TO TRANSCEND MATERIAL
I want to talk about a few exhibitions I saw at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC- I visited the museum almost two months ago, just a few days before I flew to Italy. It was my first time there; I went with a great friend of mine, Kim Kadish ( look her up in NYC; she’ll make you some BLANG) who also graduated BFA RISD in Jewelry + Metalsmithing (that’s right, there is actually a plus sign IN the TITLE OF OUR DEPT).
The exhibition on display, A Bit of Clay on the Skin: New Ceramic Jewelry, was organized by the Foundation d’Entreprise Bernardaud and curated by Monika Brugger, German-born goldsmith and artist. The show was impressive in many aspects, mainly for the master of skill involved and the command over material. Some standouts in my opinion were Ted Noten’s gold-lustered porcelain pendants (Wearable Gold, 2000). Noten again and again masters the one-liner in his objects- he possess an ability to communicate one simple yet solid idea in an approachable yet aesthetically pleasing manner. Yet Noten is not solely regarded as a studio jeweler- his work is acknowledged in other spheres of contemporary art. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Noten just gets it. In the write-up next to the work, Noten states that there exists a “ceaseless craving for wealth of which jewelry is a perpetual metaphor.” BRAVO, Ted, bravo. And THANK YOU, Ted, for making “gold” necklaces that anyone can where. Like I said, a one-liner.
Katja Prins presents more sensitive work aiming to deal more exclusively with human interaction to the worn object as an extension of one’s own body. Here the material quality of the work does not reside so heavily in concept- the porcelain is but a means to communicate form and thought. Like Noten, these works are from the early 2000’s- I point this out only because the show title indicates the work as new…is ten+ years ago really all that new? Despite ten year vintage, the work of both artists remains to possess an appeal that seems to transcend time.
More recent work by Evert Nijland and Marie Pendariès too caught my attention. For example, Pendariès piece, La dot, 2008, comprises an assortment of modified porcelain teacups, saucers and plates adorning a woman in a photograph. I will not go in length about this piece, but watch out! I do intend to site this work in a later bit of writing.
While browsing, my friend Kim and I spotted one of the younger security guys opening the drawers underneath the far left display cases. We realized that they housed some of what must be the museum’s permanent collection. Ok, jewelry is small. We get it. Not hard to keep the work in a drawer, especially when you think about maybe where someone keeps their own precious jewelry in their home. Maybe it’s a drawer, maybe it’s locked in a case in a drawer- that is something to think about. But something else to consider is whether the work does indeed function in these drawers. How often does the work even get seen living in an unmarked hiding place? Kim and I would have never known to open them up had it not been for the security guy’s curious boredom.
What we have here is a dilemma. Us contemporary studio/art jewelers (whatever you want to call us —-> REMEMBER THIS) talk about the problem. I mean personally, it would mean a lot to me if one of my pieces were to be accepted into this museum, whether in a show or in a drawer. Then I get to write it ON PAPER. But now let me come back to the word function. If jewelry is a relationship, an interaction, sentimental, meant to be worn- then why the hell would I be happy with my pieces locked under glass in a closed drawer?
BUT the problem is beyond that. Like me, other studio jewelers consider themselves to also be artists. We too deal with concepts, research, history, and traditions. We are part of a conversation and we aim to communicate our ideas through the work that we make. And to be considered real game players in the contemporary art world, theoretically the work should eventually be in a museum, shouldn’t it?
This is the dilemma. Where do we want/should the work live in the world? It is complex; a problem with no real solution that satisfies all the needs we as artists have but also what the work itself deserves. However appropriate or inappropriate the display conventions are within a museum, I think we must value the inclusion of our work regardless. It indicates a critical eye; someone must distinguish the good work (with research value/content/AN IDEA) from handicraft and exploit the conceptual nature. But do I think this porcelain jewelry show really be used as a successful example?
On the next floor up in of the museum, there was another show dealing with a theme of nature. Now as much as I loathe nature themed shows because the work is always empty and cliché and ugly, Flora and Fauna, MAD about Nature surprisingly filled me up in ways the porcelain show only left me hungry. The selection here was a diverse mix of American craft, design and art objects, where big-time contemporary artist/jewelers like Lola Brooks, Sondra Sherman and Ted Muehling each had various pieces. Although this show was heavily associated with craft and craft-based traditions, Beth Katleman’s porcelain wall piece, Folly, 2010, was the show stopper. Read her press release here ! This piece transcends time, tradition, craft and subject uniquely, and frankly deserves to be in a show with a bit more depth and range of conceptual work. I would love to talk more about this piece but this post is long enough as it is and I don’t think I’ve really made my point yet.
Unlike the jewelry exhibition downstairs that was organized around a theme of material. Nature, i’m afraid, is one teeny-tiny step up on the concept level. An exhibition centered around material and material alone isn’t enough! I mean, can you imagine an exhibition called, A Bit of Paint On Canvas: New Oil-Paint Paintings? When will jewelry shows stop emphasizing this fundamental as though it is a sound and meaningful concept? This kind of thinking only perpetuates the craft-based nature our work undeniably maintains and struggles to move beyond. Themes like this will not elevate our trade or shift the outstanding perceived notions.
The material is a given. We need to ask others to look beyond it and see something that promotes bigger and better ideas. Although I appreciate the venue (there are far too few gallery spaces in America like this), this material-focused theme only degrades the original concepts and communicative aspects put forth by some of the more research-based artists in the show. I mean my god, there may as well be a big fat neon sign that screams CRAFT! on the way in.
With the risk of being redundant, material based shows only ask those to look at the material and not necessarily the context. Material should be emphasized only when chosen wisely to enhance the concept, increase the implied associations and to aid in tactile experience
This is where I think the nature show works a little harder. Each individual piece can more easily be considered independently from one another, and the material from which it was made. And again, thinking about how the museum relates to this framing of work: does the institution give justice to the work or does it just label what’s inside as this or that? How much benefit of the doubt can be given to those that enter and does it even matter? And finally, how can we make the work more approachable in a way that doesn’t dumb down the content, meanwhile facilitating an understanding of the intended functions, roles and relationships?
And for god sake, why are the museum cafés always so goddamn expensive?