Metalsmith ’97 Spring: Exhibition Reviews

This article showcases various exhibitions in the form of collected exhibition reviews published in the 1997 Spring issue of the Metalsmith Magazine. This features Ried Niemi, Mary Ann Scher, Nicole Landaw, and more!

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Ried Niemi
Artworks Gallery
Seattle, WA
December 7 – 31, 1995
By Matthew Kangas

The Spokane-born artist Ries Niemi’s return to the Pacific Northwest after a decade-long hiatus in southern California is a cause for celebration. This time around, however, Ries Niemi is not making sculpture out of color Xerox and mixed media but unabashedly functional chairs.

Cut and welded steel is the material for each hand cut and assembled chair. Some are editioned in up to 12 copies. The new resident of Bow, Washington showed four separate bodies of work: portrait chairs; modern art masterpiece stools; crown stools; and metal versions of antique wooden chair designs by prominent mass-production, turn-of-the-century furniture companies.

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The portrait chairs hark back to the artist’s Neo-Pop Art days in Seattle when he exhibited at a small cutting-edge gallery called Rosco Louie. The back of each chair is the celebrity’s head. The left and right arms may contain, respectively, birth and death years. The seat is punched out with the figure’s name and perhaps an appropriate quotation. For example, in an un-editioned, one-of-a-kind work, jazz musician Miles Davis’s head looms up, shoulder-length hair and all, above cut-out letters spelling “MILES”.

Another musician, late leader of the Grateful Dead rock group, Jerry Garcia, has long hair, too, but his first and last names cascade vertically on either side of his head. On the seat is the old pot smoker’s byline: “We can share what we got of yours/Cause we done shared all of mine.”

Despite the meticulous workmanship and uniformly black metal surface treatment, there’s a certain slick, commercial look to these chairs.

Ried Niemi
Jacqueline Onassis Chair, (Edition of 12), 1995, hand bent, plasma cut steel, poweder coated, 46 x 28 x 22”.

However, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis has a more simplified line drawing of the face with two larger see through eyes and in general seems more successfully conceived and executed. Her string of pearls before a windowpane backdrop at least create more spatial interest. The portrait chairs are also a clever update on Victorian cut paper silhouette portraits.

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Niemi has always been good at ridiculing fine arts culture whether through the deliberately tacky and cheap color Xerox medium or, in this case, the use of recognizable famous paintings in his Modern Art Masterpiece Stools, 1995. Edvard Munch’s The Scream forms the white cut-out back for a tall-legged bar stool. Too fragile for commercial use, this would look great in the den or bedroom of a prominent art collector.

Van Gogh’s portrait, in blue, is even less original, but the surrounding oval lends the work an appropriate cameo-like quality.

One lady’s head from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso is the most striking, perhaps because the simplified, reductive drawing best lends itself to the metal drawing. Framed in metal like a real painting, the bright yellow image does rise above the ubiquitous Picasso T-shirt convention. Maybe Niemi is reminding us how degraded these famous images are already. With typical glee, he’s all for kicking an art movement when it’s down. Does appropriation art now justify any cannibalization of cultural icons?

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The crown stools are somewhere in between Pop Art and real kitsch. Ornate, decorative, and technically, the most complicated of the series, each chair-back is based on a different kind of crown (coronet, bishop’s crown, Plantagenet, etceteras). As with the portrait chairs and Modern Art Masterpiece Stools, the legs are linear and spindly, hardly able to support even a child.

Stickley/Brandt Chair, Roycroft Chair, Leavens & Son Chair, 1995, hand bent, plasma cut steel, powder coated, 46 x 19 x 19” each

The series based on early 20th-century historical reproduction and proto-modern designers is the plainest by far, yet seem closest to Scott Burton and has a certain Conceptual Art tang. Favoring a uniform black-gray surface treatment, they both honor and quote the originals without ridiculing them (Stickley-Brandt, Leavens and Son, Roycroft, etceteras). Niemi’s versions are funny in a deadpan way, as the original utopian impulse is rendered flatly and schematically.

With sturdier seats, legs, ladder backs, and foot railings, these chairs suggest Niemi’s strengths were design-oriented all along rather than sculptural. His wall sculptures of the 1980s were always too two-dimensional anyway. Now, when he allows the dull mail-order catalog illustration to dictate the image and shape, the three dimensions of the simple chair come to the fore effortlessly.

