure of discovering what others have been enjoying for years is one aspect of it; more exciting still is the opening up of Russian storehouses whose contents have been hidden for decades. This incredible exhibition of objects from the Fabergé workshops satisfies in both respects. Over 350 precious objects, some of them priceless, have been conveyed first to The Hermitage, second to Paris, and finally to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. One can only guess at the overwhelming task of assembling such objects from private and public collections around the world – such diplomacy, such assurances of safety and safe return that must have been required.
At a time when Russia shows itself willing to open the history books to the twentieth-century story, the presentation of the Fabergé opus is most appropriate. The name symbolizes the finest Russian decorative art of the late Romanov period. The artist’s ‘reign’ coincides with that of the last royal family: all his customers came from their line and with their deaths his business was done. This exhibition gives an opportunity to understand why Carl Fabergé achieved such imperial favour.
Stylistically Fabergé was not a great innovator. In a period when Paris was leading a Rococo and later a Louis XVI revival, he went along, designing with a rather heavy hand in the Rococo vein, yet producing neo-Classical pieces much more delicate than the originals they imitated, as in the numerous cigarette cases, dance programs and picture frames often commissioned as gifts by the royal family. The examples shown here of his Art Nouveau ventures are mostly stolid and unimaginative, as poorly conceived as the Doulton and Galle vases for which he contrived the mounts. More original, though not particularly tasteful to this late-twentieth century eye, are the works designed in his Moscow workshop in the neo-Russian style. Using ancient Russian motifs, he produced hollow ware with broadly outlined angular and curvilinear designs, and single coloured opaque enamels. Miniatures of paintings by Russian artists appear on some of the boxes in this style. There are some magnificent pieces among them, such as the traditional Russian ceremonial cup known as a kovsh, with its delicate cloisonné work combining both neo-Russian and Art Nouveau designs, embellished with shaded enamels.
The massive neo-Russian style did well in Moscow with the bourgeoisie, but not in St. Petersburg, where the court doted on lighter confections. Here Faberge did develop one fabulous idea – the Easter egg. The first was commissioned by Alexander III in 1895 as a gift for the Tsarina. Eggs were given annually by the Tsar and Tsarevitch until 1917 – 54 were made in all. The imperial order was that no design could be repeated; it was also understood that each egg should contain a “surprise,” usually hidden inside.
The designs aside, what makes these eggs fabulous is the skill of their construction. According to the scholars writing in the catalogue (the eye could be fooled, looking through a vitrine), the works are virtually seamless. Faberge used metal pins instead of welding to attach external decoration; he backed the areas to be enameled with an additional fine sheet of silver; and the cage-work for the eggs was done in three sections – two ovals, and individual straight pieces for the middle, as exemplified in the Fifteenth Anniversary Egg. The delicate patterning of the enamel was achieved by the guilloche technique (finely engraving the silver or gold eggshells before enameling), and by using layers of different coloured translucent and opaque enamels, giving the effect of mother-of-pearl or moiré fabric (a cigarette case shows this clearly).
Then there are the surprises, miniatures tucked inside the eggs, some of which operate by a tiny mechanism, others simply well articulated with moving parts, such as the gold coronation coach that rolls along with a realistic swinging motion.
Finally, what makes the eggs fabulous are the quantities of gems, always kept subservient to the overall design of the work, rather than boldly advertising themselves. It is in these great works that Fabergé shows how well he deserves his reputation as one of the world’s greatest makers of objets de vertu.
Anne MacPherson is a journalist who resides in Elora, Ontario Canada.
Enamelrama: A National Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Enameling
The University of West Florida Art Gallery
Center for Fine and Performing Arts
September 14 – October 16, 1993
by Allen Peterson
It has been the nature of artistic experimentation in the twentieth century to break boundaries, expand the use of materials and reinvent the limits of traditional forms. Artists also have had the freedom to explore any historic style or technique. This very diversity has imbued all the arts with a vibrancy of invention and technical expertise that is one of the characterisitics of our era. It should not be surprising then to see the same spirit manifest itself in the smaller arts of jewelry and metals. Should not be, perhaps , but is. Enamelrama, an invitational exhibition curated by metalsmith James Carter for the art gallery at the University of West Florida, in Pensacola, is a revealing cross-section of some of the currents in contemporary metalsmithing in which enameling is a major factor. Twelve artists, including the curator, show a range of classy and glassy interests that run from the fairly traditional to the strongly sculptural, from the vessel to the metal canvas. In short, the new history of enameling.
