This article showcases various exhibitions in the form of collected exhibition reviews published in the 1995 Spring issue of the Metalsmith Magazine. This features Lynn Whitford, Myra Mimlitsch Gray, Robin Martin, and more!
The Effects of Good Chemistry – Metalwork By Lynn Whitford
Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Art and Letters
Madison, Wisconsin, October 3 – 28, 1994
By Annette Mahler
These works of hollowware were made over a period of six years (1988-94) and deal with how we as viewers deal with issues of perception, understanding, and appreciation of both the generic and the particular. All of the vessels draw their inspiration from the everyday world. The forms are elemental, basic shapes which we have seen all of our lives, whether they are wine bottles, laboratory beakers, or oil cans. Their recognizable shapes help us to focus right away, we don’t need time to make sense out of them. Such simple forms help to ground us and immediately encourage viewers to recognize that these forms have long been a part of the human visual world. The first step, therefore, is the recognition that a simple form is worthy of study and admiration, that its familiar form is truly beautiful. A heightened appreciation then comes with the further consideration of the vessel’s color and surface finish.
By placing the containers on shelves, Whitford creates tableaus arranged in a specific order. Within that context the viewer then begins to react to the cumulative effect of shape, color, and placement. The vessels are like actors/dancers on a stage, enlivened by the dialog/movement between them. The sense of relationships evoked by the grouping of vessels enriches the forms. We see how the individual objects, whether rectilinear or round, valid in their own right, are drawn to others different from themselves, and in this proximity they create new shapes. They produce new geometrical relationships and the viewer is encouraged to consider the power of the generic, elemental shapes as they exist by themselves and in relation to others of their kind. It is this capacity of Whitford’s work to function on various levels simultaneously that makes it so powerful.
In The Effects of Good Chemistry II the artist places vessels of various shapes and heights onto a stage-like shelf. The proportions of the shelf have been carefully considered, creating a wonderful visual paradox, allowing the vessels to be both contained by the shelf, as well as creating the illusion of pushing its boundaries beyond its actual height and width.
Just as shape/form is an essential part of Whitford’s work, color is of great importance. Each vessel has a patina which gives it a richness. And this color helps to heighten the awareness of the simplicity of the forms as it elevates them above the ordinary. The subtle painting of the shelf, neutral, yet alive with individual nuances of diagonal strokes, creates a surprising stillness, which further elevates the sense of dignity and importance which viewers come to recognize as the essence of these vessels.
The most recent work, If Time Were an Object, is a medicine chest holding three rows of medicine-type bottles. Whitford began with a collection of glass bottles and each of them has been replicated in copper and placed on the shelf, copper vessel in front of its glass counterpart. The copper retains its basic pinkish color with a fine emery finish, echoing the manner in which the glass bottles, clear and wavy, also show the nature of material from which they are made. Each glass bottle is a generic though slightly different shape and the copper vessels repeat this subtle variation. A quick, passing glance would have us see the forms as alike, yet a closer study reveals variety. It is the artist’s intention to lead us from an easy visual recognition and appreciation of shape, to a more subtle and nuanced consideration.
The multiplication of these forms by their placement in front of a mirror, set at the back of the cabinet, takes us a step further and has us consider the constant sorting and categorizing in which we all engage. Viewers move from an image of a generic form, to the image of a specific form, to all of the nuances in between.
Whitford does not “tell” the viewer how to look nor how to sort all of these variations. Rather, by presenting layers of possibilities, she makes her work easily accessible to everyone: child or adult, art cognoscenti or novice viewer. Though placed within a stage-like settings, the vessels remain accessible and they invite touching, caressing, and use. And though they reside in a formal setting, they are not removed from the ordinary. Lynn Whitford’s work has a timeless quality and in that sense it surpasses much of the work that is currently being done by others working in metal. There is a strength in her pieces which can bring satisfaction to all viewers; that is what makes her work so lasting in one’s memory.
Annette Mahler trained in both art and art history before becoming a writer. She resides in Madison, Wisconsin.
Myra Mimlitsch Gray
Royal Oak, Michigan
October 15 – November 26, 1994
By Margo Mensing
Myra Mimlitsch Gray’s work is clearly ambiguous. In her October show she gave us the whole picture, even more information than we need, but it’s a trap. By pairing fudged forms with metals and finishes inappropriate to our expectations of the original object’s use, she collapses the precious into the banal. The function and history of each object are obfuscated.