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Though made by hand, these chairs belong in the Museum of Modern Art design department. (You know, the museum where only the machine-made functional object is allowed.) Ries Niemi turns out to be such a consummate and clever craftsman – and artist – that he can fashion something so that is looks machine-made yet not mass-produced. Now all he has to do is drop the cute commercial items like the stools and portrait chairs and focus on the updated second-hand furniture store objects. How about Great Furniture of the Twentieth Century – all in black steel?

Matthew Kangas, art critic and independent curator, organized “Breaking Barriers: Recent American Craft” for the American Craft Museum, opening this summer.

Mary Ann Scher: Sculptural Jewelry
Mobilia Gallery
Cambridge, Massachusetts
November 5 – December 3, 1996
by Patricia Harris and David Lyon

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Mary Ann Scherr is something of a legend for her technical innovations – her pioneering work in stainless steel and aluminum, her dramatic body monitor pieces that serve a medical purpose while adorning the body – so any exhibition of current work offers an opportunity to glimpse what she’s up to now. After a hiatus from exhibitions, she has been featured at several East Coast venues in the last year.

This exhibition at Mobilia favors what Scherr calls her “big statements.” The selections recap the hallmarks of Scherr the designer while also asserting her prerogative as the artist. New is a relative term in Scherr’s work, since she continues to mine design motifs, finding new twists of expression or recapitulating older designs in fresh fabrications. Yet the newest direction in her work proves something of a surprise.

Waterfall bracelet, sterling silver, 14k beads

Scherr continues to demonstrate a sure sense of the engineering and architecture of the human body. While these works have a cool elegance in a case or on the wall, they come to life on the body – an advantage of a retail gallery show where viewers can interact with the jewelry. A simple yoke of stainless steel, as spare as a minimalized antelope head, springs to life as an echo of collar bones and shoulder blades. Mobilia devoted an entire case to Scherr’s Waterfall jewelry of liquid silver and round gold beads strung in flexible spray-like arrangements that become kinetic sculpture on the body.

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This particular exhibition underplayed Scherr’s current technical preoccupation with an etching technique she calls “Instant Etch.” Based on transfer of carbon images from photocopies or laser prints, the technique permits Scherr to “reproduce almost any image on almost any metal.” In these small pieces we see the artist at play – creating both simple patterns that recall block printing as well as complex designs that are Damascene in their complexity. While the choices for this exhibition highlighted the technical possibilities of Instant Etch, we look forward to seeing work that marries this rich surface design to Scherr’s elegant architecture.

Although we associate Scherr’s design aesthetic with a streamline, modernist style, she has asserted her artist’s prerogative to create a new body of work that confounds all expectations. Scherr subordinates her own designs to build neck pieces that highlight netsuke and other Japanese folk carvings. Scherr explains this sudden leap to the contemplative self-effacement of the netsuke series as having collected “a number of important artifacts that I want to incorporate into jewelry so that they become heirlooms.”

Netsuki necklace, 14k, 18k diamonds, Japanese mask

In one of the most successful pieces of this series, she builds still frames of metal For panels of stone into which she sets carved masks and precious stones. It is a radical departure from the vast body of her work in which each piece seems to be a unified gesture. Here it is necessary to read the pendant panels serially – not as a single rush of machine-age vectors but as the contemplation of artifact, a nod to the maker’s hand.

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Patricia Harris and David Lyon are writers who reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Moving Boundaries: Nicole Landaw
Wearley Studio Gallery
Royal Oak, MI
October 5 – December 20, 1996
by Jennifer Coppel

Over seventy-five pieces of visually and conceptually compelling jewelry are represented in Nicole Landaw’s exhibition, “Moving Boundaries.” This body of work was created while Ms. Landaw was a student, in 1995, at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and in 1996, at Fachhochschule fur Gestaltung in Pforzheim, Germany. The majority of the work hangs on the walls, though a few pieces are elegantly suspended from the center of the ceiling inviting handling and close scrutiny by the viewer. A wide range of materials are explored, from gold and sterling silver to sand paper and cement.

Oval Cut Gemless Earrings, sterling silver; 5 Karat Gemless Stud Earrings, 14k; Gemless Drop Earrings sterling silver

Each series of work utilizes different visual, formal, material, and social approaches, but they all attempt to bridge the gap between maker and wearer. Frequently, jewelry only relates to the owner by being comfortably wearable. Nicole further binds this relationship by using the jewelers’ tools to expose the maker’s process and to leave her mark as a maker. In her Double Brooch Abrasive sets she uses burrs and sand paper to achieve this important connection. She also attempts to personalize and customize the jewelry to the wearer, especially in a series of cast soap rings. These rings maximize her focus on the wearer, since the patron actually forms the ring, using the artist’s contributions as mere tools and resources. Furthermore, the wearer plays a pivotal role in allowing the social implications of each series to surface. All of the pieces have a different level of wearability and need to be worn to be activated. For example, her critique of the messiness and myth behind wearing make up becomes most obvious when her Cosmetic Brooches soil a blouse and insidiously mark everyone around the wearer.