Echoes of traditional history appear in the wearable sterling and cloisonné work of Merry-Lee Rae and Gael and Howard Silverblatt, not just in the forms of necklace, bracelet, and earrings, etceteras, but in the masterly attention to details of craft, and in the illustrative use of cloisonné. In the work of the Silverblatts, for example, those attentions include the obsessively tiny, magical narratives that cover the fronts and the backs of pieces; enamels in the service of depictions with bracelet sections becoming almost successive pages. John Paul Miller, a long-time master of jewelry and enamels, also displays the fascination of the traditionally minuscule in his delicately abstracted cuttlefish necklace, a kind of abstraction that places Miller’s work with the concerns of midcentury when imagery was seeking a comfortable place between the old and new formalisms, between natural and abstract. Carter himself refers in his pins to the history of the fibula, happily and handsomely updated. In switching from silver to gold, he has added a final richness to well-considered sculptural forms that set off his brilliant enamels. In the area of the vessel form, Harlan Butt’s work goes from the traditional to the more challenging and very satisfying fruit-like closed forms in which the enamel surfaces and beautifully-sculpted forms really meet in that fusion required of form and content. However, it is June Schwarcz that most effectively brings energetic new life to both the vessel form and the basse taille technique.
In the work of several other artists, traditions are modified in scale and imagery so much that enamel becomes another tool, not always recognizable as glass, and not very distinct from painting or sculpture. In these works, we are fully in the late 20th century and at the place where new life occurs. Rebeka Laskin is one who has subsumed the properties of painting/sculptural relief in the brooch. Her small wearable paintings would not lose impact if we were pin-sized and they enormous. Their muted and textured surfaces have the feel of weathered rock and natural process tempered by a reductive formal interest.
At the far end of enamel as painting is the work of Alison Howard-Levy. In these pieces the fact of enamel, or paint, or relative size, no longer matters. They have the image concerns of the late modern and all of their impact is directed at the nature of the expressive object, divorced from use, from the more trivial concerns of beauty and from standard criticism. This is an artist who had chosen to work small, but keep intimacy at large. At the far end of scale is James Malenda whose wall-sized sculptures are selective blow-ups of basic metalsmith construction techniques: barrels, hollow-form, filing, sand-blasting, as well as enamel. The issue is size and a full appreciation of the often lost details of form, color, and surfaces. He reminds us that not all things small can be enlarged, but his sense of appropriate relationships makes these memorable. The ironic fact is that these same pieces would not be as effective at usual jewelry sizes.
The boundaries of two and three-dimensional illusion, seriality, and combined media are found in the pictorial work of Peggy Hitchcock whose flat, rich surfaces of enamel and copper foil are enhanced by air brushed beads that are illusionistically three-dimensional. Echoes of the mechanistic in the bracelets and pins of Kenneth Rockwell are underscored by titles such as Primary Clamp and Fin. His rather bizarre fabrications often have the look of functional details from valves, gratings, and pre-electronic devices. It is a look that is inventive and eclectic with a sense of humor in the formal combinations that would not be out of place in the movie Brazil. Though some have the look of a stylistic forced-fit, overall they have a quirky beauty. Susan Willis show two styles of work, pins that remind one of small-shaped paintings, assembled together and sculpturally iconic constructions with an Imari, or at least, highly oriental, high culture inflection. They stand in their boxes like a Shogun’s sculptural ornaments.
Invitational exhibitions usually have a point of view: as surveys, introductions, and/or showcases. To some degree, all those goals are contained in this modest-sized, but revealing, exhibition. All the techniques are here (save plique a jour), but the show’s real message is about how something that often used to be considered just as jewelry, has grown to include itself in the other proficient and expressive arts of this century, not lesser but more.
Allan Peterson is chairman of the Art Department at Pensacola Junior College, Florida, director of the Visual Arts Gallery, and an artist/writer who received a 1992 NEA Fellowship in Poetry.
Poetic Objects: Contemporary American Jewelry
Images Friedman Gallery,
November 6, 1993 – February 13, 1994
by Lorrie Blair
In glass cases sealed from human contact, jewelry, like any cultural artifact detached from its daily Function, becomes an object for contemplation. But jewelry is intended to be worn and how it interacts with the wearer is an essential part of the reflection. Poetic Objects, an exhibition of contemporary jewelry by 14 artists, curated by Elizabeth Scheurer, offers much for the viewer to consider.
