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Superb monographs about three contemporary metalsmiths have recently become available: Ah Xian – a Chinese sculptor who uses time-honored practices from the land of his birth, such as pierced and/or painted and glazed porcelain, carved lacquer, jade inlay and, especially, cloisonné enamel, to create exquisite, life-size human figures; Michael Rowe — a British modernist whose “deconstructed” silver and patinated brass tabletop objects have set the standard for avant-garde holloware around the world; and Tone Vigeland, the legendary Norwegian jeweler, who combines tiny, identical units of hammered silver or steel, evocative of Vikin mail and Nordic landscapes, to make both wearable pieces and large-scale sculpture.

Michael Rowe
by Richard Hill and Martina Margetts
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in association with Lund Humphries, Hampshire, 2003
Ah Xian
Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 2003
Tone Vigeland — Jewellery & Sculpture: Movements in Silver
by Cecilie Maim Brundtland
Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, 2003

Each is an internationally recognized artist, with a substantial presence in numerous public collections, and many prestigious awards and accolades to his/her credit. Rowe was presented with The Golden Ring of Honour for outstanding contribution to silver design by the Gesellschaft für Goldsmiedekunst from Germany (2002); Vigeland was the recipient of Anders Jahre’s Cultural Prize in Norway (2002); and Xian was the principle subject of “China Refigured: The Art of Ah Xian, with Selections from the Rockefeller Collection” at the Asia Society and Museum in New York City (2002-03). Although their work might appear to have little in common, the three artists share similar approaches, rooted in the history and craft traditions particular to their native lands; and each has revolutionized custom by introducing contemporary technical, formal, and conceptual strategies to their respective aesthetics. Like Rowe, both Xian and Vigeland make “poem-things:” works where “subject and object — self and the world, content and form — are synthesized… [in] an act of…feeling and insight. [1]

Each book is organized within a suitable format, exploring the artist at hand with intelligence and sensitivity. Rowe, the most theoretically entrenched of the three, presents the greatest challenge. His oeuvre reads like a virtual survey of studio metalwork from the mid 1960s to the present. But it is his systematic investigation of the object, from the 1980s and ’90s, encompassing the canons of Cubism, Constructivism, and even Surrealism, that raises the most commanding questions regarding form, structure, space, and time, thereby necessitating clear, perceptively written chronicles. Rowe’s “not quite pure.” [2] geometrically-based, sheet metal objects pose ideological inquiries that touch upon obscure issues argued in German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) discourses, particularly the dilemma of what is seen versus what is known and, consequently, the unique role accorded objects as delineators of space and time, [3] as well as the question of function, i.e., how objects made for use correspond to high art — that which is “purposive without purpose.” [4] Richard Hill’s thought provoking essay, “A Cone Cut Obliquely,” is praiseworthy for analyzing this complex oeuvre, while Martina Margetts’s perspicacious contribution, “Strangely Familiar,” places it in historical, epistemological and cultural context.

Ah Xian, published by the Queensland Art Gallery, offers several essays that illuminate the Chinese artist’s cultural, political, and geographic influences. “Revitalizing Tradition,” by Ian Were, enhances the reader’s understanding of age-old Chinese crafts and, subsequently, this artist’s place within its inevitable evolution. Suhanya Raffel and Lynne Seear’s essay, “Human Human,” traces Xian’s artistic development under the constraints of Communism, and his eventual immigration to Australia, while Rhana Davenport’s interview (plus translation and comments by Linda Jaivin) offers added enrichment.

