Plastic Fantastic – Plastic Jewelry

7 Minute Read

By Katja PoljanacMore from this author

Art and commerce, uniqueness and run of the mill, fascination and irritation - tense controversy documents its young history. In its versatility and inherent contradiction, it appeals to the playfulness among world of art and products, plastic leaves its mark on the entire cultural landscape of our epoch. The myth of banality is equally inherent to it as the hopes of cutting edge technology for a perfect future. Like no other material, it appears suited to adopt a position as interface between the synthetic and natural environments of human beings.

Plastic Fantastic
Brooch by Robert Smit, 1970. White gold, plexiglas
Necklace by David Watkins, 1974. Silver, colored acryl

Without the endless possibilities that plastic has to provide imitations, the phenomenon of kitsch would never be conceivable in the extent we see around us. In a parallel sense, the abandonment of precious, exclusive materials in applied arts is linked to this material as the purveyor of nimbus and significance. Indeed, it revolutionized the entire idea of jewelry. Since becoming presentable in the sixties, it has developed a stylistic wealth in its language of forms. This stretches from geometric clarity through to natural forms of synthetic liveliness.

"Shot 2" by Gijs Bakker, 1997. Nylon. Three perforations of different diameters in a ball, produced by rapid prototyping (stereolithography)
"Porsche Bracelet" by Gijs Bakker, 2002. Polyesther. The characteristically distorted nature of the computer design was transformed into a three-dimensional product using rapid prototyping (stereolithography)

Initial, trendsetting experiments with plastic took place at the end of the sixties, featuring a clear statement in favor of color. Lucid and opaque plastic proved to be a suitable medium for the radical abstraction of form and color for the jewelry artists Claus Bury, Fritz Maierhofer and David Watkins. Compared to materials such as metal, wood or stone, plastic does not come with material associations, therefore underscoring the intended turning away from the materialistic approach in art. References to Op-Art, which had significant influence on design in these years, cannot be ignored. The pure experience of color and the confusing playfulness of optical perception are in the foreground. Jewelry need not necessarily adorn in first place. In some instances, it is entirely separate from the person wearing it. The emphasis is now on the objective character of the jewelry as an independent sculpture, gradually approaching the realm of free art.

Necklace by Emmy van Leersum, 1982. Yellow nylon
Brooch "losis" by Ruudt Peters, 2002. Silver, silk, polyester

Whereas Emmy van Leersum creates expansive fields of tension using surfaces and lines, Robert Smit remains firmly rooted in the two-dimensional sphere. Fascinated by the dawning years of information technology, he creates a design using sequences of numbers, punched cards and circuit boards. Any kind of arrangement, regardless of how complex it may be, creates a pattern and can, as Robert Smit demonstrates, become an ornament.

Brooch "losis" by Ruudt Peters, 2002. Silver, silk, polyester
Necklace "Warenkette E66" by Christoph Zellweger, 1997. Polystyrene, silicon, nylon, chromium-plated silver

As part of the course of democratization processes within the world of art, the avant garde of art is emerging from the ivory tower of exclusiveness. The work ethos of traditional crafts is being questioned. With plastic as an ideal partner, it bows to the requirements of series and variable production of high quality design on a consciously low price level. Serial reproducibility as a key element of design can be compared directly to the silk-screen work by Andy Warhol. In 1972, Pierre Degen went so far as to  resent a collection of disposable jewelry made of acrylic foil. It is ironic that an extremely durable material like this chemical fiber, which we still do not know how to dispose of, becomes a symbol of transience and a garbage society.

Bracelet by Peter Chang. Synthetic resin, acryl
Brooch by Peter Chang. Synthetic resin, acryl

"The merit of the new jewelry is that it doesn't fit in a jewelry box", says Gijs Bakker. The lightness of the material characteristics of plastic seduces artists to work in large spatial dimensions. The relationship between the body and jewelry is redefined and taken to the limits of practicality. During the eighties, this development led among other things to the PVC-laminated photography by Gijs Bakker. Wearing jewelry assumes the character of a performance, tailor made for everyday life. Caroline Broadhead's jewelry objects made of nylon brushes and cords has attained cult status. They represent a successful development on the topic of ready made products. Strongly abstracted, the nylon hair objects acquire an independent, aesthetic statement, free of reminiscence of their role as everyday items.