While all pieces in the exhibition have the potential to be worn, Linda Threadgill provides other options. Her work, when not worn, serves the dual function as miniature wall pieces. In one, a two inch sterling silver pin in the shape of an urn teeters precariously on the edge of a thin copper platform. The pint surface is etched with a pattern similar to embossed wall paper. Spiraling, art nouveau leaves emerge from the vase. Both pin and base are framed in wood and the entire piece is about twelve inches high.
In contrast, Susan Ewing’s work encompasses its wearer physically and conceptually. Ex Votos to St. Eligius, which pay homage to the patron saint of metalsmiths, is unlike traditional holy medallions. Bandsaw Brooch is made of a round, smooth spool wrapped with a razor thin saw blade. The blade tapers downward like the dangerous point of a broken blade. Another chilling piece, Blade Bracelet, is made of two small circular saw blades that when worn, envelop the wrist. The blades go in opposite directions, recalling ocean waves or a ring of fire. When worn, a third blade, not quite horizontal, gives the illusion of slicing through the wrist like the illusion of a magician sawing a person in half.
Works by Beverly Penn and Vickie Sedman allude to the idea that in American society most jewelry is worn by women. Penis Venus Series, consisting of five brooches from her on-going work, Art to Wear – Objects of Adornment, depict female imagery from well known paintings and sculpture in art history, such as Standing Nike, the Venus of Willendorf, and Aphrodite. The silhouette of the figures are cut from silver, then repeated in black to create somewhat of a shadow. Their surfaces are etched with a lacy or snakeskin pattern. The figures are bordered by thin, gold frames. They are small, delicate, easy. However, they carry with them the heavy baggage of gender roles and the objectification of women by male artists.
In comparison to those made by Penn, Sedman’s works are visually more daring, more demanding. Five large untitled brooches made from sterling silver and deer antler resemble small swords or penises. The silver portion seems massive next to the elegant lines delicately carved like ivory scrimshaw onto antler. One particularly phallic piece, displayed in an erect position, is eight inches long. Its base and head are made from silver, while the shaft is made from clear acrylic. The entire piece is embellished with a snail-like motif raised about one fourth inch. Sedman’s work is at once threatening and alluring.
Whether pondering Venuses or penises, it is interesting to consider how our perceptions of jewelry depend largely on the wearer’s gender. If a man wears Penn’s brooches, does he buy into the male gaze or female ownership? And what if a woman wears the brooch with the intent to adorn herself for a man? Certainly the impressions of Sedman’s work can change if they worn by a man instead of a woman. Consider too how the meaning can change as to where and how the pieces are worn.
Jewelry has an identification with its wearer and through jewelry the wearer adopts a persona. Poetic Objects, with its a wide range from the traditional to the avant garde, offers something for everyone.
Lorrie Blair is an art critic living in Northern Kentucky.
Julie Anne Mihalisin: Luminous Renderings, New Jewelry
New York, New York
March 5 – 27, 1994
by Karen Chambers
Whenever I hear of a “fine art” critic poaching in my territory, contemporary glass sculpture, I become annoyed, if not outraged. After all I’ve spent a lot of time learning about this area and I’m offended by the naiveté that infuses their reviews. They may be enthusiastic about objects, but mistake for creativity that which is only the result of technical virtuosity. I get equally angry when they praise ineptitude as fighting against the tyranny of technique. Shouldn’t I respect the boundaries within the craft world? Am I encroaching on someone else’s turf? How can I presume to write about jewelry? Since Julie Anne Mihalisin’s jewelry is glass and metal, maybe I’m not trespassing, just expanding my horizon. But jewelry does deal with issues that I don’t usually address: wearability ornament as symbol, a specific history. There are overlaps, too: suitability of material, craftsmanship, design. The essential reason I wanted to write about this work was its visual impact – the core issue in all the visual arts regardless of how we categorize them.
Mihalisin’s necklaces, pendants, and brooches are sensuous baubles. They are seductive. They appeal to me as a wearer of jewelry. Before the gallery assistant opened the case and took them out, I imagined fingering them with their smooth bulges of clear and opalescent glass. That tactility, often noted as a quality that may be more specific to objects/sculpture made of the traditional craft materials than the fine arts, was communicated through cocoon shapes, bubbles, ovals of glass squeezing through tiny wires of gold or silver. She uses those metals in a very straightforward manner, twisting and tying the wires into meticulous knots, elegant in their simplicity. It is a nonprecious handling of precious material.
