Last month I attended the opening preview for the Wayne Art Center’s prestigious Craft Forms, an international juried exhibition of contemporary craft, located on Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs. As one of the artists selected for this stellar exhibit, I feel extremely fortunate to show one-of-a-kind jewelry in the midst of “this multi-generational conversation” of artists, borrowing this astute comment from juror Bruce W. Pepich’s catalog essay. Pepich, who is Executive Director and Curator of Collections at the Racine Art Museum, along with co-juror David R. McFadden, the Chief Curator Emeritus at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, selected 99 pieces from 718 submissions in all fine craft media: clay, fiber, glass, metal, wood, mixed-media and 3-D printing.
Walking through this exhibition, I reacted to seeing jewelers’ pieces that seem to capitalize on the age-old attraction of the color black. This reaction is not meant to be an approval of the “blackened” process nor is it meant to be a critique. One may recall the now-iconic exhibit that took place at San Francisco’s Velvet Da Vinci Gallery in early 2013, “Monochrome Noir“, curated by studio jewelers/artists Tara Locklear and Michael Dale Bernard. I realized that this may be the moment to address and ask the question, “Just why is there so much blackened jewelry being created and shown?”
California-based jeweler and educator Helen Shirk’s magnificently stark and elegant piece, “Neckpiece NP2” is placed on its own pedestal, adjacent to my neckpiece, “Widget Locket #5: Homage to Vanity”. Shirk uses delicate pierced-out forms of organic floral motifs but in a metal often not associated with delicacy: mild steel. This metal is painstakingly soldered together into a wildly circular wave pattern of out-flowing leaves that are patinated black. However, there are deep red accents of china paint applied in a deliberate fashion – despite its random-appearing highlights that try to take attention away from the fact that this blackened steel is not a material normally associated with delicate floral motifs. Shirk takes this “blackened steel” to a level of beauty that other steel jewelry tends to industrialize.
My own piece from this exhibition, “Widget Locket #5: Homage to Vanity“, was placed adjacent to Helen Shirk’s piece but created such an incredible dialogue that I was indulged to hear by several of the attendees at the opening. As a maker, I’m plagued continually by the times I chose to create a jewelry piece that did not partake in this “black patina” fascination that my peers are promulgating. I deliberately chose to keep a matte brushed silver coloring to this locket with a highly-polished handmade chain. My metalwork aspires to take aspects of its historical reference to Victorian mourning jewelry and develop a dialogue with the modern-day advent of digital photography and text-based art without losing context of the historical “gems” of jewelry work that my pieces reference. As an aside, I do employ the oxidation process in my work and have done so for several of my “Widget Lockets”. However, I do feel it’s due to being influenced by what I see my fellow makers in contemporary jewelry creating.
Wisconsin artist and educator Teresa Faris creates neckpieces that have roots in organic interests, such as her “Collaboration with a Bird IV: #1.” However, in a similar fashion to Shirk’s piece, there’s an oxidized metal component, in this case, a black patina that is applied to the sterling silver partitions and square chain links. This piece was one I sought out immediately at the opening, as I was beyond curious to see how Faris incorporates what she describes as “wood altered by a bird.” What draws one into this piece is how much Faris is making a new genre of necklace, as I’m quite certain not one jeweler can claim seeing wooden elements that have been gnawed and “sculpted” by a bird in any well-known jeweler’s work before. In her artist statement, Faris introduces her work by describing how humans inhale and exhale over 22,000 times per day. This rhythm is so profound in her pieces, as each metal “sliver” of oxidized silver is created in such a consistent uniformity that one could almost hear a musical “metronome” in one’s head, while observing Faris’ beautiful grasp on consistency.
Taiwan artist Wu Ching-Chih’s “Love Is Blind” is a sculptural piece that surrounds the head but rests upon the wearer’s shoulders. While it is more viewed as a jewelry piece, it crosses the divide between a wearable neckpiece vs. a wearable sculpture. Wu Ching-Chih uses plique-a-jour enameling (a technique where the enamel is fired onto mainly copper then the “backing” of metal is etched away to reveal a stained glass-esque appearance of enamel-only.) Again, the use of oxidized darkened metal is what the artist chose as the branches of organic tree forms that hold these delicately enameled leaf forms. The curvaceous and hollow darkened copper pieces are made through forming; often Wu uses the repoussé metalwork technique to create these sinews and branch shapes that ultimately hold the light enameled pieces that rupture the blackened copper branches with glistening “lights” of colorful enameled accents.
Craft Forms: 20th Anniversary International Juried Exhibition of Contemporary Craft can be viewed at the Wayne Art Center’s Davenport Gallery, located at 413 Maplewood Avenue in Wayne, Pennsylvania through January 31st, 2015.
Images appear courtesy of the artists and the Wayne Art Center, Wayne, Pennsylvania.