In the Spoon Series the artist takes apart the phrase “born with a silver spoon”. Sometimes she inserts spoons into shallow dishes/trays that complement the utensil’s outline and refer to a tool, such as a hand mirror or trowel. Sometimes she bifurcates spoons keeping them joined at some point and echoing the new shape in the shape of the dish/tray, Scissors, 1994. These almost bisected contortions look like perverse surgical instruments. The spoons intimate a moneyed discrepancy to the cases, which are often plated or burnished.
The hollowware also follows two courses. Much of it, like the spoons, depends on splitting the vessels, for example, a creamer and sugar bowl or a decanter and packaging them in a form referencing the mold. In other hollowware, the profile offers one object but the interior discloses another. In Mantlepiece, 1994, the walnut veneer clad encasement of candlesticks suggests a mantle clock. A dialogue ensues between the assumed object and the actual subject.
In the latest works ambiguity is even stronger for there is no bisection to permit a clear reading of the original object. Encased Candlesticks, 1994, looks like a pair of faceted silver binoculars. Through handling, which may be read as use, the identity of the “original” is determined. Imagine setting the table for a dinner party, opening the closet, climbing up to view the array of little used wedding gifts and heirlooms, deciding which candlesticks, decanters, salt and pepper shakers to bring out for the occasion – storage tells us more about actual use than the infrequent table setting does. Like the closet view, Mimlitsch Gray’s metalworks remark on the domestic, gender couplings, and trophies. What requires more prodding (and ultimately remains questionable) is what are we meant to think about desire, the precious, and the function of tradition?
Mimlitsch Gray has said that her choice of objects and the alterations she makes upon them is an inquiry into the role of status. Class and economic hierarchies are queried in her selection of metals and finishes, but no singular guidepost conveys the weight these objects (should) hold in our lives. Elevating the mundane above the touted, Gray leaves us thinking that the tackiest burnished copper plate is more valuable than the silver spoon. She achieves this in carefully nuanced materials and common utensils made beautifully weird. They refer to the home but there’s nothing homey about this work.
Margo Mensing is an artist who resides in Stevensville, Michigan and teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Searchings in Metal: Robin Martin
Eastern Bay Gallery
September 12 – October 30, 1994
By Patricia Wheeler
The objects in this exhibition read like a journal of personal markings. Sensitive and informed, they allude to solitary winters on the harsh northern coast of Maine. The artist navigates change and searches for meaning and a sense of place, and renders the experience of loss and regeneration. Several works in forged steel are pierced with 18k gold, like golden moments of insight found in struggle. The key to Robin Martin’s work is her facile use of metaphor: the images she selects create a unique vocabulary that is intensely personal.
Martin’s first solo exhibition, held in Stonington, Maine, was influenced by her life on the coast and her fascination with the work boats hauled to the shore for the winter. Drawn to the sensuous curves of ship hulls in local boatyards and captivated by the graceful lines of cruise ships built for pleasure, Martin researched hull shapes, joinery, and other construction methods at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine, seeking to translate their forms and techniques into metal.
The resulting collection of jewelry and sculpture incorporates a variety of materials ranging from cast off junk, rock, bone, steel, silver, and pearls to precious metals. Dory Study is fabricated of sterling, edged with 18k gold. A pair of earrings incorporates found objects, discarded bottle caps from the Deer Isle Laundromat parking lot, reworked and juxtaposed with German silver and 18k gold, sensitively transformed. Local pearls from Eggemoggin Reach provide a regional charm. “I wanted to use truly local material, items close to the core of what one experiences living on Deer Isle”, Martin states. Also exhibited are steel wire studies of a Rushton guide boat, an Alaskan skin boat and a pea pod. Her steel constructions, minute and intricate, cause quiet introspection.
A unique aspect of this exhibition was the installation itself. The artist carefully and intentionally directed the audience through a series of thresholds into the Cistern Room of Eastern Bay Gallery. Wooden frames supported the pieces and directed the viewer’s gaze onto the work. The room, defined by irregular outcroppings of local granite was tomblike and intimate. Some stones seeped moisture. All of the pieces were either suspended from above or carefully placed on stone ledges, unevenly protruding from the walls. The effect was surreal.
