Metalsmith ’98 Spring: Exhibition Reviews

This article showcases various exhibitions in the form of collected exhibition reviews published in the 1998 Spring issue of the Metalsmith Magazine. This features James MaloneBeach, Gary Noffke, Thomas P. Muir, and more!

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Artists on Art Polly DuBois
El Paso Museum of Art
El Paso, Texas
February 1997
By Joshua Cooley

The space for the Artist of the Month shows at the El Paso Museum of Art is a bit curious; not quite a gallery, not quite a passageway, it is a small, ambiguous area between spaces of more specific functions. As such it was an excellent space for Polly DuBois to show her work, since she too works in the discursive spaces between our expectations of media, form, and content.

James MaloneBeach
A Love Story: My Sacred Heart, 1995-96, wood, galvanized steel, lead, gems, silver, gold, 30 x 14 x 7”

Arranged on several stands were small sculptural objects, the oldest pieces in the show. Circular Ruse, 1995, is a small cone of lead, sealed at the large end with a glass dome, containing powdered pigment of rich red. Circular Ruse, Pretense, Promise, 1995, is a larger cone of galvanized sheet metal, with a similar glass dome containing ochre-colored earth and detritus from machines and manufacturing: small bits of slag, gears, and springs from a clock. Turning these pieces shifted the material contained within, revealing and hiding the contents, changing the detail, and adding to the effectiveness of the works. In the talk she gave on her works, DuBois related them to recurring dreams, and linked both the dreams ndz the objects to the personal experience of a sometimes impersonal, technology-oriented world.

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The experience of finding oneself in a situation which seems overdetermined by culture is also explored in Love Story, 1995-96, a mixed-media wall installation in four parts. Each of the parts includes a display consisting of a sheet-metal and plywood support, a small wooden shelf, and a protective sheet of glass attached to the shelf and parallel to the wall; each unit holds one or more pieces of jewelry. The metal of the support above the shelves is gessoed and printed with illustrations taken from old medical and/or alchemical texts. These images of anatomy and mystical union reflect the Western construction of women as the observed or utilized Other, without an identity separate from that of the observing or creating male.

The jewelry, however, questions this voiceless construction of women, using the traditions of religion and mysticism in a new way, reconstructing woman in the image of the artist’s self. St. Lucy’s Eyes See, the first in the series, contains a silver and painted glass brooch resembling a stem and leaves and/or two eyes. Tradition tells the story of St. Lucy, who made a gift of her eyes to an admirer rather than be a source of temptation for him. Because of her selfless self-mutilation, Lucy was sainted, and her eyes were returned. DuBois’s piece questions the implications of this myth: are the eyes mere decoration, precious jewels for the lover’s admiration, or do they assume a permanence on their own, an eternal gaze outward from themselves, objectifying their observers?

A Love Story: Conjunctio, Separatio, or Putrifactio?, 1995-96, wood, galvanized steel, glass, gold, lead, (hand), 30 x 14 x 7”

My Sacred Heart, the second in the series, is a large pendant of painted and gilded wood, with bone, glass, and gems. The locket is a sort of reliquary, precious in its own right, and containing bits of material that command attention. The Sacred Heart of Mary, venerated in Roman Catholic practice , is transformed into a concrete object, capable of being worn and displayed or hidden; it is reconstituted by the artist as something which can be controlled by its owner. Hysteria, the third in the series, is related to My Sacred Heart in transforming an overconceptualized part of the female body back into an object, in this case a small glass alembic, which in its form recalls the uterine imagery used in the alchemical texts describing the use of alembics and other arcane equipment. Here again DuBois is simultaneously both examining the historical of women and reclaiming the original matter of that construction for her own use. construction

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The final part of the series, Conjunctio, Separatio, or Putrefactio? contains two pieces of jewelry; a wedding ring and a pendant shaped like a hand. The ring is of lead, gold, seed pearls, and garnets, reminding this viewer of the goal of much alchemical investigation (transforming lead into gold) by juxtaposing the precious and the base (lead, after all, is poison). The pendant is a mannequin’s hand, strung on a chain, tying the idea of a hand given in marriage to the eyes of St. Lucy. By presenting marriage-related objects in this way, DuBois reveals the rather one-sided understanding of marriage still prevalent in Western society, in which the female is given to the male, much like a piece of jewelry.