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Xian is a former painter of nude images, which were considered “morally corrupt” by the righteously conservative communist government. He left China in 1990 following the carnage in Tiananmen Square. The artist incorporates Chinese myths, symbols, and religious iconography into paradoxical sculptures that are metaphors for his journey “poised between cultures and countries…old and new… [in] an attempt to reconcile his past and present lives.” [5] A most fascinating device in the book is the inclusion of photographs documenting the step-by-step creation of a cloisonné figure. Since Xian’s sculptures are human structures, seeing them juxtaposed with real people — in this case, the Chinese artisans responsible for their existence — is particularly evocative. The recent trend toward liberalization and modernization in China has allowed Xian to travel back and forth between that country and Australia with relative ease. Only in his former homeland, however, can he find craftsmen who possess the skills necessary to execute the vernacular techniques required for his art. Of equal importance is continued contact with the land of his ancestors, essential not only for Xian’s aesthetic sensibility but also for his psyche.

Tone Vigeland–Jewellery & Sculpture: Movements in Silver is the most comprehensive and ambitious book of the three. It is a bilingual publication, with each page containing sections that alternate between English and German. Once the reader adapts to this oscillating pattern, he/she is richly rewarded. The bulk of text is written by Cecilie Maim Brundtland, who explores Vigeland’s oeuvre from the late 1950s, when she began designing for PLUS, an artists’ collective in Fredrikstad, Norway, to the present day.

The first essay, “Jewellery and Sculpture,” is primarily chronological and developmental. Stylistic analysis is left to brief contributions, also by Brundtland, woven within the mostly single-page photographs in the “catalogue” section. This layout works quite effectively, as Vigeland’s output itself is a richly layered mixture of historical, technical, and aesthetic impulses. Luscious pictures convey the tactile quality and three-dimensionality of the pieces. Although the works exist mostly in shades of grey, the photographs are printed in full color, prompting them to fairly “jump off” the paper. Some creations cover two pages, while details of others are blown up so large the overall shapes of individual designs are lost, thus encouraging readers to focus on the glorious density of repetitive elements so characteristic of Vigeland’s surfaces.

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Vigeland creates objects that must conform to the curves of the human body for resolution as well as freestanding compositions, which interact with the surrounding space alone. Although known primarily for jewelry, her sculptures, begun as recently as 1996, resonate with the same authority. Like the wearable examples, textures of the monumental works “strike one as being both hard and soft, alluring and menacing, protective and repellent, pleasant and unpleasant.” [6] The sculptures generate a different impact than the jewelry, not only by nature of their grander scale but by their independence. Without restrictions imposed by function, Vigeland is able to concentrate on the core of her aesthetic — the marriage of morphology, medium, and method.

Contributions by Helen W. Drutt English, the well-known gallerist and scholar, as well as Cornelie Holzach, of the Schmuckmuseum, Pforzhiem, lend additional observations, both personal and profound. Holzach’s insights are included in an excellent chapter titled “Balance” that probes Vigeland’s relationship to the body, other like-minded jewelers, and her own sculptural statements.

All three monographs include curriculum vitae and bibliographies, essential for a thorough understanding of the makers and relevant art movements. Although the books are as different as the artists they represent — and the Vigeland and Rowe tomes match the scope of catalogues raisonnés, while the Xian book is purely an exhibition catalogue covering work since 1998 — they are all triumphant efforts. Tone Vigeland, Michael Rowe and Ah Xian are three compelling but complicated artists, made lucid by well-researched, clearly written, and engaging books.

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Toni Greenbaum is a New York-based art historian specializing in twentieth-and twenty-first-century jewelry and metalwork.

  1. Richard Hill and Martina Margetts, Michael Rowe (Hampshire: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in association with Lund Humphries, 2003), 18.
  2. Ibid, 35.
  3. Otfried Höffe, “What Can I Know? – The Critique of Pure Reason,” in Immanuel Kant, trans. Marshall Farrier (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 51.
  4. Höffe, ‘The Philosophical Aesthetics and the Philosophy of the Organic–The Critique of Judgment,” in Immanuel Kant, 219.
  5. Queensland Art Gallery, Ah Xian (South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2003), 12.
  6. Cecilie Malm Brundtland, Tone Vigeland–Jewellery & Sculpture: Movements in Silver (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2003), 45.