Glass, despite its appearance, is a common material – just sand at its most basic. But glass has always been used to simulate the precious. I think of all those medieval reliquaries and manuscript covers studded with the real and the ersatz. Mihalisin’s works, with her bold forms, evoke that heritage, too. They also recall Celtic and Norse jewelry – brooches, clasps, belt buckles. And I’m reminded of another jeweler who was a wizard at combining metal and glass – René Lalique. They even share a taste for the natural; Mihalisin’s is more abstract, but no less organic. I like thinking of her as a continuation of the glass-and-metal jewelry tradition.
But Mihalisin’s work is also clearly contemporary with a Post-Minimalist stance. It would be easy to see her set of three brooches of amber-colored glass and silver as miniature Donald Judd progressions gone flaccid as the glass oozes between the metal supports. The return to the handmade, the traditional province of the crafts, from Minimalism’s industrial fabrication while retaining Minimalism’s geometry marks this work as a “post” development.
Mihalisin’s pieces also evoke Process Art. I always mention Lynda Benglis’s latex pours of the 1970s when I discuss Mary Shafler’s plate-glass-slumped-through-wire sculptures of slightly later. Both arrested the process of art in the making and declared that moment the art. Shaffer pioneered precisely the technique that Mihalisin uses, but Shaffer’s results appear less controlled, more a record of the piece’s forming outside the control of the artist. In reality both Shaffer and Mihalisin stop the process exactly where they want it, exactly when the result suits them aesthetically. In their respective kilns, they lower the temperature when the glass has melted to the point they want, thereby permanently capturing that moment.
I’m not tempted to discuss Mihalisin’s work as small sculpture despite these congruences with other sculptors’ art. The handling of the material, the scale, the organic design, the physical lightness, the sensuous feel of metal caressing my throat when I try on a necklace, all tell me that this is jewelry to be handled and handed down. I like that this is work that is unpretentious in intent and exists just for what it is – beautiful jewelry. It affirms my conviction that the best work being done today is by artists who care about their materials and that fulfilling function is a worthy goal. Mihalisin achieves that. That makes her a very fine artist in my book.
Karen Chambers is a frequent writer on glass who resides in New York, NY.
Crossing Back: New Work by Paulette J. Werger
Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters
September 1 – 30, 1993
by Katherine Rogers
With a stirring of reeds at the edge of a pond, or the gathering of a handful of pine needles, Paulette Werger catches pieces of forest peace and gentle movement in her Crossing Back exhibition. Her images evoke a mood of meditation and reverence for the ordinary moment, the quiet change, the extraordinary in the everyday. Wearable as jewelry, this collection of brooches, bracelets, and necklaces also succeeds, in descriptive and metaphoric terms, as sensitive, even painterly, sculpture. These sculptures, of course, can be held in the hand.
During an initial survey of the show, Werger’s Crossing Over Brooch immediately captured my eye and plucked at my heartstrings. It turned out, the artist later told me, that this was the first piece she had created following the sudden and unexpected death of her father. Touching in its evidence of the artist’s hand, Crossing Over speaks eloquently of bittersweet transition. Werger has combined sterling and pewter in the fused and fabricated image of a boat encasing a tree branch and a pearl.
Richly imbued with layers of meaning, the boat, with its oarlike branch, alludes to Native American canoes, Viking boats and burial ceremonies, as well as the soul’s journey with Charon – the figure in Greek mythology who ferries departed souls across the river Styx. The pearl, sinking slowly inside the canoe, glimmers softly, like a teardrop.
Completing the pair of brooches, Crossing Back offers an elegant metaphor for the process of healing from loss. Waving blades of sterling and gold, like tall grass in water, or a comet’s tail, extend from the pearl, up through the invisible-bottom boat. The boat’s stern, touching the pearl, also separates it from the movement inside.
While works like these draw from the artist’s own emotional life, the writings of authors such as William Butler Yeats, Gary Synder, and N. Scott Momaday also nourish her inspiration. Often, too, Werger’s designs seem gleaned from the sketchbook of a lover of the outdoors, a close observer of the natural world. Such journals, for Verger, might include memories of fishing trips with her father in the Catskill mountains, hikes in the Adirondack or Wisconsin woods, a bike trip through Wales.
