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Dear Readers,

I’m reposting my review of Alchimia’s graduation show (it was first published on the Alchimia school blog) so that I can include more photos to better illustrate some points and to show a bit of the opening from last June. PLEASE ENJOY.

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WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU WANT TO WEAR A LEMON? 

A review of PURUS, graduation exhibition of Alchimia Jewelry School, Florence, Italy

Multiple yellow citruses suspended in the foreground of woolly red and fleshy pink masses only scarcely hint to the world in which these puzzling objects belong. The hanging work seen through the large window of Alchimia acts as a mysterious aperitivo to the average passerby surely stumped by the question “what is this I’m looking at?”

To those of us familiar with the world of contemporary jewelry, hearing questions like this is common coming from others unaware of this unique and expressive form of art. But interestingly, even to the most acquainted sets of eyeballs, most of the Alchimia students’ pieces begged for similar inquiry. Due to the diverse content and spatial limitations inherent to graduation exhibitions, finding an appropriate method for review is a bit tricky. Unlike a normal group show, where collected work circles around a central theme, Alchimia’s PURUS, a title that mirrors the mutual curiousness of the content, showcases small collections of eleven very different emerging artists.

Upon entering, the gaze is focused straight ahead. Angular white tables hang from above, covered with what from a distance looks like delicious confections of white, light blues and soft pinks. Before the first table is reached, attention is indirectly diverted to the coat racks to the left. A double take is needed before realizing that the exhibition’s only true installation is what hangs on the wall.

The series of Izabella Petrut (Romania) is a self-proclaimed love story retold by dismembered roller blades and skating paraphernalia–turned jewelry objects. Pinned to and draped over similar colored clothing and casually thrown about denim, the work in hues of slate, cold blues and off-whites is tangled in disguise, as Petrut’s series seems at first to be hardly sentimental. Choosing titles for her shoe lace-wrapped wheel brooches like “sunrise on the beach…” and “the first morning…” the question that remains is whether the work really does retell the love story that the pieces represent, or if we can accept and maybe even enjoy the visual disconnect between object and intention.  The especially flesh-toned wheel brooch (installed pinned to a shirt draped over a stool) starts to bridge this gap by insinuating a bodily connection. Ultimately, the relative ambition of the installation can be appreciated in comparison to other setups. Petrut’s ability to mirror the subtle yet familiar essence of the physical objects can be thanked for its success. More importantly, Petrut’s series, A Love Story, stays true to the jewelry’s position as the emotional and the everyday, while effectively avoiding aesthetic (but perhaps not verbal) redundancy and trite clichés.

With regard to exhibition install overall, the show starts on a short-lived high note as few other artists were allotted such a generous space for contextual display. Spatial constraints of the room could be partially to blame, certainly. But could it also be due to a lack of consideration and/or demand for an apt theoretical framework to the work? For some artists, perhaps yes. For Patrick Davison (Great Britain) however, his series Talking, isn’t in need of such support. Davison’s pieces stand autonomously on the first of the white tables, paired appropriately with Guilia Savino (Italy) and Weronika Marek (Poland). The series title is a delicate boost to their aesthetic independence –a product of a transcendence of materials (plaster or latex with silver and string) and a continuity of idea that elicits a strong lasting impression. Hot and delicate breath carried through a succession of string lifelines is evidence of a symbiotic relationship where talking is in fact making for Davison.

Davison’s necklaces ask to be picked up for a test of weightiness and to be seen elongated from all sides, not unlike the work of his tablemate, Guilia Savino in her series, Shhh!. It is apparent that both Davison and Savino would have greatly benefited from some room to breathe, as would have Marek. Collectively their subtle natures begin to infiltrate one another, diminishing the three aesthetics and conceptual underpinnings that uniquely demand individual isolation.

A division does endure between these three artists despite the close quarters, characterized by diverse explorations with material. This can be said for most of the Alchimia graduates, yet certain artists more soundly developed profound bodies of work that surpass a reliance on material as concept. How does materiality relate to the overall strength of a piece? Marek’s series, Into Emptiness, is worth mentioning here. The name, the objects—brooches comprised of cold cylinders in softly melting shades of icy blues and whites—and the sentiment all add up; knowing what they are made of is more of an added curiosity than it is crucial.

