The evening of April 20th marked the opening of Rosalba Balsamo‘s exhibition, Less is More, at Contemporary Jewelry Gallery, Antonella Villanova. It also happened to be the opening of 25th, presented by Galleria Alessandro Bagnai, in celebration of twenty five years of operation as a contemprary art gallery. Advertised as individual openings and as separate galleries by name, both events took place at the very same space at the very same time.
This might not seem so strange once knowing more about Villanova and Bagnai’s two preexisting sister galleries (which are both located about ten minutes away). They are situated on parallel streets; two separate store fronts, two different names although the space is physically yet subtly connected inside.
Villanova and Bagnai’s new joint gallery at Piazza Goldoni combine represented artists of both galleries under one, more obvious and much larger roof; the new space boasts a floor plan twice the space of both charmingly sized individual galleries combined, and same goes for ceiling height. Although a definite upgrade, the two smaller galleries continue to keep their doors open.
The new gallery is extremely beautiful. I heard rumor of the merge a few months ago but felt it might end up being a too-good-to-be true kind of deal. How often is it that contemporary jewelry gets to share a stage equally with work considered to be contemporary art? Not so often. The galleries in which one can see contemporary jewelry artworks are always only for such work, and the few with a broader range of fields teeter on the edge of ‘design’, ‘functional objects’… never fine art. Although it is true that big museums hold contemporary jewelry collections, it is almost always regarded as a highly separate field, never allowed to mingle with other more elevated artworks. And ever more so (take the Met for example) the conceptual/research based art jewelry is lumped into the same categorization as the ancient and/or historical jewels of civilizations and royalties past. Recognizing this fact is perhaps why the opening of the hybrid Villanova/Bagnai is fairly groundbreaking, it truly is. Especially for Italy.
So how did they do? As usual, there are a few issues worth noting. Both shows are separately advertised. The press for Balsamo’s show makes no mention of Bagnai’s opening, and vise versa. Is it a clever ploy to get the real art critics and fine art audience to finally see and think about the jewelry in the same terms? Do Villanova and Bagnai acknowledge the work as being equally captivating, able to compete on the same level? One can only hope. But is the slyness necessary? Perhaps it is.
While at Schmuck, I had the great pleasure of meeting artist, Andrea Wagner. We spoke in length about the so-called problems specific to the contemporary jewelry field and about ways of reframing the work to get it higher consideration in the art world. She spoke of introduction and order, what to say first to keep the attention of those that have never considered whether jewelry can be art and the reverse. To paraphrase, she told me that once the J-word is spoken, the blinds just sort of go down and the interest tends to disappear. No longer is she talking about art, as the problem with jewelry is apparent in its own name, especially to those that just don’t know this kind of work exists. By silently aligning herself to Bagnai, perhaps Villanova is trying to avoid the blinds going down before the work is given a fair chance to compete.
Is this game of association more desperate than it is clever? I don’t think so. And perhaps I’m over thinking it. Villanova and Bagnai are known names and certainly they wanted the weight and the following to be carried through to the new space. And in my opinion, the real test lies in the way the work, both the jewelry work and the artworks in Bagnai’s show were presented in relation to each other.
Upon walking in, the first thing one is confronted with is Balsamo’s new work. Score for team jewelry. But not so fast, as the pieces were bound to plexi display cases attached to the wall. I will say that the cases were quite nice compared to the infinite amount of god-awful cases out there, but they were still cases. On the upside, the front of each plexi box was open, making the work actually accessible. This was a pleasant surprise as it enabled one to imagine actually touching, holding, feeling the piece, highlighting a potential interaction, and one could have that interaction provided they were brave enough to make it happen. Not bad. I will mention that this series of Balsamo fell a little flat for me (also the work was literally so, so flat) and lack-luster. The work was crowded and redundant, and the generality of the pieces in combination with their housing made it feel more like a misplaced gallery shop than work that belonged in a gallery. This was probably the most upsetting aspect because the work was actually IN an art gallery. But it wouldn’t be fair to call it fine and good just because of that reason alone. I do think Balsamo makes good work, this just didn’t happen to be it. Perhaps if some information was provided I could have been convinced of a little more. Here lies another issue but we shall save that for another time.
The other work throughout the gallery gets a bit more interesting, yet a lot of it has to do with the excitement of the new space. The artists of 25th are as follows and were selected based on how their work has characterized the activity of the gallery over the last two-plus decades: Roberto Barni, Massimo Barzagli, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Gianni Dessì, Rolando Deval, Rainer Fetting, Jannis Kounellis, Paolo Leonardo, Nunzio, Mimmo Paladino, Pizzi Cannella, David Salle, Maurizio Savini, Mario Schifano, Marco Tirelli, Betty Woodman, and George Woodman.
Below is a better attempt to merge some jewelry more fluidly with the rest of the works in the show, they are not Balsamo’s (I apologize but I don’t know who the artist is- will remedy the situation in time).
Works of Lucia Massei were also present in the gallery, but took space in a closed off back section near another, smaller entrance. Massei had a solo show at the former Villanova space earlier in the year. In both instances pieces were displayed in the same plexi-cases as Balsamo’s work, indicating they had less than nothing to do with the work inside. Why does this continue to be the norm? Here are some images below:
The question remains: is researched based jewelry art, just because it is in an art gallery? I struggle with this regularly, or struggle with figuring out if it matters. I’ve been whining and whining about leveling the playing field, and finally here, Villanova/Bagnai are attempting to build some kind of bridge, but something is missing. It’s like having a delicious meal but leaving the restaurant hungry. I believe it’s a combination of things, mostly the lack of cohesion between the works in 25th and Balsamo’s Less is More. This is quite clear, and the problem could have been solved with a blend of the two shows instead of them merely sharing the same roof (even though it’s great that they share the same roof! Example: I am going to ‘tag’ some of the referenced artists. That means both Jannis Kounellis and Lucia Massei will appear next to one another on the list, because they were, more or less, in the same show… but were they?). Here we have the same problem that exists within museum collections, separate but seemingly quasi-equal. In this case the problem would have been solved with a better choice of artist from Villanova to match up aesthetically to Bagnai’s retrospective artists, who were much more clearly chosen selectively. It isn’t often that contemporary jewelry shows are critiqued for curatorial choices; the field is so small that it seems to be thought of as unnecessary, a sad reality in an anything goes world.
Why doesn’t the same critical eye get passed through works in jewelry? Why is there a reluctance to truly combine mediums under the same roof, the same name? Why are display conventions in jewelry not being challenged with more apt and expressive modes that match the potential integrity of the work? We have a mighty long way to go, indeed. But despite the shortcomings of their efforts, Villanova and Bagnai are on the right track to building that much needed bridge.
The new location of Villanova and Bagnai is Palazzo Ricasoli in Piazza Goldon, 2, Florence, Italy. Galleria Antonella Villanova is located on Via della Spada, 36R, which is currently showcasing the other half of Rosalba Balsamo’s ‘Less is More’ series. Galleria Alessandro Bagnai is located on Via del Sole, 15r and is currently exhibiting work by Günther Uecker.