Werger’s Boat in Slow Current Brooch suggests a glide through clean water on a clear warm day. Water’s Edge Brooch, a favorite of mine, celebrates the musical notion of water. Here a shiny swirl of gold dances with blades of silver grass over a polished edge of deep lapis blue.
Then again, a pocketful of stones or sticks from some special place might further stir the artist’s imagination. Works such as Organic Impressions Brooch and Arboreal Floor #3 Brooch, incorporating sterling and pewter with found materials, have become badges of botanical reverence. Pieces of Welsh slate and fossilized palm wood hover over slumped pewter twigs and needles that emerge and fade softly upon the darkened forest floor. The linear pewter patterns suggest, as well, the fall of tears or raindrops from metaphoric or figurative clouds above.
Werger’s Ashante cast works also pay homage to the African and Native American traditions that have deeply influenced her. Werger, who teaches the lost wax Ashante casting process in workshops around the country, studied the 16th century West African technique with Max and Ruth Frölich. For her, she has said, Ashante casting has assumed personal as well as historical significance. Direct hand work, with a sense of connection to community and the elements, is inherent in the Ashante tradition.
Utilizing fabricating and Ashante cast processes with sterling and gold or fossil in her Open Hull and Moment in Time necklaces, Werger acknowledges such connection and continuity – to nature, the seasons, and the life cycles. Here, too, the touch of the hand is richly present – not only in the texture and construction of the leaf-shaped boats, but also in the feeling of an invisible cradling of something dear. Werger’s skeletal open-hulled boats embrace the air, rib-like, sieve-like – quietly opening to the inhale and the exhale – the passage of spirit.
Katherine Rogers is a painter and free-lance writer who currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin.
Atrium’s 4th Anniversary: An Exhibition of 3 Master Jewelers
New York, New York
November 17, 1993 – January 7, 1994
by Lynn Brunelle
The focus of Artium Gallery’s fourth anniversary show was on works by Michael Zobel, Isolde Baumhackl-Oswald, and Anthony Lent – three artists with distinctive approaches to metal and adornment. When displayed in such close proximity the works drew attention to the way each artist uniquely responds to contrast: rough versus polished, straight-edged versus fluid, jewelry as jewelry or as painting, whimsy versus seriousness.
The show was displayed dramatically in three, wall-hung, shadowbox cases. The boxes, draped in rich black backdrop, were lit from inside. These mini-stages presented three separate viewpoints, as a sort of trio of one-acts in a festival of contrast.
The first stage presented the works of Michael Zobel of Germany. Zobel’s works show a world of geometry, geology, and architecture. The allure of these pieces is in their vigorous surfaces and concise forms. The most striking evidence of this is the interplay between the geometric and the organic. One remarkable pair of earrings fabricated into checkerboard-like images of married metals is set with uncut and polished diamonds. Zobel displays an adroit balance in his treatment of the metal, as well as his use of the stones. He creates a dazzling tension with alternating squares of rough-textured platinum and 18k yellow gold – some polished, some not – and a row of rough-cut diamonds still in their original form, with one diamond flawlessly polished and set in a bezel of gold.
Zobel’s interest in architectural materials is apparent. The natural materials were manipulated to look like concrete, steel, and glass. It is the relationship between the rough crystal and refined metals, along with the geometric shapes yoked together with the more traditional polished diamond, that makes Zobel’s work so remarkable.
The work of German-born Isolde Baumhackl-Oswald made a dramatic focus in the next case. Tiny wearable sterling canvases held thin sheet-shards of bright patinas and textures to create bold, breathtaking, painterly brooches and earrings. Using rolling mill textures and fusing thin bits of other metals, she creates landscapes of rich beauty. But these paintings break free from a two-dimensional world with their twisted frames and jutting gemstones.
The metal’s colors and textures burst against each other. Baumhackl-Oswald’s main contrasts are in the tension created by the spontaneity of the bold soft-sharp, landscape-like brush strokes of color and the soft-sharp refined, delicately set gemstones that seem to gently erupt from the chaos. The set stones anchor the spontaneity of these pieces and illustrate the conscious fabrication and the understanding of the materials employed by the artist.