Across the room on an identical white table, Sam Hamilton’s series, Praise, (paired with the work of Ji Yang Lee, Korea), contributes to the dialogue addressing material strength and meaning. Being one of the more ambitious material explorations presented, it can perhaps be said that she is only getting started. At first it seems Hamilton’s internal and bubbly growth-like resins struggle to rationalize why they need to belong to the world of jewelry at all—yet this thought is quickly confronted after seeing the pieces contextualized. Small photographs of classical statues ornamented with Hamilton’s necklaces and a series of flipbooks showing continuous stages of process accompany the collection. Also thinking about communicative framework like Petrut, Hamilton (Ireland) is the only artist who thought to pair photos with the physical. They are important vestiges like her books, but should have been blown-up and presented as equally valued works. The images are beyond supplemental and positively mimic the praiseful and candidly personal satisfaction that making (and wearing) brings to the maker.

So then what does it really mean to put on an artwork, to adorn oneself with a summary of feelings, past events, ideas? Where can a personal connection be found, between maker and object, or object and future wearer? Some Alchimia graduates were capable of asking and simultaneously answering questions like these; Hamilton’s Praise serves as a humble example. Valentina Caprini (Italy) pushes it further by presenting a fresh take on the fundamental roles of jewelry vs. a devotion to them, successfully achieving equilibrium in her series, Therapy. The distinctive collection, displayed suspended from the ceiling (one of two collections first mentioned seen through the window), is so aptly titled that one can walk away with the word slipping off their tongue without having known it prior. Caprini’s work speaks on multiple levels including reinvention of tradition, making/wearing as healing, self-growth and remembrance, and femininity. The four woven necklaces into which pills have been sewn (and the trio of fleshy brooches) independently possess a strong emotive presence owed to the delicate and deliberate touch of the artist. In addition to a unique tactile quality, Caprini has involved an accessible depth to her work worthy of further contemplation.

Nearby, and in quite a stark contrast, are the dangling lemons by Catalina Gibert Nadal (Spain). Visual impact initially denies their alliance to the jewelry realm, as they seem to function as a sly ploy to get a wider audience through the front door. It works, strangely, and even stranger is why these mysterious lemons (some are brooches, others are long necklaces that would hang past the waist) are objects that someone would want to wear to carry the weight of. This moment of questioning is arguably part of the work itself, which becomes a sophisticated element provided that it’s intentional. In this way, Gibert’s Llimona series is perplexing; a delightful intrigue into the artist’s background and from where came her firm commitment to the citrus.

Located on the second of white tables near the entrance, the culturally referential collection, Sontob, the Korean word for Fingernail, similarly raises questions about the influence of place and why one decides to be adorned with specific things. Dinah Lee’s series (USA) can also be compared to Caprini’s insofar that Lee’s brooches are better synched to the concepts behind jewelry versus the aesthetics that identify it. If one can be convinced that the abstracted imagery denotes more than an empty semblance of a loyalty to heritage, the colorfully rhythmic brooches act as new traditional symbolism reflecting jewelry’s responsibility as a social and cultural signifier.

An initial critique of Lee’s collection would be to say that the presented work feels a bit redundant, or could have been pushed further. Before drawing this conclusion however, it is well worth looking through her published book that each graduate was required to provide as an accompaniment to his or her collection. The books are worth mentioning; some are able to enhance the shown work, as in the case of Andrea Coderch Valor (Spain). Hers is able to enlighten the viewer as to the true intention of her 150 pillowy-sewn flower brooches, each made one day at a time over the course of six months for one specific person. Coderch’s story is half the work itself; her book provides depth and closure to the physical objects installed for exhibition in a grid on its own wall opposite the book display.

More simply, the beautifully shot photographs found in Marek’s book reveal the quieter, poetic details of her pieces that can easily be overlooked in person.

Other books begin to call into question the selection decisions of curator, Christoph Zellweger, by exposing what he decided to include in the show and what he has decided to leave out. For example, some of Davison’s stronger and more varied pieces are excluded, similar to Lee, and the same goes for Anna Helena Van de Pohl de Deus (USA), Lee’s display tablemate. Helena’s exhibited work becomes more so affected after looking through her book. Not only does the book show more interesting works, but it also reveals a disconnect between concept and final product. By including a lot of quotes about talking, silence and language, Helena’s book proposes that the objects for her series, com∙mu∙ni∙ca∙tion, are supposed to stand in for her own communicative inabilities. If they’re meant to speak for her, what do they actually say? Her painterly neckpieces of pinks and natural wood are compositionally pleasing and probably fun to wear. Are these merely visual qualities lessened by the mismatch of object to verbal framework, thus failing to really say anything at all?

