It has been decades since .jewelers have started claiming they were artists, but the long legacy of craft-as-design continues to have a profound effect on American studio jewelry. Even today, the work produced by jewelry-stars like Mary Lee Hu and Thomas Gentille are abstract forms made to accommodate the body: a decorative offshoot of modernist design and abstract painting. While art has continued to pursue other agendas like fey references to pop culture, critical examinations of the way mass-media insinuates itself into thought, or the unstable relations between Western power and many other cultures, studio jewelry has continued blithely along the path of pure design.
That is, until recently. A new generation of studio jewelers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have taken the claim that jewelry can be art a lot more seriously than their elders. Instead of looking to design for cues, they look to the history of recent art. Of course, that attitude is often laced with denial. Sometimes the status of art seems so much more desirable that the status of mere craft, that the slightest hint of utility or craft history is eliminated. But there are others who look to both craft and art at the same time, creating objects that are undeniably craft and undeniably informed by a conceptual agenda. One of this new generation is Sandra Sherman.
Sherman received her first training at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where she earned a dual major in painting and jewelry. After leaving school she worked for local Philadelphia jewelers and then produced a line of marketable jewelry for several years. In 1984 she moved to Germany. She later enrolled at the Akademie der Bildenden Künst in Munich, where Hermann Jünger was concluding his teaching career. While a student in Germany, Sherman produced three series of bracelets based on chain mail, hinges, and fringes. Each of these series consisted of interlocked systems of moveable elements, which could change shape when worn.
By this time, most of her core attitudes were formed. She admits to having a loyalty to the idea of making jewelry (she calls herself an “addicted jeweler,” as opposed to being committed), and she has clear ideas as to the limits of what can reasonably be called jewelry. “It’s important to me that a piece be wearable. … It’s fine if a piece is a little bit demanding and you can’t wear it to work in a garden. But when the format puts the piece in danger, or it’s seriously uncomfortable, then I think it’s demanding too much.”
Here, Sherman is referring to the experiments of the early 198os, when some jewelers expanded the scale of jewelry far beyond the bounds of reasonable use. While Sherman is not making a value judgment, she refuses to expand the size of her jewelry to demonstrate that it must be art. She says that objects that make reference to jewelry, but that are not intended to be worn, are nor truly jewelry. For Sherman, such items could be costumes or performances, but they are not jewelry in any meaningful way.
Until her graduation from the Akademie der Bildenden Künst in 1990, her jewelry was very much in the Modernist German tradition. Although her work was expensive and labor-intensive, it was still colored by the problems of marketplace-oriented jewelry. Her work was comfortably wearable and often produced as multiples. Formalist design considerations were important to her, along with a strong sense of the goldsmith’s tradition. Ethnic references and historical references were also encouraged by her teachers and colleagues in Germany, but any specific emotional content was ignored. Looking back on the chain-mail, fringe, and hinge series, Sherman now thinks they were oriented almost entirely toward design, by which she means a depersonalized problem-solving process.
At the end of her studies, the German jeweler Manfred Bischoff gave her a very positive critique. Afterwards, she asked him if there was anything he could add. He responded that she could take more risks. At first, she was confused by his comment. But at about the same time, another event transpired that forced her to reevaluate her whole approach to art, craft, and design. This event was the death of her father. Experiencing this loss made her aware of her emotional responses to things that she had previously dismissed or minimalized, and she began to think about recognizing and expressing her emotional life. Her artwork could be the start of a process of “…making yourself more vulnerable by being open about your emotional response to your world, being more public about it. I was interested in making things that had meaning in addition to decorative value or formal attributes. Maybe you could take more risks. [Risk] could be personal risk in revealing more of yourself, or making something that doesn’t appeal to quite so many people.”
So, instead of placing good design and wearability at the highest priority, as most designers would, she placed formal composition and utility in the service of expression. In Munich, this is still unusual, to say the least. While Bischoff has pioneered the insertion of personal content into jewelry, most of the German goldsmithing community remains reluctant to confront it. For Sherman, however, the freedom to refer to her personal experiences was liberating.
While incorporating emotional content into jewelry is common to most American-educated jewelers, Sherman’s long experience with Teutonic formalism gives her work a distinct twist. The German influence is still apparent, because the emotional content is very restrained. What makes this work interesting is the way her subject matter is so thoroughly merged into the strict limitations of the jewelry object. She uses jewelry to make sly observations about gender stereotypes, about emotional balance (or imbalance), and about the way emotions are manifested in personalities.