The third and final case was dedicated to the work of American goldsmith, Anthony Lent, whose pieces explore the real and the surreal. On first glance these works appear to be straightforward, gem-encrusted, beautifully crafted pieces of jewelry. Only upon closer examination do they whisper of a world all their own: a world where golden seahorses with ruby eyes blow bubbles made of pearls and diamonds. Diamond rings become a pair of hands that, while holding the diamond, are actually wearing rings with stones of their own. Snakes, suns, stars, sea creatures, and joyfully mysterious hands and faces, hammered out of gold, create a secret dialogue among themselves.
What is also remarkable about Anthony Lent’s work are the secret gifts he gives the wearer of his jewelry. Not only is the wearer privy to a wonderful, whimsical world on the visible exterior, but, he or she is also part of a clandestine conversation going on behind the scenes. Each piece has something which only the wearer can see. Findings are actually tiny hands that grasp the ends of pins, lizards have crawled behind brooches, and sunny laces appear on the backs of earrings. If diamonds are set on the outside of a bracelet, the inside is fabricated so that wearers will have a starry landscape all to themselves. These pieces are a feast for the eyes and imagination. Traditional precious gems and high-carat gold, combined with Lent’s astonishing reverence for detail allows the wearer to see a magical world unfold under his or her own nose. What fun!
As I left the gallery, the curtain fell on each of the stages: three unique acts that made up a wonderful pageant of contrast. Each artist possesses a mastery of technique, as the title of the show indicated, but the real wonder of these pieces is the different voices and different attitudes toward contrast.
Lynn Brunelle is a metalsmith, writer, and editor living in New York.
Don Stuart: The Challenge of Metals
The Craft Gallery
Ontario Crafts Council
January 12 – February 27, 1994
The Chatham Cultural Centre
by Lois Etherington Betteridge, R.C.A.
Twenty years of Don Stuart’s work was displayed in this exhibition at the Ontario Craft Council’s Gallery in Toronto earlier this year and beautifully documented in a handsome catalogue. The wide span of the exhibition – comprising 13 works from the seventies, 47 from the eighties, and 10 from the nineties – made it possible to trace the influence of Stuart’s origins as a fibres worker and, also, how he has been affected by Scandinavian and Bauhaus design.
The artist’s jewellery, which predominated in the exhibition, especially shows the influence of Stuart’s fibres based background. Equally he is a master of inlay and catholic in his choice of materials; everything from copper ore to petrified wood to tiger-eye. Each material is carefully chosen for its colour effects, and then used meticulously to make clean, direct statements in his rings, pendants, and brooches. While each piece of jewellery is individual, through the seventies and eighties they are all clearly related in overall design and style; appearing graphic and two-dimensional despite their volume. Two brooches from 1986 illustrate the point, particularly in the manner in which the pin backs are used. In both, the pins are very much a part of the design, whether showing completely, or simply visible on either side. These two brooches also exhibit varying degrees of asymmetry but this seems to be a temporary design excursion as by 1990, the very symmetrical brooch had returned.
It is in Don’s secular hollow ware that we see more variation and development over the twenty years. A sterling tankard made in 1980 is particularly striking. Its inlay is complex and includes opal, agate, brown coral, rosewood, silver and copper ores, narwhal ivory, and ebony.
However, only part of the lid is inlaid, and the resulting contrast with sterling makes the tankard very direct and clean. Don’s cutlery from that time is also interesting. Knife blades are avant-garde in shape, and handles are subtly inlaid with gold and lapis lazuli, again showing the influence of fibre design.
The piece that probably drew the most attention in the show was the rose bowl that Don made in 1987 as the Glen Gould Award. Quite large (28 cm diameter), it has an inlaid silver medallion (about 9 cm square) in the centre of elements of silver wires laid over the top of the bowl. The little nuggets of gold which line the bottom of the bowl are very interesting and reward careful inspection. Another presentation piece is the Rogers Communication Award, made in 1991. Simple in concept, it is extremely expressive.
Certainly the most “far-out” works, and perhaps the signal of exciting things to come, are three wine cups made in 1991 – 92. They also include a wide variety of materials: silver, gilt, walnut, copper and silver ores, sodalite, agate, lapis lazuli, opal, ebony, patinated brass and copper, and Chinese turquoise beads. And, while some of these materials are used as inlays, others are successfully integrated into the design as lumps or cut pieces. Furthermore, two of the cups are totally asymmetrical, a great departure for the artist.
A recent (1992) coffee service is a fine example of Stuart’s silversmithing. The coffee pot, creamer, and sugar bowl leave no doubt as to their function and have interesting details in their handles which are an effective combination of silver, gold, and ebony. The three-sided tray reflects the triangularity of the vessels, and successfully brings the set together.