Constructed of textured steel wire, the wall sculpture Boat For My Long Journey Home is oriented vertically, the upright stance signifying strength and alignment. Using an animal’s jawbone as the starting point to create a forward thrust, the piece explores the paradox of being adrift while remaining strong. A central, removable brooch, held in place with a tiny magnet, refers to the artist on her journey. The tortured surface of sterling silver contains a core of forged steel with a rivet of 18k gold. Cross structures lashed together with wire carry a pattern of textures carefully rolled onto the surface.
“The common thread which holds the whole group of work together is the marks on metal being about information. The layering of marks suggests an experience or history about something the metal has gone through. It is about what we go through, signifying or documenting the journey”, Martin states. To connect this process to nature, she incorporates sections of bone from the rib cage of a deer. With this choice of material Martin links the physical to the symbolic. Ribs contain and protect inner space. The ship hull becomes the womb. Exposed marrow completes the metaphor as the most essential information, the very core of life.
With an undergraduate degree in industrial technology from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, the artist considered further study in graduate school but opted, instead, for life experience, coming to Deer Isle in 1991 to apprentice with Ron Pearson. The result is a refreshing, individual vocabulary coupled with expert craftsmanship, attention to detail, and a honest expression of emotion which gives the work its power.
Patricia Wheeler operates Wheeler Gallery in Deer Isle, Maine.
The Royal Tombs of Sipán
American Museum of National History
New York, New York
June 24, 1994 – January 1, 1995
By Clare Kunny
“The Royal Tombs of Sipán” was an exhibition of ancient American metalwork that focused on materials found in tombs of three Moche lords dating back to around 3rd century A.D. The majority of the exhibition was devoted to stunning objects of gold, silver, and gilt copper produced for the ruling class of Moche culture, an ancient South American people living 700 years before the Spanish arrived and around the time the Maya ruled southern Mexico. It was a dazzling display of exquisitely crafted ornaments which served as status symbols for costume and official rituals of the Moche elite. In the midst of the glittering spectacle the viewer was offered insight into science, art, and culture.
The Moche people lived in river valleys along a 250 mile stretch of the northern coast of modern Peru from A.D. 100-800. The Moche have been admired for their technical genius in ceramics, textiles, irrigation, and metalwork throughout the ages, from the ancient Inca to modern archaeologists and art historians. But the engaging imagery found painted on pottery, woven into fabric, and sculpted into metal objects was only partially understood and appreciated before excavations were begun in Sipán in 1987. The objects unearthed from three tombs within the ancient burial mound at Sipán are unlike any previously seen. Scholars say it is the richest burial site ever excavated in the Americas, yielding objects equivalent to those of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The exhibition began with a display of shiny metal objects taken from Sipán tombs by grave robbers. It was the appearance of these highly crafted objects in the art market, that led authorities and a Peruvian archaeologist, Professor Walter Alva, one of the curators of the exhibition, to the burial mound at Sipán. After a confrontation between looters and the authorities, the stolen goods were confiscated and Alva set to work scientifically exploring the rich contents of the tombs of Old Lord of Sipán, Bird Priest, and Warrior Priest. Alva’s team of archaeologists still works under the protection of armed guards.
The drama of the quest for the treasures of the royal Moche tombs was effectively recreated in the exhibition, beginning in an introductory gallery which contained sculpted and painted ceramics with scenes from the Moche world. Along with wall text, which provided basic facts about the ancient culture, mural-sized color photos of the Moche pyramid suggested context and the harsh, dry climate of coastal Peru with the ever-present vivid blue sky. From the clearly lit introductory gallery the viewer was drawn into the heart of the exhibition: mysterious, dimly lit, gold and silver objects excavated by Alva and his team. Midway through the exhibition there was a recreation of one of the royal tombs. This gave the stimulated imagination a rest, and more importantly showed exactly how the objects were found by the archaeologists.