A typical necklace is Venus and Cupid (alternately Mother and Sons, 1991-1994). Sherman calls it a diptych, in that it consists of two pendants that hang both in front and in back. Venus is represented by a fragment of a Baroque chandelier crystal and five glassed-in scrolls filled with blue crushed glass, all hanging from a handmade chain. The chain terminates with Cupid, a phallic crystal dangling from a pair of chased silver arrows. For those who look close enough – and Sherman suspects they are few – one of the arrows is black, which is Cupid’s iron arrow of hate.
So, what is going on here? In calling the piece a diptych, Sherman is (somewhat sarcastically) making reference to a time-honored type of painting. At the same time, the gender division between male and female is vividly represented by the two sides of the necklace, which eloquently uses a physical fact of jewelry to carry meaning. Things are further complicated by the fact that when the necklace is worn the wearer is caught between male and female. Sherman questions the ordinary way of categorizing the world into binary oppositions, in which one must be either A or B, but not some inclusive in-between.
Venus and Cupid is presented in a handmade box. The box, of course, is a traditional device to present expensive jewelry, but Sherman uses it for other reasons. First, the box allows her to extend the metaphor of the jewelry; here, the box displays a reproduction of a painting of Venus and Cupid. The viewer can thus connect the wings on Cupid with the detached wings of the jewelry, and so on. The box also reinforces the objectness of the jewelry, stressing that it is a three-dimensional thing with weight and volume. And, in practical terms, the presentation box gives the jewelry a site off the body, instead of being tossed into a cluttered jewelry chest.
Another recent necklace is Means of Orientation, 1991, in which a heart-shaped beach stone, a tiny compass, and another phallic glass crystal all hang from a silver chain encrusted with blue beads. (This one must have some connection with romance gone bad, because an alternate title is Directionless Little Bays.) Sherman sees the three images in the pendant as an index of the psyche: the pebble as the heart – a heart of stone? – the compass as the head, evidently a bit atrophied, and the crystal as libidinous sexuality. Since the crystal is the largest element by far, the pendant could easily be read as a critique of male cluelessness.
These two ensembles demonstrate Sherman’s ambition to make truly comprehensive jewelry. She speaks of her aspirations in terms of the three German jewelers she admires most: Manfred Bischoff, Otto Kunzli, and Daniel Kruger. Following the model of Bischoff, she wants to invest her jewelry with a powerful emotional content. Emulating Kunzli, she wants to address the conceptual aspect of art, where the artwork is an idea made tangible. And, as with Kruger, she wants to make jewelry that is deeply sensuous, engaging more than vision alone. Sherman hopes to make jewelry that combines all three aspects: personal emotion, careful thought, and a seductive experience of the object. To her, each of the German jewelers specialize in one aspect, at the expense of the others: Kunzli’s intellectualism crowds out both the emotive level and sensual appeal, and so on.
While Sherman is hesitant to criticize these three outstanding jewelers, her ambition is more inclusive than theirs. She wants to merge apparent opposites. Sherman desires both/and instead of either/or.
The Munich art scene is very intellectual. Sherman notes the penchant her German colleagues have for engaging in complex philosophical arguments and for quoting philosophers to lend credibility to their artwork. Her response to the Munich art world culture is The Four Satisfactions. The iconography relates to a passage from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, one of the favorite texts of aspiring Munich art-philosophers. In the book, Kant enumerates the four kinds of aesthetic satisfaction: the pleasant; the good; the beautiful; and the sublime. Sherman recalls reading the passage with an American friend: while the poor philosophy student dutifully slogged through the text, Sherman cracked jokes and free-associated. The Four Satisfactions was the ultimate result.
It is something like a harness, a rectangle of chain with square frames and crystal pendants at each corner. The piece drapes over the body, so two of the photo/pendant combinations appear on the front and two appear on the back. Each square has an image that corresponds to one of Kant’s satisfactions: the pleasant is a photograph of the curve of a man’s neck and shoulder; the good is a mouth; the beautiful is a pair of hands; and the sublime (which Kant claimed could not be apprehended) is 144 pavé-set cubic zirconia. The appropriate passage from Kant appears on the back of each square, and each is titled in Latin and English. The whole thing fits into a presentation case.