Stuart’s metal and fabric skills have been brought together in a large (8 metre) ecclesiastical hanging Gloria in Excecis, which he completed in 1989. It is made of brass, copper, aluminum, birch, mahogany, and fabrique appliqué. In Don’s words “it was an exciting challenge interpreting the needs and wishes of the committee. This piece does not have obvious or expected symbolism. Although very public in position and scale, it is to me very private in thought and emotion.”
Don Stuart has clearly drawn well upon thoughts and emotion in honing his fine sense of design. With this, and his fine craftsmanship, he has accomplished a large amount of integrated work over the past two decades and this well-mounted exhibition was a fitting tribute to his achievements.
Lois Etherington Betteridge is a metalsmith who lives in Toronto.
Susan Cummins Gallery
Mill Valley, California
October 4 – 30, 1993
By Matthew Kangas
So much has been written about Margaret Barnaby’s debt to marine life that one wants to encounter her work on another level just for the sake of creating a critical dichotomy. Her Susan Cummins show was ornate and beautiful but not a major breakthrough. She is deepening her vision in a number of ways but is still committed to using nature and scientific illustration as sources for her forms and material treatment.
Roberta Floden described her 1988 body of work as “an aquatic extravaganza” and that still holds but, for our purposes, it is worth looking even more closely to determine whether the marine analogy goes beyond inspired description.
After all, natural world sources in and of themselves do not legitimize or validate a work of art nor give it any innovative cachet. Art Nouveau jewelry drew heavily from nature including sea forms as did some Baroque and Rococo court jewelry. Barnaby seems to be going toward even more eccentric silhouettes, stretching the limits of wearability and straining the net of historical influence.
She has been studying anatomical drawings of insects, their musculature, digestive, and respiratory systems and then translating them into metal and stone. This accounts for the bizarre configuration of Pin 9363, 1993, an elongated construction with tiny centipede or sea cucumber perforations in 18-carat gold and bellows or lung-like forms around two boulder opals. Equally extended, Pin 9364, 1993, suggests a golden clam or oyster shell filled with vacationing pearls above a propeller-like foot. This would look great on a woman with a Ph.D. in marine biology. Know any?
Pin 9662, 1993, completes the most irregularly profiled series. The straw topaz and blue boulder opal nestle among fluttering or fanlike plant forms of gold. Lynda Benglis definitely comes to mind. She also has used gold as a color, natural plant forms, and highly baroque compositions in her larger bronze, plaster and glass sculptures.
More compact and less elongated, Earrings 9389, 1993, are superficially similar to one another (bumpy golden shell, blue-green boulder opals) yet each clip is different and unmatchable, just as if both had been “born” into the same underwater species yet developed with unique DNA material. The care Barnaby takes to make each piece of jewelry completely unique in appearance is laudable and raises her high above handmade production jewelry.
Her summers in Maine must have a lot to do with the beachcombing residue-look in her art but Barnaby also confesses to a fondness for 18th-century French silverware with its elaborate chasing and repoussé work.
With their centered stones, the golden cuff bracelets seem less compositionally adventurous but, even here, the unusual juxtaposition of stones like morganite and garnet Cuff 7333, azurite and tanzanite Cuff 9336, and black tourmaline and smithsonite Cuff 9394, create chromatic tensions which keep the piece from becoming too familiar and, hence, boring.
As long as they remain on an abstracted, less literal plane of representation, the brooches and pines retain a fascination that more immediately recognizable imagery would quickly forestall. Barnaby shares this with sculptor Nancy Graves, daughter of a natural scientist, whose works are always more successful when they stray farthest away from their scientific-illustration sources. Barnaby’s scale is so intimate, and different from Graves’s large polychrome bronzes, but both artists confront organic life forms with rich artistic imaginations.
Standing in high relief to Modernist .jewelry, Margaret Barnaby’s art invokes historical precedents of eccentric ornamentation yet, created in the late 20th century, they have a social dimension of meaning, too: reminding us of the fragility of marine ecosystems and the need to protect our oceans and shorelines. In this sense, she is honoring and commemorating a rich, usually unseen world. Who would have thought Margaret Barnaby had become a Postmodernist?
Matthew Kangas is an art critic and curator from Seattle, who is a frequent contributor to Metalsmith.