The exhibition provided the would-be archaeologist, or simply the armchair adventurer, a glimpse into the excitement of finding treasures like these. Alongside the recreated tomb there was a 10 minute video, an on-the-spot report of this painstaking mission and a peek over the archaeologist’s shoulder. Although museum visitors had the option of an audio guide to embellish the simple but clearly presented information, in reality the art speaks for itself in the shear beauty of each piece along with the technical abilities displayed in the 170 objects in the exhibition.
Small warrior figures, no taller than a couple inches, are composed of numerous gold pieces (at times up to 25 individual pieces). Ingots of gold were hammered, then molded into the three-dimensional forms and soldered together. Intricately rendered, the figure was dressed in ritual attire complete with headdress, nose-piece, ear spools, and a baton of office. In contrast, some objects were life-size, the actual ornaments of office worn by warriors, priests and rulers. The most impressive was a curious item called a back flap, worn from the back of a belt, by high ranking members of the military. From a practical point of view it was, possibly, used to protect their backside, symbolically it identified rank. Even with no knowledge of Moche culture one could simply admire the elegant lines of the object, long and narrow with a faring edge at one end, cast of gold. The exhibition climaxed with a life-size mannequin dressed in reproductions of the Warrior Priest’s ceremonial regalia. With or without the reincarnated Warrior Priest as a surprise finale, it was the richness of the objects found in the tombs that encouraged the mind to imagine visual answers to the questions offered by the intriguing metalwork – the who, the where, the when, the where, and the why.
“The Royal Tombs of Sipán” will travel to the Detroit Institute of Art, and finally to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The exhibition was coordinated by the University of California’s Fowler Museum, under the direction of Christopher Donnan and Walter Alva. The contract for the exhibition of Peruvian artifacts stipulated that funds generated by the show must be returned to Peru to fund the ongoing archaeological excavation and build a high security museum on the site of Sipán.
Clare Kunny is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Museum Education at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Contemporary Metals + Jewelry x 11
Rowan College of New Jersey
Glassboro, New Jersey
October 24 – November 22, 1994
By Alex Wolf
Violence and technology were the prevailing themes of the work showcased at Rowan College of New Jersey in “Contemporary Metals + Jewelry x 11” this fall, a show of 11 emerging Philadelphia area metalsmiths and jewelers, organized by John Gilliam.
From the school of futurism were bold and outrageous pieces from Fred Nelson, small kinetic wearables from Danielle Miller, and spinning tops from Maryanne Petrus. Their clean, sharp geometry spoke of our world of animated and sophisticated, multi-media and multi-use items, which blur art, design, and entertainment. Crafted with machined precision, Nelson’s weird and fascinating pieces, in human scale seem like robots from Star Wars, “Star Trek”, and “Lost In Space”, i.e. Sensory Experience, a gold mask with 3-D looking glasses, a translucent larvae shaped head, tubes coming out of the mouth, and a rectangular periscope coming out of the head, with the eyes on the handles. Nelson explores how we are assaulted by myriad technologies, films, and gadgets and the artist compresses through his own visceral memory these experiences producing an effect, in high techno style, much like the forced movie-watching in A Clockwork Orange. Petrus’s tops were like small spaceships, one of which spun and shot out water. They fit well with Miller’s kinetic rings which had gems swinging or spinning smoothly on ends of small bars. These pieces combined adult skill and childlike fascination with grace and poise.
Violence and weapons were the subjects of works by William Gilbert, John B. Gilliam, and Laura Ferry. Gilbert’s Saturday Night Special, an elegant bowl made from toy guns cast in silver is a trophy created from one of the sources of our problems today, putting a heavy twist on the consolation prize. Gilliam’s curious knives of animal-like limbs carved from fire-brick and Corian, with tempered steel blades, seem to have the hunter and the hunted wrapped up in one, the food chain cycled into an animal eating its own tail. Ferry’s necklace of latex nipples in resin alternating with bullet casings juxtapose the nurture and violence inherent in life in a “take the bad with the good” rhythm. Love and Death, a striking monument by Gilbert of tiny cast skeletons forming an intricate, lace-like bowl propped up by two cherubs, carries this theme to a more abstract and philosophical zenith, with even more of a sense of humor. The intriguing point in these three artists’ works is their seeming acceptance of violence as an integral part of life, and their attitudes towards nature’s apparent amorality.