A Love Story: Hysteria, 1995-96, wood, galvanized steel, glass, silver, gold, gems, 30 x 14 x 7”

Taken together, the pieces in the show confound expectations of what is proper within the categories of object-making, with sculptural objects which demand handling, and jewelry which can’t really be worn. They also blur the lines between subject and object; the condition of women is both observed as a historical construction, and examined from within by a woman living in a Western culture. Through her work DuBois both narrates the objective expectations of women and the subjective experience of trying to understand these expectations in order to escape them. It is an ambitious goal, and one which DuBois meets well, both through both form and content.

Joshua Cooley is an Art History graduate student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Centennial Metals Exhibition: Jewelry, Hollowware and Ironwork
Society of Arts and Crafts
Boston, Massachusetts
May 3 – June 29, 1997
By Patricia Harris and David Lyons

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The most remarkable thing about the centennial metals exhibition at Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts is that much of the work remains true to the spirit and design aesthetics that the SAC was founded to champion back in 1897. That’s not to suggest that the show of ninety pieces by forty-five makers is derivative. Michael Monroe, executive director of the American Craft Council and former curator of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, curated the SAC exhibition with an inclusive eye, seeking to provide a survey of contemporary work in metal. His choices suggest that the push-pull between biomorphic form and form derived from the Platonic beauty of geometry continues as an aesthetic dialogue, even a century after the arts and crafts movement’s first toehold in America.

Gary Noffke, Spoon Group, 1993-1996, forged 969 silver, 5 – 18” length

One group of conservative pieces might have been equally at home in a turn-of-the-last-century showcase. Richard Mawdsley’s tea infuser, for example, is almost reactionary in his revival of the Renaissance footed cup as a medium for the expression of artistic and technical virtuosity. Simplicity of design makes Gary Noffke’s 969-silver spoons timeless. Even June Schwarcz’s untitled electroformed copper vessel with enameled wires recalls the veined glass vessels of the early years of American Arts and Crafts. Thomas Muit’s silver Orchid Vase almost perfectly echoes that earlier period’s preoccupation with voluptuous floral form.

Other pieces show how Arts and Crafts design principles have been transformed by subsequent artistic movements. Helen Shirk’s Sustaining Spirit II, a copper vase-like vessel, enlivens the trumpet bloom shape with a vividly expressionist color palette. Similarly, the drawn-out bowl shapes and chunky spouts and handles of Randy Stromsöe’s Pot à Crème et Cafetière pay homage both to medieval-inspired tea services and to the industrial shapes of post-Brancusi sculpture.

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Perhaps because much of the exhibition is devoted to jewelry and other ornamentation, few objects explore the inherent qualities of metal, though there are exceptions. A Fred Fenster pewter teapot and cup appear at first glance simply to recapitulate the form-versus-function debate in favor of function. But a closer look reveals that, functional though they may be, both pot and cup derive their aesthetic interest by calling attention to how the pewter responds to bending and folding. In a similar vein, Charles Crowley’s Rocking Chair calls attention to the material from which it is made rather than the function of the piece; the spare design (which a Boston critic likened to the chairs Isamu Noguchi designed for Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring) is executed in aluminum, hardly a comfort material.

Thomas P. Muir, Orchid Vase, 1995, sterling, 11½ x 4¾”

Monroe has not slighted the sculptural strain of contemporary metalwork. Susan Ewing’s Inner Circle Teapot straddles the divide between functional and sculptural with surprising grace, at once exploiting the harmonies of geometry and flaunting its inventive engineering. By contrast, Billie Jean Theide’s Butte #EF-4, also a copper teapot, evokes geological forms and coloration, yet remains strongly identifiable as an artifact. Tom Joyce’s inlaid pieced iron bowl has similar origins in geography — it was inspired by farmlands viewed from the air. Yet Joyce has embedded the object with metaphor. The contrast between the burnished patchwork surface and a hole in the middle that leads to the support structure is intended to suggest a link between the mundane and the dark underworld lurking just below that surface.