When an object strikes the right balance of message and mystery it develops a captivating nature.  In terms of contemporary jewelry, one hopes this balance manifests into a desire to touch and to wear, hence creating a moment of exciting personal connection that characterizes the object’s success. The goal of this review is largely to speak about where in the exhibition this balance can be found so as to respect the dedicated investigations and personal growth (guided by artist and teacher Ruudt Peters) of each Alchimia student mentioned.

It can now also be said that the show’s abstract title, PURUS, Latin for “pure and free from”, ends up being quite a good match. Most of the collections are significantly personal; they are extensions of the individual that qualify a sense of pureness true to the maker, a quality not always found in the world of contemporary jewelry at large. By remaining free from one another and free from material limitations, the name too embodies the search for balance that the majority of graduates were ultimately able to discern.

Alchimia’s PURUS will travel to Joya Contemporary Jewelry week in Barcelona on October 11-13, followed by SIERAAD Art Fair in Amsterdam, November 1-4, 2012. Additionally, the work of Izabella Petrut, Weronika Marek and Dinah Lee will be showcased at Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen, NL for the 2012 International Graduate Show.

A jewel once you say so. A conversation between Christoph Zellweger and Manuel Castro Caldas , 1999

(Zellweger is a contemptory jewelry artist and Caldas is an art historian, curator, critic of contemporary art, art director. This interview was also taken from klimt02)

Manuel Castro Caldas – Looking at your work in retrospect, the first idea that comes to mind is that you belong to a specific family of contemporary jewellers, whose authors position themselves very bluntly within the tradition of jewellery as a craft, while questioning certain of its basic principles and premises: value and worth, function and aesthetics, what is jewellery, what it once was, what can it be tomorrow…. Do you feel that you’re part of this family?

Christoph Zellweger – Definitely…!

mcc – What about tradition? You make works of jewellery and I am thinking, for example, of the critical posture that led some painters to not make paintings…

cz – You can not make a painting without reference to painting, not jewellery either without reference to jewellery and relating the jewellery itself to the body. But you can reject, be critical with one’s own tradition. It’s just that at certain times, rejection is an option. Radical rejection of what came before is a creative option.

mcc – Do you feel this is still possible now?

cz – Things have changed. Twenty years ago there was a discussion going on among some contemporary jewellery artists in Holland and Germany about whether gold should even be used anymore, because gold was in the midst of a political crossfire in conjunction with the South African system of apartheid. Naturally that was a question of ethics, etc., but it also had to do with jewellery itself and it had a lasting effect on our self-understanding and the way we continue to use non-precious materials now. Today we are moved by very different topics, although, again, this involves ethics and political postulates. Currently, more jewellery makers are thinking about the body, which is being altered and manipulated more and more for medical and aesthetic reasons.

mcc – Some of your recent work addresses that question. You use expanded polystyrene as a material for jewellery, you form body parts or you chrome-plate bone-shaped pieces made of gold. In all of your work, I see this recurring idea of hidden materials, things that are not exactly what they seem to be at first glance.

cz – Now since CNN and Dolly, it really is not so easy to say anymore what is what, what is real. Manipulation is all around us. It has become a serious question, whether you should spend a huge amount of money on gold jewellery with lots of diamonds, or whether you should have your nose straightened or fat suctioned out or have your hip joints renovated for preventive reasons… I think people accept that now that the body does not have to stay as it is and are willing to also invest in improving their bodies, in cultivating their appearance, the way they used to do especially through the medium of jewellery. A more perfect body increases status?

mcc – Do you see a certain aesthetic appeal in the implanting of silicone cushions or metal parts in the body, rather like the jewel within?