The Four Satisfactions shows Sherman at play in the field of conceptual jewelry. It is wearable, and part of it is very much within the conservative tradition of precious jewelry (the pavé-set stones). It exploits two of the prime signifiers of recent advanced art: text and photographs. It refers directly to one of the most important works in Western aesthetics, but more as a satire than as a ploy to give the piece conceptual weight. Everything is skewed. To employ artificial gems as a metaphor for the sublime is pretty funny, if you think about it. In fact, to represent Kant’s aesthetic satisfactions as parts of the male body is humorous – and a little subversive, too. Where Kant probably thought of female flesh as embodying the pleasant, Sherman substitutes a man – pointing out that turnabout is fair play. And then, there’s the phallic shape of the crystal pendants, as if Sherman is slyly remarking that Kant’s whole business of categorization is just another man thing.
In 1994 Sherman moved back to the United States. She has moved away from large pieces like The Four Satisfactions for several reasons. First, the really complex pieces often take several years to complete – not just because they are technically difficult, but also because Sherman takes a long time to make decisions. Some works went through several versions before she was satisfied, and she no longer can afford this luxury. Also, she wants to be more succinct these days, to “say one thing instead of five.”
Armor and Amour is typical of her newer work. It’s simpler than the earlier front-and-back necklaces: now it’s a matched his & her set of two pendants. But like many of her works, it starts with a play of words and an implicit reference to classical literature. Here it is male and female, self-protection and openness, war and love, Mars and Venus. One pendant is female: pink stones massed in a constructed setting with gold prongs; the other is a (male) faceted silver pendant. The details deepen and skew the reading. Instead of being set conventionally, most of the pink stones are set upside down, point-side out, turning all that preciousness into something altogether more aggressive. The male pendant is very carefully pinstriped, as in the uniform of the successful corporate man, but there’s also a peculiar serrated collar with gold beads – something like the costume of the courtly fool. The chain is different for each pendant: the male is composed of sturdy bars linked by fragile jump rings; while the female is very fine, but interrupted here and there by knots, often in gold.
Each of these elements is symbolic. But to decode Armor and Amour is no straightforward matter. If we conform to standard gender stereotyping, we read the male pendant as the armor and the pink and gold female pendant is lovely. But this reading isn’t stable – the male part is clearly phallic, signifying carnal love. But so is the female pendant and the jagged stones could easily be seen as armor. Both pendants are intended to be equally attractive and defensive. So, who’s male and who’s female here? Sherman seems to be saying that roles and genders are all very complicated and messy, very much like real life.
Lately Sherman has been working on a series of rings, more simple and more stripped-down than anything she has designed since she was a student in Munich. Each ring follows the format of the traditional solitaire: the form of a faceted gem on top of a tapered shank. But in this case the gem forms are metal constructions, usually containing an object that relates to the imagery Sherman has used in earlier pendants. One ring has a compass set inside the faux stone; one has a golden watch hand; another has a spirit level with a crosshair fixed above it. In each of these rings, something moves, responding to the movements of the wearer. The most perverse of the rings has a compass mounted inside the form of a round stone, but the stone is joined to the shank with a ball-and-socket. It constantly flops around, frustrating attempts to get one’s bearings. As a means of orientation, it holds out the hope of functioning, while remaining amusingly useless. And as pure jewelry, it’s as wearable and elegant as the prototype solitaire ring, but without the usual associations of true and constant love. This is a ring for people who understand that relationships are mutable and direction is hard to find.
Like all of Sherman’s recent work, these rings are intimately connected to both traditional craft and contemporary art. They are beautifully made, testifying to Sherman’s long experience in the jewelry trade. They look to tradition for their format and their overall shape, as well as for their rich palette of associations. But, instead of remaining confi fined within those craft usages, the rings also rely on the invention, emotional ambiguity, and conceptual play that characterizes advanced art. Where the diamond solitaire has a single and stable meaning, Sherman’s rings symbolize a world where things have more than one meaning and where those meanings are often diametrically opposed. Like any good artist, Sherman examines this world with wit, intelligence, and some hard-won wisdom. And, like most people who try to come to terms with the ambiguity of modern life instead of wishing it would just go away, Sherman tries to fold contradictions into a new unity.
Bruce Metcalf is a studio jeweler and writer who lives in Philadelphia.
Author’s interview with Sandra Sherman, May 12, 1994.