The exhibition would have packed more punch if the violence and the technology themes had been more clearly presented. The large and powerful sculptural works of Nelson and Gilbert loomed over cases of smaller objects. In single artist groupings, they could have played off one another instead. The collusion and interconnectedness of violence and technology also needed more exploration. Another missed opportunity was the presentation of Petrus’s and Miller’s kinetic works. Static display is always frustrating with pieces which yearn to move.
More attention might have been paid to the fact that though all of the works were grounded in the present, those that looked to the future were fabricated, and those that looked to the past were cast or carved, an important conceptual and process oriented division. An overwhelming feeling of youth and freshness came from the six artists mentioned, and this lent a feeling of timeliness to their issues and solutions. Of these six, the works of Nelson and Gilbert are more mature, exhibiting seamless presentation and deft handling of complex issues, but the other artists also show that they merit following in the future.
Alex Wolf is an art and design consultant in New York.
Ann Orr: Silversmith, Goldsmith, and Enamelist
The Georgia Museum of Art
September 24 – November 13, 1994
By Rob Jackson
The Ann Orr Retrospective exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art was like taking a tour through the history of contemporary metal. Ranging in date from the 1940s through the 1980s the exhibit’s 106 works took us to the roots of contemporary abstract metal design. The influence of Margaret de Patta, Phillip Morton, and Adda Husted-Andersen was immediately apparent and Orr’s apprenticeship under the latter for four years explains this link. Additionally, a brief stay at the David-Andersen Factory in Oslo, Norway together with her southern heritage help account for the broad spectrum of influences found in her work.
One was, at first struck, by the apparent simplicity of the objects. Deeply rooted in the 1950’s search for form, there is almost a sense of innocence in the work. We have only to look back to the “First National Exhibit of Contemporary Jewelry” at the Museum of Modem Art in 1946, where, with the likes of Alexander Calder and others, the simplicity of hammered wire was the means of expression. What was perhaps best expressed was the pure joys of craftsmanship. Unburdened by today’s need for deeper meaning and content over technique, these works thrive on the essence of saw frame and pliers. An 18k gold and black star sapphire brooch exemplifies exactly that. Two strips of formed sheet intertwine endlessly around the black star sapphire nucleus. In a ring of the same vintage a single sheet of pierced white gold seems instantly bent into an open hollow construction that cleverly wraps around the stone and finger all in one motion.
An enameled bracelet is a striking work from the 1950s. Hinged in four tapering sections, orange and green color fields float within a black background. The evolving green shape, distinct within its heavily cloisonnéd border, would delight the likes of Phillip Morton with its quintessential modern art form, while at the same time the glossy opaque colors allude to Japanese laquerware.
The playful Sweet Pea earrings of 1960 are as timeless as they are simple. Offset, interlocking discs of silver are soldered together to represent the pea in the round. The references are as much to modern art as they are to the simple things in life.
A series of curvilinear enameled brooches could perhaps be the purest synthesis of Ann Orr’s own style and innovation. Hollow strips, formed and filled with enamels, are constructed into a variety of 3-dimensional forms. The very sculptural Light and Airy consists of four open-ended light green enameled bars curving and overlapping each other, setting up spatial relationships of seemingly greater magnitude. In contrast, the brooch of the Set: Pin and Ring consists of two interlocking ovoid rings. The resulting open form set up between the light green ring and the dark green ring is so pure and harmonious that it is easy to overlook the complexities needed to produce such forms.
A seamless coffee pot from the early 1960s exemplifies Orr’s silversmithing skills. Ambitious at nine inches in height, the focal point is the handle. Contrasting to the traditional form of the pot itself the sleek modern handle is as simple as it is ingenious. The wooden handle was riveted directly to the coffee pot itself, serving as a heat sink from which the sleeker strip-plate constructed silver handle is applied. The result is a timeless work of elegance.
While a number of the works were more obviously commissions they still represented the integrity and scope of the artist. From pavé and enamel to silversmithing this exhibition and its catalog documented her work through five decades and secured her place in the history of contemporary jewelry and metals.
Rob Jackson is a metalsmith and an Instructor at the University of Georgia at Athens, Georgia.