The occasional juxtaposition of historic Arts and Crafts pieces with contemporary work is almost a study in the evolution of consciousness. The samples from early in the 20th century demonstrate a preoccupation with elegance of form, technical virtuosity, and attention to tradition. The contemporary pieces add a late 20th century preoccupation with intellectual awareness.

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Therein lies the challenge that most works in this show meet so well: to make it new. Several Fred Woell pieces in the exhibition almost serve as a metaphor for the task of building on the past by providing new context. Woell was a pioneer in incorporating found objects into jewelry. But straight appropriation of the past carries the danger of mere sentimentality, while the simple juxtaposition of the past with the present runs the risk of being little more than a trivial wisecrack. (Mona Lisa with a moustache was funny when Duchamp did it, but it got old very quickly.) Woell navigates between Scylla and Charybdis by providing wit to accompany surprise. His Midwest Icons, for example, includes not only the Lincoln penny but a smiling milk cow. And it depends solidly on the title to make its meaning manifest.

J. Fred Woell, Midwest Icons, 1996, sterling, penny, 2¼ x 1⅝ x ¼”

The narrative humanoid pins of Bruce Metcalf round out the exhibition as works most evolved toward a self-conscious cerebrality. A Candle in the City of Darkness – a pin and display set combination – offers one of Metcalf’s cartoon-like grotesques holding a candle aloft. The display set, a classical Greek motif, suggests Diogenes in search of the proverbial honest man; the title proposes the nameless figure who would light a candle rather than curse the darkness. It depends entirely on context for its content. Stripped of title or display setting, the pin becomes simply ornamental. As a result, Metcalf’s message addresses a less-than-obvious issue of wearability. Is a work without explanation the entire work, or must its story accompany it?

As the most extreme example in this exhibition, Metcalf’s work raises an interesting question: In the century since the Arts and Crafts movement began in America, has the desire to recapture the human touch in the making of objects found its parallel in a need to make human discourse an essential component of the work as well?

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Fred Fenster, Teapot and Cup pewter, 11” high

Patricia Harris and David Lyons are writers who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts,

James MaloneBeach
Northwood Gallery
Midland, Michigan
January 2 – 31, 1997
By David Stairs

Of the many forms of ritual body adornment in the world, objects awarded for service to one’s community have a particularly illustrious history. In fact, much of history can be construed from the existence of these artifacts. Since ancient times societies have commemorated kings and warriors with testimonials of worth. More recently, awards rooted in military and heraldic symbolism have been the goal of peoples both free and oppressed. Goethe conceived a series of medallions to be bestowed for achievement in humanities and belles lettres. A century later Alfred Nobel instituted his series of international awards for accomplishment in a variety of fields. But what about the mundane, the quotidian, or the ephemeral? With so much of life lived between the interstices of great events, the absence of awards for achievement in everyday activities seems a glaring oversight. I’m not talking about Employee of the Month notices, which are fine in their place, but bona fide chest medals, shoulder braid, and boondoggle.

Used Car Salesman, series, 1992, copper, auto reflector, found objects

James MaloneBeach is what Italian cultural historian Ezio Manzini would call a “Prometheus of the Everyday.” For over twenty years the Minnesota-born metalsmith has worked to acknowledge the power and beauty of common events. In a lecture delivered to the 25th Congress of FIDEM (The International Federation for the Promotion of Medallic Art) at Neuchatal Switzerland, MaloneBeach spoke about The Metaphysics of Found Objects, a picturesque description of his working methods. To him gold is not more precious than a beetle’s carapace, and the most precious stone a good deal less valuable than a child’s crude sketch.

In a January 1997 show at the Northwood Gallery in Midland Michigan MaloneBeach, who teaches at both university and middle school levels, exhibited a dozen of his distinctive medallions. The Alabama Bug Series, which utilize the remains of a cicada, a millipede, and a palmetto bug, document a stint living in the south. During this period the artist was employed at an inner city school in Birmingham, which he describes as “a very dangerous place.” A second series, Alabama Education grew out of this experience. Composed of objects found around the school, ranging from pencils and dice to prophylactics and shell casings, these pieces are a testament to the artist’s “frustration and anger with Southern education.” One piece, Educational Reform, includes grocery receipts, one of the means by which underfunded school administrators tried to close the spending gap.