Donna Corleone's bag by Ted Noten, 2004. Diamonds VVS-Top Wesselton, golden bullet and cocaine cast in acryl and textile. This bas is a combination of object and accessory: you can still put lipstick and some paper money in the bag
Brooch "Air Root" by Andi Gut, 2001. Nylon, gold

Generally speaking, plastic has been one material among many since the eighties. Hard foam, paper maché and aluminum are now analyzed to determine their artistic meaningfulness. A gaudy cock tail of opportunity is at our fingertips. Age-old techniques and adventurous procedures, traditional materials and their modern counterparts are now available as equal partners. The language of forms is becoming increasingly free in the golden age of asymmetric enthusiasm; it may even reach a graffiti style, complete abandonment of coherent forms. A propensity towards amorphous or even biomorphous vocabulary has emerged and developed since the late nineties and has persisted until the present day. Intuitive manners of dealing with the material of plastic are found in the current movements and are in some cases developing a new symbolic and even narrative language in jewelry. The new styles of jewelry assert themselves independently in a kaleidoscopic variety, a variety that mirrors the character of our ages.

Collier "Stretch Crystal" by Stephan Seyffert, 1989-1999. Silicon and aluminum

Ruudt Peters translates metaphysical questions in jewelry objects. Visitors to his elaborately organized exhibitions can expect a philosophical square dance upon closer examination. In his studio, gemstones are crushed to powder, silver is bonded with PU foam and experiments are conducted with anti-rust paint, gold and polyester. Alien structural forms are created within these alchemistic processes. The "losis" series appears rough and unprocessed from outside. When opened, the interior of the individual objects are confusing in their inexplicable beauty.

Peter Chang creates bizarre parallel worlds, populated by amoeba-like beings. Veritable explosions of glowing colors and forms pour forth in plastic. Associations from the world of flora and fauna are found spontaneously. The evolutionary principle of signaling, the call to "Look at me!" is reapplied here to art in its original function.

Andi Gut creates sublime, plant-like objects made of nylon in a more reserved manner. The extremely sensitive vividness could indeed mirror natural environments in vegetation. Perhaps it is not so astonishing when a new strain of algae suddenly starts growing from a cashmere pullover. The dividing line between the artificial and the natural appears to disappear.

With his "Body Pieces - GNY" or "Warenkette E66", Christoph Zellweger makes a critical reference to the body as a "design object" or as a "raw material" to find yourself. Polystyrene balls join together in a white and sterile form to create cellular shapes, almost like an allusion to the human intervention in biochemical processes.

On the other hand, Stephan Seyffert and Florian Ladstätter, postmodernist grandchildren of Pop-Art, portray with boundless giddiness the jewelry lust of a brave new world of consumerism. Seyffert draws on the cult status of irony in the zeitgeist. Eschewing respect, he plunders the icons of jewelry and swells the basic form of a solitary ring made of rubber up to the size of a bracelet.

The jewelry items with their suggested valve in the style of an inflatable mattress are blindingly gaudy and joyous. Ladstätter searches for references to current fashion. He is focused on sensual attraction, ownership and obsession. "To demand that jewelry be wearable is to strip it of its art", says Ladstätter and does without, as he claims, declaring his work and the matching, well-tempered showcases in the museum as art in favor of a central jewelry function, namely wearing it on the body.

Function and meaning - Ted Noten freezes them in glass-clear; synthetic resin. Similar to amber inclusions, the synthetic resin conserves typical objects in the culture of recollections such as gold rings, but also insects as testimonies to times past, like now extinct beings. His work is suffused by loss and recollection. However, behind the provocative, nostalgic emotion we sense an urgent but reserved sense of absurdity.

The jewelry idea has found in its constant process of transformation a boundless and uninhibited means of expression in plastic. Bussi Buhs sees in this substance a kind of "super-material from a primordial soup". As head of the plastics studios in the State Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, she recognizes in the boundless wealth the actual challenge for the artist. He moves in a terrain without points of orientation in terms of content, form or material specifics. We are never done learning to handle this kind of freedom.

by Katja Poljanac

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Katja Poljanac

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