Historically, jewelry has been passed down through generations, subsequently gaining value the longer it survives. However, jewelry changes as it is repeatedly worn, an acute observation and point of interest for Nicole. Several series expedite this erosion process and therefore control the half-life of the jewelry. Sometimes this deterioration eventually reveals something new about the piece, such as the hidden precious material in her Necklace/Brooch sets. At other times, the precious material is aggressively worn down, as in the case of the file ring designed to be worn with a gold band.

These series not only create an interesting twist on jewelry’s historical function, but they also comment on the social function of precious materials, such as gold and gems, in society. Jewelry’s power to express social rank is obviously a significant subject of inquiry, particularly in her Gemless… series. At first glance these pieces look like they are comprised of gems; but in actuality they are recessed, faceted sheets of metal. Upon this realization, the originally perceived financial value of these pieces drops, revealing the fiction behind defining social rank through jewelry.

Abrasive Brooch Series: Homage to the Mentor/The Process of Mentorship sterling silver, 24k, sandpaper, 2¼ x 3”

Although each series contains cynical social commentary, the pieces remain intimate, personable, accessible, and relevant. Each piece is beautifully crafted and gratifies the viewer through simple, elegant forms. Most of Landaw’s jewelry is clearly indebted to the work of a number of contemporary artists, and the similarity of her work to theirs seems deliberate. Further, the artist has applied her own forms and imagery to these previously investigated themes and therefore personalizes the ideas, successfully contributing something fresh to the critical discussion of such subjects.

Jennifer Coppel is a metalsmith studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She recently completed an internship at the American Craft Museum.

Ephemeral Metal: Interlock-Interweave Debra Chase, Anne Elliot, Tamiko Kawata Ferguson
Elsa Mott Ives Gallery
New York, New York
February 28 – April 4, 1996
by William Baran-Mickle

One moment it’s here, the next it may be gone. Such is the sentiment of the title of this exhibition. The artists included in this exhibition share this flirtation with time through their chosen materials. Debra Chase and Anne Elliot use industrial wire mesh as their principal material, while Tamiko Kawata Ferguson uses safety pins to create the bodies of her works. With each artists’ work there seems always the danger of distortion. A haphazard occurrence might immediately dent an Elliot or Chase work. Moving a Ferguson work would completely alter its form. Each craftsperson has had to search out solutions to the structural problems inherent in the materials.

Debra Chase, Fortunes Gate (Cassandra’s Robe), detail, aluminum (screen), brass, acrylic, pastel on paper, wood, tarot cards, wire, 7½ x 5½ x 2¾”

Elliot crimps and layers the mesh of her large airy panels (up to 4 by 5′) often including wire shapes and graphic images. Her smaller format panels are more traditional mesh and paper collages mounted on board and framed under glass. The bodies of Chase’s sculptures are made rigid by the use of spacer bars and triangular copper shapes that she laboriously sews to the edges. Both artists use multiple layers of mesh that add strength as well as allowing for a greater visual and conceptual depth. Ferguson has learned well the language of pins and uses this knowledge to create both stiff and flexible woven works.

Chase’s and Ferguson’s investigations are formal, but Chase’s formality tends to fatten her personally intense messages. Elliott takes the most risks in pushing the limits of her material which can, however, backfire and result in an overall murky statement.

With a decidedly Chinese influence Elliot manages to convincingly capture the feeling of the asian style. Know Your Fish Bridge is a collage of shapes resembling a topographical image of a stream with swimming fish. The effect, as with most of her images, is one of shadows, profiles, and subtle fatness. Her largest panel, Dispelling Clouds, has the most sculptural quality with attached reliefs of shaped, crimped mesh. Such concerns would be an interesting avenue for her to pursue.

Ferguson’s works are the most abstract of the show. Most are geometric in shape and veer between being visually heavy and appearing airy. Being, a dense 1½’ sphere, is constructed of black 1½” pins. Unlike a ball of string or a collection of tin foil, Being retains an unusual depth when studied, yet at a glance it is visually heavy. The depth of the viewer’s participation makes the difference. Vertical Wave, displayed adjacent to Being, is constructed with a very open, hexagonal weave of 2″ black pins. Flat and stretching upward about 10′ and hung from only a few points it is a graceful, flowing form with an outward bulge.

