Silver: New Forms and Expressions III Exhibit. Assuming that the work is cohesive, well designed, well made, of sound concept and has meaning, then what is done to such work by the context of a retail space, a department store of bridal furnishings (trays, flatware, glassware)? Fortunoff is a gift store that markets silver items – the Service Merchandise of Fifth Avenue. Its glitz is announced by the building, a shiny black facade with 10-foot chrome lettering. The interior is also shiny and black, its created darkness punctuated by glowing cases of jewelry. The reflective deception of mirror, chrome and glass is a precursor to the disorientation of the exhibition (and of locating the escalators), spread among three floors of merchandise.
In the storefront window the prize-winning entries are displayed with large mounted Cibachromes of themselves hanging above. Clever, in case we only respond to advertising, the object can be sublimated by its image. Moving to the second floor we find a cluster of six pedestals among large vitrines of merchandise and gleaming flank assaults of silver trays. The significance of this grouping is not apparent. Up another escalator, we discover two more pedestals at the top in an accent arrangement. The rest of the show is centrally located on this floor – again, blinding sideboards of silverware, paperweights and silver polish on shelves.
This exhibition may be a useful public relations ploy for Fortunoff; maybe they can do without it. But the show certainly does nothing for the work: a very eclectic grouping of forms, of ideas, of interests crammed together in photographs, claustrophobically displayed in retail hell. These pieces should be isolated from one another (do not compare plates and spoons), displayed in a long, narrow room with blank walls, ceiling and floor – absolutely no glass or mirrors nearby.
Let the viewer beware, lest he think there was a curatorial premise. We have mokumé ice buckets, Garfield teapots, Merrill Lynch/Cellini mergers, exquisite candlesticks – metaphor, historical reference, material as meaning, objects ad absurdum, Reed and Barton. Presentation silver, Fabergé eggs, the teapot – all serve as points of departure and refer, among other things, to the historical function of silversmithing as utilitarian and symbolic. In a field this broad, how is the implied innovation of “new forms and expressions” to be realized?
The implied purpose of a sterling silver competition is to focus on product design, forming a liaison between independent artist/craftspeople and industry. But is it the intent of the exhibitors to put their entries into production? The majority of works do not reflect such an interest but seem more concerned with the idiosyncrasy of contemporary craft and its emulation of sculpture. As the latter is not dependent on silver for its expressions, what is the relevance of an exhibition wherein material becomes the sole unifying theme?
More importantly, what is the relevance of any exhibition if there is no equity for the exhibitors? This show lacks a commercial venue (ironically, as it originates in a storefront) with the vested interest of a dealer. Therefore the considerable expense of silver fabrication incurred by the exhibitors is unlikely to be offset through sales. These works are not commissioned (although material costs are partially offset). There is no catalogue with substantiating scholarship and criticism. There are not even show announcements for the exhibitors to send to interested parties (brochures are in the store if you care to drop by). The exhibition’s itinerary frames the questions who will see this work and who is going to review it? Art Forum? Southern Living? American Craft? Why didn’t SNAG arrange to have this exhibition at a prominent institution such as the American Craft Museum or the Renwick Gallery? Why is SNAG content to showcase this work at a retail gift shop on Fifth Avenue? Are we still selling quilts and baskets out of flatbed trucks at a honey/cider roadstand?
Of course, “we” never were doing the Appalachian roadside scene. Yet this image is representative of the foundation lore of the American Craft Council, which depicts the empowerment of rural craft folk as they have gained access to an urban market. It is this heritage and the myth of lineage that the contemporary craft artist embraces.
Craft is inherently a conservative field that adheres to the myths of America. In the case of this exhibition, the myth of entrepreneurial spirit is ultimately more important than anything the individual works may be about. Showcasing this particular genre of work at Fortunoff reinforces the desire of craft artists to be seen as self-determining entrepreneurs, presenting their goods to the public and subject to the free-market economy (as if there were such a thing). Never mind that the typical “craftsman” apprenticed to a university art department and shows his wares in a gallery with its specific audience. He might even be employed by a university or other cultural institution. The craft artist is more often located in the intellectual world of ideas rather than in the business community – which is why the viability of hollowware as an individual enterprise is not a factor in this exhibition.
The history of artisanry has a strong hold on the imagination of contemporary craft. Indeed, this exhibition’s brochure cover proclaims the presence and authority of the hand, signified by the script lettering with its boldness. This emphasis refers to the skill and talent in handwork, i.e., ability, and its potential value – enterprise. Enterprise for the artisan means production. Therefore the paradigm of the multiple is an oftcited tenet of contemporary crafts education and is a vestige of colonial crafts production, the artisan as enterprise. This paradigm is followed by Dale Chilhuly, Richard DeVore, Graham Marks and other acclaimed artists who instill production philosophy into unique works of art.
While these artists’ galleries follow the standards of SoHo, the typical craft gallery upholds the aesthetics of gift shop display, cramming works together in overabundant shelf and case arrangements. Studio work is recontextualized into the categories of knickknack or housewares, depending on utility. Such is the case with the “New Forms and Expressions III” exhibition (in the brochure photographs, the individual works are grouped in arrangements that reflect some stylist’s vision of an eccentric place setting). However, I can’t criticize Fortunoff for doing what it does best. SNAG is the real culprit for pursuing this liaison and selling its membership short. Whatever the complicity of the artists in this exhibition with the agendas of SNAG and Fortunoff, their work deserves better treatment. It deserves at least as much respect as the artists had for the competition by submitting to it.
Mary Douglas is an invited participant in the “New Forms and Expressions III” exhibition, which completes its tour at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, MS, August 1 – September 15, 1992.