Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Metal Winners

By Cory Dugan

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Jewelry can be, as seen in the “Jewels of the Romanovs” exhibition, an imperious and ostentatious artifice. On the other hand – as evidenced by “Revelations,” an exhibit of contemporary work by members of the Society of North American Goldsmiths at the National Ornamental Metal Museum – it can also be an urbane and egalitarian art form.

Unlike the empty opulence in Overton Park, “Revelations” is quiet and thoughtful, reflective in the intellectual rather than the ocular sense. While the works are by members of a association of goldsmiths, actual gold is as rare and sparingly used in this work as it is in real life. Silver is the most commonly utilized metal, followed by copper, steel, and brass. Gemstones are even rarer than gold; slate and marble, enamel and glass serve the purpose when metal alone is insufficient.

Fine-art jewelry over the past few decades has more and more followed the directions of sculpture and architecture than those of design and fashion. In some cases, this results in work that stretches the definition of jewelry beyond its already flexible boundaries – Michelle Milner Scott’s Trova-esque Try Cycle and Marjorie Schick’s clunky papier-mache constructions are simply bad as sculpture and ludicrous as jewelry. In most cases, however, the work benefits from the influences by exploring not only those fluctuant boundaries but even the very concept of jewelry.

Architecture and industrial design may at first seem strange bedfellows to jewelry, but all are in fact related to and, to some extent, dictated by the human form and the human scale. The artists in “Revelations” who explore this relationship do so with wit and with varying degrees of reverence. Lynda Laroche’s Site Plan, an elegant pin of marble and silver, is a fairly faithful abstraction of an architectural drawing in shallow three-dimension. Christine Leitner’s Melting Pot, Joe Muench’s Target Brooch, and Sandra Zilker’s Flower/Leaf/Wall also successfully blend either architectural design or actual, albeit tiny, architectural space into their work.

Industrial and commercial design show up in the pattern of tire-treads in Boris Bally’s surprisingly classical Tread Wear Brooches; in Robin Craft’s oddly baroque pieces based on eyewear designs; and in Sandra Enterline’s exquisite capsule pendants, expertly fabricated of steel and silver to contain, exhibit, and protect fragile birds’ eggs. These latter pieces are potently lyric and ironic, juxtaposing nature with slick space-age industrial design.

Equally ironic, especially considering the oppugnant exhibit halfway across town, is Kiwon Wang’s Re-Cycled. Employing simple rings fashioned from silver and gold, Wang eschews the traditional embellishments of gemstones and opts instead for tiny compacted stacks of scrap newspaper. The result is impractical as actual jewelry (one ring, for example, would extend three or four inches from the wearer’s finger); but, as such, it calls into question the purpose and relevance of valuable jewelry itself in today’s disposable society.

Kiff Slemons, Penannular, (silver, brass, pencils, erasers).
More direct in his questioning is Kiff Slemmons, whose Penannular uses historical means to contemporary ends. The penannular form is Celtic in origin, a simple pin used to close a medieval cloak; eventually, it became more decorative and less functional, more brooch than clasp, and a symbol of status. This, of course, is the history of most jewelry forms, and Slemmons uses the penannular as a parable. His own is elaborate and symmetrical, traditionally Celtic in design. Except the pin has been replaced by a common #2 yellow pencil, the jewels by worn pink pencil erasers. From utilitarian to decorative to status symbol to completely useless; the cycle echoes the history of Western art.

The most inquisitive piece in the “Reflections” exhibit is one that truly questions the role of jewelry in its relationship to the human body. One accepts that jewelry by its nature and its design is scaled to the body – rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, all are made to fit around or through certain parts of the human anatomy. With Adornments: Cellulitis of the Neck, Julia Barello takes jewelry’s relationship to the body one step further; not only is her gold-plated silver neckpiece designed to fit the body, it also exhibits in rendered relief what is beneath the skin at the exact point where the jewelry hides it – veins, nerves, muscles, fat, etc.

Is the consumer public ready for conceptual jewelry? It’s doubtful. But faced, at Christmas time, with Tiffany’s and the Brooks, they should at least consider it a welcome and (hopefully) thought-provoking respite from the overbearing materialism of the holiday season. After all, isn’t everyone looking for a bargain? And “Revelations,” at a fifth the admission price of “Romanovs,” is worth tenfold as much in true value.

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