Anne Elliot, Dispelling Clouds, aluminum (screen), paint, wire, 48 x 52 x 4”

Ferguson weaves with gold, nickel, and black pins. Variations are created by both the length of the pins and the way they stack and interlock. The artist achieves the effects alluded to in her titles, such as City Windows. The systematic use of different colors and pin sizes makes one very aware of the surprising range of pattern and form possible when using this unusual material.

Chase often uses the garment form to house her comments about cultural attitudes and personal experiences. At times, these sculptural forms can seem too stiff. However, in works such as Red Rose Hat, Chase utilizes the mesh’s surface tension to create complex and elegant sculptural forms à la Naum Gabo. All the garments have that on exhibit look, like anthropological displays of royal costumes. A reserved use of decorative elements, from beads and sequins to forged wire shapes lightly scattered over the mesh fields, which themselves may be colored, contribute to the reticent sense of these works.

In Fortune’s Gate, a decorated jacket floats before a large painted board overlaid with words and rimmed with colored paper squares. Spelling out questions about paths and choices, the words correspond to the jacket’s details of forged wire, acrylic symbols, and tarot cards. This work holds a balance between personal intrigue and an overriding sense of universal mystery. Chase’s work is intimate and serene.

Tamiko Kawata Ferguson, City Windows, pins, 10 x 17 x 2½”

It is probably not a coincidence that all three artists work outside their original cultural practices (interweave?). All use materials that not only allow a deeper, penetrating look at the work, but require it in order to get the most of their statements. It is refreshing to see work that concentrates on some of metals transparent possibilities.

William Baran-Mickle is a metalsmith who resides in Rochester, NY.

Barbara Heinrich Contemporary Classics New Jewelry
Susan Cummins Gallery
Mill Valley, California
August 5 – 31, 1996
by Charlene M. Modena

When looking at contemporary gold jewelry the undeniable dazzle and splendor of gold and gemstones create a glistening veil, behind which is often found only previously explored and overworked issues.

Fortunately, when I saw Barbara Heinrich’s work at Susan Cummins Gallery any preconceptions I brought with me were dispelled. Heinrichk new pieces continue to work within the tradition of the inherent qualities of material beauty which gold and gemstones possess. But at the same time, her work captivates by recalling, but not copying, design sources ranging from the historical, in the Wheat Grain series, to the ethnic in the Shield series, and then onto celestial mysteries with both the Orbit and Milky Way pieces. In addition to the objects initial appeal, Heinrich’s work continues to intrigue viewers as it maps a path of inquiry that includes an amalgam of stylistic breadth, references to her medium, and a self-imposed, personal approach to design problems.

Ball Pendants, 1995, 18k, emerald, diamond, sapphire

A commitment to wearability, and an appreciation for the harmony of rhythm shows itself in all the work on display: the Wave Ball groupings, the Sinuated Trumpet series, and a classical necklace of alternating tubular gold beads and natural aquamarine crystals. Often the fluid counterpoint of an intricate catch is played against the dominant elements of progressive and repetitive rhythm; such as the surprise of a delicate shell catch against a string of pearls, or a diamond set catch nestled almost hidden among a row of wheat grains.

The Wheat Grain series exhibits the apex of all these qualities; delicately hinged, deftly detailed, perfectly weighted, and articulated to the body. The series is elegant, graceful, and completely rejects the overwhelming qualities often found in contemporary gold jewelry.

A product of both German and American training, it is no surprise that Barbara Heinrich’s work is at one time masterful, subtle, and unpredictable It well succeeds in her goal of putting a grain of timelessness and eternal beauty into each piece.”

Charlene M. Modena is a writer who lives in Muir Beach, California.

Shari Mendelson: Sculpture, Installation and Drawings
Black & Herron Space
New York, New York
March 16 – April 6, 1996
by Marjorie Simon

“I didn’t unexpectantly run into Stephen that often when he was alive, yet after he died I saw him all the time.” Thus does Shari Mendelson reflect on mortality, temporality, and the ephemerality of a life cut improbably short. Her recent series of Crowns, shown at Black and Herron Space last April, reveals her continued contemplation of memory through the device of structures and their shadows.