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Elvis’s Demise, 1993, copper, Elvis memorabilia

Not all of MaloneBeach’s efforts are as stingingly caustic as his critique of a community too stingy to fund its schools. In his Northern Minnesota Fishing Triptych, MaloneBeach lampoons the isolation of life in a small town of the upper middle west. He has said, “It seemed to me that the only way my art would sell was if it could catch fish,” and the work, a combination of hooks, lines, and sinkers, with a fish-house license thrown in for good measure, very likely could. In his Great Turkey Hunt MaloneBeach recollects the story of the untimely demise of a bird which attacked his master’s companion. Using a map fragment, a turkey beard, and 12-gauge shotgun shell casings MaloneBeach created a piece that was awarded FIDEM’s Best Experimental Medal of ’96, the first time an American has been so recognized by the federation.

My personal favorite in the show was A Son’s Youth Remembered. In this memento MaloneBeach incorporated his now adult son’s childhood drawing of the Wicked Witch of the West in a medallion commissioned for a children’s theater production of the Wizard of Oz. As a sweet reminiscence of temps perdu, the work captures the emotional power present in children’s art, an important leitmotif for the output of an artist with 25 years experience working with kids.

Jim MaloneBeach has proved the adage that art is all around us. Certainly the stuff of art can be found anywhere – at curbside, or in pocket change. But these objects must be put to an appropriate emotional use. The Medal of Honor was commissioned by Congress in 1862 to acknowledge acts of great heroism amid the carnage of the Civil War. MaloneBeach believes everyone deserves a medal for the sheer effort to survive the toils of day to day living. “I make medals that celebrate the unique and individual events which define human existence,” he says.

John Lennon once sang, ‘A working-class hero is something to be.” Jim MaloneBeach’s work consistently supports this perspective. The day society decides to hand out awards for valor in the face of extreme mundanity, those awards will undoubtedly be designed by James MaloneBeach.

David Stairs lectures in graphic design and design history at Central Michigan University.

Expressions in Glass on Metal
North America East Enamels 1997 Juried Exhibition
Torpedo Factory
Baltimore, Maryland
By J. Susan Isaacs

Enamel work can sometimes depend too much on the innate beauty of the material and not enough on design or content, and certainly there was work in the recent National Enamelist Guild’s juried exhibition at the Torpedo Factory that fits this category. However, there were also a substantial number of very strong pieces that are of interest to those beyond the inner circle of glass on metal practitioners and enthusiasts, including a great many works that represent some of the best in enamel on metal being done today.

Linda Darty, Fathers and Sons, sterling, enamel, 5 x 4 x 4’ each

Juried by John Fix, Professor of Art at Towson University, Kenneth R. Trapp, Curator in Charge of the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and Jean Tudor, Enamelist and Past-President of the Enamelist Society, the exhibition, like many juried shows, represents an eclectic body of work, in this case including at least seventy-two different artists who work in numerous styles and employ varying techniques. Every major method was represented: cloisonné, grisaille, plique-a-jour, and many more. One of the more interesting things to do when examining a metals show is to attempt to determine how individual pieces are constructed. Since so many different artists and methods are demonstrated in this exhibition it is an especially enjoyable exercise here.

Certainly, one of the most fascinating pieces, and a work that would be equally comfortable in a sculpture exhibition, was Susan M. Garten’s Dreams Have Turned to Dust, comprised of three boxes of woven copper. It stands out in this exhibition for both its subject and technique. The differently sized rectangular forms demonstrate a rougher approach to the enamel process than that shown by most of the other artists in the exhibition. With rather dull, purposely burned colors of matted greens, whites, grays, reds, blues, and purples covering dented, imperfect boxes, the work makes a sculptural statement that is quite different and inelegant, though engrossing. Purists looking for a traditional approach to enameling may have difficulty understanding this particular piece.