One-Of-A-Kind: Art Jewelry Today
October 29, 1994 – January 31, 1995
By Jan Baum
Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosted an exhibition in conjunction with the publication of Susan Grant Lewin’s book, One-Of-A-Kind: American Art Jewelry Today. Visiting the gallery, viewers were almost wrapped head-to knee in jewelry. Shallow display cases, each containing the work of 4 to 5 artists lined the gallery walls and housed the work of the 63 artists included in the exhibition. Merging with the white walls these white cases allowed attention to be focused on the jewelry.
Like the book this exhibition was a survey, of sorts, of American metalsmithing. It did not focus on specific artists, types of artists/jewelers or genres of work and some key figures were missing. Shared attitudes abounded, from pioneering works of the 40s and 50s by Margaret Craver and Merry Renk to equally minimal and spare works by currently active artists such as Amy Anthony, Eva Eisler, and Zack Peabody. But there was much to contrast with these modernist forms such as the rich and less minimal works by artists Robin Kranitsky/Kim Overstreet and Beverly Penn, among others. For the most part the exhibition did not significantly deviate from the work included in the book on which it was based.
The exhibition was a rare opportunity for viewers to see and handle objects by some of the founding figures of American metal working, including works by the aforementioned Craver and Renk, Betty Cooke, Ed Weiner, and Bob Winston. Additionally, the inclusion of such artists as Eleanor Moty, Mary Lee Hu, Fred Woell, Ron Pearson, Arline Fisch, Fred Fenster, Susan Hamlet, etceteras allowed viewers to experience the work of recognized, contemporary exemplars of art jewelry today. There was also a good mix of both older and newer work by artists of stature within the field such as Jamie Bennett, John Iversen, and Stanley Lechtzin. Finally this overview included some newer works, such as those by Shana Kroiz, Nel Linseen and Ondrej Rudavsky.
Time and again throughout the show I found myself taking note of the use and mastery of materials represented: ambiguous, masquerading, disguising, imitating, intermingling, assisting, innovating. John Iversen exhibited brooches carved of alabaster and soapstone. Noted for treating enamel as a solid, dimensional material, Iversen creates a laminate by combining the enamel and stone on the same plane making it difficult to distinguish between the materials. These brooches, striking in their color, translucency, and delicate presence, seem too fragile to actually be worn. Where enamel masquerades as stone in Iversen’s pieces, metal masquerades as stone or marble in Leslie Leupp’s Brooch PG #191. Although these works share some common ground, they seem opposite in intent. Iversen’s brooches, made of stone are delicate. Leupp’s brooch acting as if it were stone is very solid and strong. In a similar way, Joe Wood’s smoked oil patina on sterling silver is reminiscent of Thomas Gentille’s Brittania armlet, its eggshell laminate, similar but different in intent.
Perhaps more trendy and less reverent were Valerie Mitchell’s concrete brooches. Poured into different copper or silver frames, these dimensional pieces are appealing with their slightly colored, monochromatic concrete with metal ridges running throughout, reinforcing the form.
Ondrej Rudavsky’s clay brooches suggest an ambiguity of material. When handled the pieces are somewhat warm to the touch, light weight but with some density and they do not seem to be extremely fragile. Their forms are simple and tool-like. The surfaces though completely covered with markings and patterns appear to have a more than ornamental role. They seem to have a purpose as objects even when that purpose remains shrouded in mystery. It is the combination of color, pattern, and form that marks their success.
To this reviewer, the most striking work, in terms of materials and form was the work of Shana Kroiz. These brooches are formed, enameled, and carved. It is the combination of form and surface that makes these pieces so attractive and intriguing. The bright, tactile, slightly under fired enameled surfaces glisten as though moist. The forms gently and decidedly arch, forming crevices, nodules, gentle and pronounced ridges, and voluptuous curves, all the while inviting the viewer in for close examination. The brooches seem to want to fit together, the ridge of one with the crevice of another, but they don’t, they remain individual and distinct. Their overall appearance is simple – monochromatic, but not flat by any means. This simplicity is a ploy to lure the viewer in and direct their attention to the backs of the brooches. The backs are as pleasantly seductive as the fronts though for different reasons. Each one is carved of beautiful, rich wood, the surface of which has been left natural. There is no stain, paint, nor any other type of surface treatment. Formally, the backs imitate the fronts. Completing each piece, these wood backs fit snugly into the frame which holds the enamel, incorporating both space and time into the appreciation of the works.