Crowns with Shadow Drawings, 1993-95, steel, brass, wax, lead, paper, variable dimensions

The installation consisted of several components: the life-sized, human-scaled crowns suspended from the ceiling just out of reach, and their shadows, cast on sheets of paper strategically placed at eye level on the walls. As transient as the ghost of memory, the shadows seemed as real as the objects. They might negate the original steel, wax, brass, or lead of the crowns, so that the substantial becomes insubstantial, or vice versa. A gossamer woven wire crown appears substantial in shadow; a leaden wreath casts an ambiguous, fleeting memory. Like the fragment of a dream that recedes upon awakening, the objects themselves remain just out of reach. Swaying on the tiniest currents of air created by the movement of visitors through the gallery, the moving shadows are reminiscent of Ellen Driscoll’s use of object and shadow in her giant camera obscura a few years ago. And like Driscoll’s installation, the crowns confidently claim their space, from celestial origins in the gallery’s ceiling to just above the viewer’s head.

Fiber techniques also inform the wall pieces of obsessively spun, woven, and knitted iron binding wire supported by sterling silver scaffolding and threaded with crystal beads. Like Lee Bontecou’s much larger metal and canvas structures of the early 1960s, Mendelson’s concentric circles spiral out from the wall into a three-dimensional galaxy. At about one foot square, these pieces lack the monumentality to match their obsessive technique, yet their very intimacy suggests a microscopic world gone literally haywire. They are a universe simultaneously expanding and collapsing on itself. This concept reaches its apotheosis in the somewhat less successful wax paper drawings, which seem to suck energy in without giving as much back.

Untitled, 1995, steel, silver, stone, 14 x 14 x 1”

But such somber reflections are leavened by the inclusion of Sins, part of an original collection of 64 quite solid embossed medallions chronicling sins culled from Jewish prayerbooks. In addition to the seven deadlies in common usage, Mendelson has demonstrated the universality of human nature by including such gems as Empty Confessions and Frivolity at Dreadful Times.

Mendelson has pushed the metal envelope in this body of work. As Beverly Penn once observed, [Metalsmith, Spring 1993, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 24] Mendelson has used pairs or multiples to suggest dialogue between ideas, often by means of the mirror image to denote communication. Whereas Calendar, 1990-92 recorded the passage of time through repetition (with variation) of leaf forms in various patinas, here the crowns communicate with their own memories through their shadows. Even the wax paper drawings tease substance out of wire and remind us that a structure can be spun from a thread, volume from a single line, persistent memory from a single encounter or a lifetime of interaction.

Marjorie Simon is a metalsmith and writer who lives in Highland Park, New Jersey.

Lois Etherington Betteridge
Harbinger Gallery
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
October 18 – November 3, 1996
by Anne McPherson

This is the 22nd solo exhibition for Lois Etherington Betteridge, whose noted career of making and mentoring extends over more than 40 years. Consequently this latest show did not set out to prove anything about either the how or the why of metalsmithing. The thrust of the new work here is in the direction of simplicity and lowkey effects: Betteridge is past master of the precious.

Canada Goose and Man, man’s ring, cast gold

On display at Harbinger was a fresh outpouring of bowls and vases, which invited contemplation of the random yet selected qualities of metal. An 8″ diameter footless brass bowl whose sides are formed of casually overlapping cut-out silhouettes, is both comfortably satisfying and esthetically intriguing. You want to take it in both hands it has that domestic attraction – and at the same time you want to stand back and admire the gleaming iridescence of the pattern caused by heat, with its suggestion of torrid, wispy flowers whose colours are so intense they might glow in the dark.

A meandering line of bud vases paraded across a gallery plinth like pillars in an open forum. These copper objects have been wrapped for a time in cloths impregnated with chemicals, and left to acquire an indeterminate pattern and rich array of tones. Of varying heights, their plinths turned awry, footed, or angled, the vases, with their irregular openings and subtle colourings, look like columns of an architecture imagined but not built by a Piranesi of the metal world.

Pearl Pin, pearl, silver, 1¼” long

The brooches in gold and silver, part of the Cyclone series, are just that – a swirling froth of wire and fine ribbon, seemingly fleet and fleeting. Odd it is, that things so slight and delicate should have such an arresting effect. As for the gold rings: here is where pure form and whimsy meet and unite. Betteridge turns angles obliquely, playing with round and square, even in one case with the inside of the ring, giving it an inner fold to balance the right angle opposite it on the outside. One – my favourite – shows two open claws, slit down the sides, joined briefly near the bottom on both sides, and then separated again at the base.

Refreshingly unpolemical, this exhibition does not require you to stop looking at what delights you, to stand back from it and ask, “what does it mean?” Instead one has the pleasure of watching a metals magician playing with the question, “what if…?”

Anne McPherson is a writer and curator in the visual arts and the editor of Ontario Craft.

By Metalsmith Magazine
Metalsmith Magazine - 1997 Spring
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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