A more traditional and elegant approach to abstract sculptural form can be seen in Cynthia Curto Poli’s Destiny, a circular form with a red, blue, white, and gold exterior created with copper, sterling silver, brass, glass, fine silver, and 23k gold foil. The piece has both an interior and exterior and stands approximately eight inches tall. Its surface design alludes to the cosmos, the solar system, and the night sky. The basic form is vessel-like with undulating curves.

Carin Preston, Personal Demons #3, enamel, copper, foil, silver granulations, 14½ x 14½”

Steve Alan Musselman’s work also demonstrates a sensitivity to the metal form as well as to the enamel. The applied colors are integral to the works and function as a part of the whole. Musselman’s pieces are personal reliquaries, grid boxes, and scent boxes. Their forms recall medieval as well as nonwestern art, including African sculpture. Comprised of woven silver screens, his shapes are geometric, precise, and powerful, even in their small scale. His mastery of the plique-a-jour technique is impressive and here it is employed as a part of the design whole, not simply as an exhibition of his considerable technical prowess.

Quite different from Musselman’s aesthetically serious approach is the whimsical and fantastical content of Carin Preston’s two wall hangings from the series; Personal Demons. Images of outlandish characters and animals in a sophisticated cartoon style are executed in black and white enamel on copper with foil and silver granulation. They contrast with much of the rest of the exhibition and demonstrate both a cultivated wit and tremendous technical expertise.

Isabella Corwin’s equally funny and charming Carpe Duo echoes the humor of Preston’s work. Corwin’s two fish are created with a very hard stone finish and mounted like two trophies in a small frame decorated with oxidized copper trim.

The gallery is average in size and because this kind of work tends to be small, many pieces fill the walls and cases. Nonetheless, a few pieces stand out. Among those that demand attention, The masklike faces in a tropical setting of Katherine Wood’s Enchanted Forest recalls the primitive images of Gauguin. The bright colors are outlined with gold plate. This work, along with its companion piece, Terra Incognita II, were displayed in black, complex frames lending Wood’s flat, somewhat small works, a precious and valued quality.

Cynthia Corio Poli, Vessel, copper, enamel, sterling, brass, fine silver, 23k foil, silver foil

Two active members of the Guild, Ute Conrad and Dorthea M. Stover exhibited works that exemplify the skills for which each has become known well. Stover’s Birdwatching at Kells, an irregularly shaped plate whose imagery is based on the famous Celtic manuscript, both borrows from the late 8th century illuminations and joyously takes flight beyond them. Stover’s delicate and fluid outlining of forms with silver wire seems beyond the mortal and her second entry, Angel with Binoculars extends her witty, biblical references. These two works would excite the scholar of medieval art and culture and Stover draws on her art history experience with great finesse.

Conrad’s European background is most readily apparent in her Surface Study II – Filigree and Flower whose color, line, and overall design recall Jugendstil, the late-nineteenth century Austrian/German strain of Art Nouveau. Elegant forms depicted in greens, blues, turquoises, and ochres depict undulating plants. Conrad’s technique depends upon a photo silk screen applied to the metal to create the design, which is then enameled.

Don Viehman’s mastery of the cloisonné technique in a pin entitled Urban Landscape demonstrates one of the best examples of this technique in the exhibition with its opalescent and clear colors. Linda Darty’s two part Fathers and Sons is comprised of two decorated vessels created in sterling silver. Again, in these two containers the emphasis is as much on the metalwork as it is on the surface decoration. This merits attention as it seems a common practice in enameling is to exhibit more concern with the glass than the metal and to purchase and use pre-built metal forms to act as the support rather than to design and construct one-of-a-kind sculptural forms.

Steve Alan Musselman, Scent Box, enamel, sterling, fine silver, 2¼ x ¾”

This year’s juried exhibition is tremendously varied in styles, techniques, and, like most group juried shows, quality. Considering the large number of artists included in the exhibition and the wide range of approaches to enamel art, the overall level of the show is very high. It is a tribute to the ingenuity of the organizers, the skills of the artists, and the taste and eyes of the jurors.

Susan J. Isaacs is an assistant professor of art history at Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland.

By Metalsmith Magazine
Metalsmith Magazine - 1998 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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