The exhibition covered a lot of ground. It was beneficial to see work from the 1940s and 50s as well as to have a comprehensive overview of the field. Viewers may want to ask themselves which artists and works seemed to be missing; to ask who was not included and to ponder the reasons why. An exhibition of this magnitude encourages us to look at our field and to make correlations, observations, and corrections to our ongoing history.
Jan Baum is a metalsmith and frequent reviewer for Metalsmith, who resides in Portland, Oregon
Enid Kaplan: Suspensi Spiritus
June 1 – July 15, 1994
By Kelly Mitchell
Enid Kaplan’s work as a contemporary artist is a three-dimensional testament to her belief in the complexity of human nature. Suspensi Spiritus, Kaplan’s new series, is an ambitious project which squarely confronts the dualities that live in all of us: good and evil, hope and despair, strength and weakness, trust and betrayal.
Suspensi Spiritus is comprised of seven amulets, each housed in a sculptural base and complemented by text. Kaplan makes it no secret that this series was born out of her nine month journey to Southeast Asia, where she and her husband traveled to places so remote that the Western imagination can hardly conjure an image of the landscape, the people, the culture. Living among tribal peoples in several different regions, Kaplan witnessed the interconnectedness of their art and healing traditions. It inspired her to reassess her chosen artistic focus – jewelry – and to take on a traditional role for a jeweler as a creator of amulets.
Based on ancient myths – Ariadne, Diana – or universal themes of body and spirit – fertility intuition, faith – Kaplan’s amulets, like all amulets, are intended to protect their wearers. Traditionally, an amulet’s power is granted by the intention of its maker. Specific stones and symbols are used to evoke specific meanings, depending on the culture: cowrie shells signify fertility and creativity; carnelians, the vitality of the body. Kaplan can tell you the meaning of each stone, each detail, in her series of amulets – meaning derived partly from her research into historical and cultural tradition, partly from her own interpretation. Like any successful artistic endeavor, however, the meaning of these objects is not confined to the explanation of their creator.
One of the most revealing pieces in the series is entitled Clearing. The base is a tangle of treelike brass forms wrapped around arches of purple heart, providing a secure hollow for the amulet which hangs deep inside. The amulet itself is faceless, though its reference to the body is clear. In place of an articulated face is an oval of rutilated quartz, like one all-knowing eye. And suspended below, in the cavity of the body form, is another piece of quartz, as protected within the amulet as the amulet is within the base. Inspired by the artist’s experience of being lost in the Sumatran jungle without food or water for twenty-four hours, the amulet can be interpreted as an offering of strength, of faith in the face of despair, which is further emphasized by the traditional symbolism of quartz as enhancing intuition and clairvoyance.
French and English texts accompany Kaplan’s series, contributing another layer of meaning to each amulet. Integrated into the bases as sculptural elements, they are the result of Kaplan’s collaboration with Canadian writer Nancy R. Lange. It is an interesting collaboration which can be interpreted as a reference to a tradition of amulets containing words – usually words from a scripture, Lange’s texts serve as complements to Kaplan’s amulets, further elucidating their intended meaning. For example, in Moon Birth, Lange tells the story of a woman near death who finds life again by freeing herself from the traps which bind her. In the midst of describing the woman’s last moments, Lange wrote “life pulses in her throat”, suggesting that the woman’s voice is her key to survival. The idea is played out visually in Kaplan’s amulet: a woman hangs from a noose around her neck, and in this moment when she is being strangled, she must choose between life and death. Affirming life, the woman articulates two words which are scripted in brass and rise up beside her: “free” and “envolé”, meaning “flight”. Here again, Kaplan simultaneously asserts the positive and acknowledges the negative, capturing them both in a moment of transformation.
Kaplan’s amulets find their meaning in the realm of the personal – for the artist, the wearer, and the viewer. One gets the sense that Kaplan created each amulet as she came to know herself in the situations and psychological states that they portray. For those among us who accept her offering, it is a deeply personal one to receive.
Enid Kaplan: Suspensi Spiritus will be traveling to Galerie Suk-Kwan, in Montreal, where it will be on display in the Spring of 1995
Kelly Mitchell is a writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.