Rebekah Laskin: Material Voice

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By Nancy BoxenbaumMore from this author

Rebekah Laskin is an enamelist with a new subtlety and depth of purpose unique to the metalsmithing community. She has taken a medium that has been if not predictable or stagnant, then at least possessed of a rigid hierarchy and turned it on its ear. Traditionally, enamel works have lustrous surfaces, are brightly colored and are characteristically precious. Not anymore! The label enamelist, with all its attendant esthetic as well as practical connotations, must now be reconsidered in light Laskin's most recent works.

Rebekah Laskin - Brooch
Brooch, enamel on copper, sterling, 2⅛ x 2⅛", 1986

Laskin has exploited the possibilities of enamel not only in terms of its physical properties and technical applications, but also in its potential as a means of communicating emotion. Her works, in particular her brooches, are a constant quest for self-expression. She has gravitated toward abstract compositions with a desire to avoid specific symbolic meaning and to allow emotion to be the primary content.

Brooch, enamel on copper, steel plexiglass, 2 x 2¼ x ¼", 1988

Laskin's surface employs a matte finish, rendering the work even less precious and less reminiscent of enamel. Her surfaces are strangely evocative of "non-glorified" artistic traditions. They convey the illusion of parchment-paper scrolls that absorb color and maintain a distinct surface texture. Also, because there is neither the typical glassy surface nor the glare, there is no interference between the viewer and the piece; she has stripped away that quality of enamel to allow for more direct communication of her imagery.

Brooch, enamel on copper, steel, plexiglass, 2¼ x 2¼ x ¼", 1990

Having always done drawings as well as jewelry, Laskin has transferred much of the latter's sensibility onto her small, wearable surfaces. Lines are drawn on the surface in a delicate way. The overall composition flows from one shape to another, created by the painterly quality of the enamel in which shapes look as if they have been brushed on. These shapes seem to float and glide over the surface, exchanging places. There is an organic sense of motion, and underlying current beneath the calm exterior.

Brooch, enamel on copper, plexiglass, 2⅜ x 1⅞ x ¼", 1990

In Laskin's recent work her palette and overall esthetics have become gradually darker - moodier. The colors are somber, not pretty or cheerful as is often associated with lustrous enamel. And the colors are not easily isolated; they are not distinct patches of melted glass trapped by cloisonné wire. Her choices must be understood in terms of color schemes or color combinations that carry mood and sensation.

One change in these recent brooches is that they are "unframed"; the silver borders that used to encompass the enamel surfaces (Figure 1) are now gone. The absence of that finishing touch, that little hint of precious metal, serves to make the work less decorative.

Details of the brooches

In the past, the shape of her work was rectangular but more amorphous, more off-plumb, lending on air of the organic. The current pieces are squarer, the lines straighter. This strict sense of geometry is not only a formal feature but a metaphoric reference. These pieces are really about architecture, and their physical structure is more rigid to reflect that sensibility. There is now a powerful contrast between the floating, still amorphous, patches of color on the surface and the geometric, structural, architectural construction in and around the surface.

Details of the brooches

The first instance of actually cutting into the structure occurred in a series with little "windows" (Figure 2). This was a dramatic departure for Laskin, who had until then staunchly maintained the sanctity of her surfaces. From these pieces, she expanded the hole, creating long, vertical channels that practically divided the works in two. After that, a built-in stairway seemed like the natural culmination to this progression (Figures 3 and 4): she started with a small hole in the middle of the brooch, leading nowhere; then tunnels crawled out toward the edge; and eventually, her means of getting there became a staircase.

Details of the brooches

Laskin's disruption of the work's surface highlights a critical issue - sense of space. Whether this space is interior or exterior, it draws in and envelops the viewer. That is one of the fascinations of her brooches and why they succeed so well on such a small scale: they demand to be examined up close, so that as the viewer approaches them, everything else in the surrounding environment fades away. The staircase seems to have developed out of this physical and metaphoric manipulation. It provides a direct, figurative reference to entering space, a palpable means rather than just a surface illusion. This has been a major transition in Laskin's work. Whereas space used to be created through the layering of colors, the juxtaposition of light and dark hues and contrasting, drawn shapes on the surface, she has now opened up her work literally and figuratively.

Details of the brooches

Without becoming a miniaturist, Laskin has created "mini" expanses of color, evocative of something infinitely larger than what is physically present, a sense of scale reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionist desire to create canvases symbolic of the wide-open spaces of the United States. Pushing her painting to the very edges of the brooch's surface suggests a much more expansive whole. By disengaging her brooches from the realms of the precious and the decorative, muting her palette, discarding the silver frames, using a matte finish, a more geometric line and penetrating the surface, Rebekah Laskin has shed many of the layers that previously veiled her work and has achieved her ultimate goal - direct communication of emotional content.

Nancy Boxenbaum is the editorial assistant at the College of Art Association, New York.

By Nancy Boxenbaum
Metalsmith Magazine – 1991 Fall
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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Nancy Boxenbaum

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