cz – These parts themselves are often quite beautiful. Through an uncle, who is a casualty surgeon, I obtained a number of second-hand models. They are made with great precision and skill; they really are exquisite objects made of special high-grade steel alloys to be inserted in the body. But in order for it to be jewellery, there has to be a conscious intention about it. My works are not intended to be inserted into the body, and I have nothing to do with plastic surgery either. Yet I relate my work to the body, to the parts and shapes of the body, to whatever in our society is becoming technically possible, imaginable, feasible, and of course also to the aesthetics of these implants. Years ago, the jewellery artist Peter Skubic was already experimenting with objects under the skin. Currently an American sculptor is implanting arched steel forms directly under the skin…

mcc – We’ve come a long way since Otto Künzli’s “gold makes you blind”, that famous piece where a golden ball was hidden in a rubber bracelet.(1)

cz – That was a crucial, an important piece. He rendered the issue of value visible by hiding the actual precious material. Of course the gold is still there, but it is not the visible material value that is enticing, it’s rather the elaboration of the theme that is attractive and has been implemented in a wonderfully aesthetic way. I do see an analogy here to the steel implants, where value and beauty are hidden in the body.

mcc – Your work seems to deny ‘mere’ form, but one would not call it conceptual either, in the strict sense of the word. Your pieces show that they’re made with the utmost care, incorporating a great deal of care and attention to detail, to the craft. However, you’re also not a technician…

cz – The challenge is to implement the ideas in such a way that more is created than is actually visible. I am interested in a kind of ambiguity; … nothing can really be seen in only one way and no other. … I am also interested in crossing the borders to other disciplines. The borders between design, fashion and politics, art and philosophy are not static. There is movement at the margins, the boundaries are constantly being shifted, torn down and rebuilt. These boundaries interest me because something is happening there. Jewellery can be very much oriented to function and design, very expressive and personal, but it may also be conceptual – an idea. Jewellery touches on the whole spectrum; it can be anything – for the person who wears it or possesses it.

mcc – In many aspects, you seem to approach the question of meaning and significance like an anthropologist. It has to do with use. What do you see is the role of the body? How does the jewel work as a sign on the body? Why and when and how do people wear it – and is that important?

cz – It is important. I have some kind of a potential wearer in mind, someone with a certain attitude, who wants to get something out of the piece. But it’s never related to status, it relates to something much more personal. You wear the jewel or you hold the object and you behave different, you change your attitude… The object generates this tension, for yourself – but also for others.


mcc – Why do you need this ‘powerful’ object in the first place? Do you wear it (or make it) because it’s missing in the world? And it’s powerful because it refers to what is missing?

cz – Someone told me a story about this guy who bought a picture and then he hung it the other way around, turned to the wall, because it was too confrontational, too strong. But it had to be there, it was important. I think the oldest jewel must have been a piece that someone just wanted to carry around – close to the body – wanting it as something that was of significance to him or her – something that would give power. It can do so in the most subtle ways.

mcc – I’ve mentioned before that your pieces are very carefully done, that obviously incorporates labour. But they end up looking very economical, very light, in the sense that we don’t see the hard labour hammered into the piece. The craft is respectful of whatever – whatever else – is already there…

cz – If you don’t see the making, then it’s all right. I don’t like when the craft gets in the way… you did it, the work must go beyond the labour…

mcc – Six years ago you worked with Lego blocks and honeycomb in an installation in Austria, now you work with steel and with polystyrene. Does that mean you start again from scratch with each new idea?

cz – Whenever it is required by an idea I try to learn the necessary techniques, whether it be computer manipulated images or cast steel. With the polystyrene works, for example, I had no idea of how to work with this material, but I was fascinated by its qualities. Expanded polystyrene consists of tiny, originally opaque little balls, single, cell-like particles, which are made to expand tremendously through the use of steam and pressure. Finally, they condense into a shape. Cell for cell, they form a fragile body.

mcc – It’s very biological…

cz – It’s very organic, it’s about bodies…


mcc – You mean that you saw the material as metaphoric in itself?

cz – A metaphor where you wouldn’t know exactly everything that it could be a metaphor for… I became aware of this material for the first time in 1986-87, in Asia, where it floats around in even the most remote little stream. It is an universal waste product, an omnipresent product… and it is beautiful.

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(1) …’a bangle of black rubber, the interior consisting of a golden ball – like a snake with a small elephant in its body.’
original text, Otto Künzli, 1980 (a photo of this piece can be seen in the blog post about Künzli below)