RISD Museum: A View By Two – Contemporary Jewelry

Chew Your Own Brooch, 1996 by Ted Noten

Some of the works featured in the 2001 RISD Museum exhibit A View by Two: Contemporary Jewelry begs the question:

What is Jewelry?

Jayne Strokes, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts at the RISD Museum and Project Manager for the exhibition responds:

“Jewelry traditionally has been something that represents aristocrats and nobility. One would try to copy those jewels in order to mimic aristocrats. Contemporary jewelry -the kind of work in this exhibition- places value on content rather than materials, but that’s still a fairly new thing and has not been accepted on a very large scale. I think of it as having origins in the work of the Surrealists, who made jewelry as a way to poke fun at the establishment, made jewelry out of champagne corks and wire, fur; Merrit Oppenheim is a good example. Picasso, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Dali all tried their hand at making jewelry.

I think at times things weren’t as specialized -artistic license was given in many, many areas. Out of curiosity people would work in media outside their usual realm of sculpture or painting, for example, to see how well they could express their ideas.I see jewelry as adornment or ornamentation for clothing or the body, especially in the context of this exhibition.

It’s very much about something that’s made very, very beautifully, paying very close attention to detail so that all the things which really represent tradition in goldsmithing are evident in the work. It can be playful; it can be serious -as with any work of art. But because jewelry is generally small and it’s used -worn- it’s often treated differently than something that’s placed on a pedestal or a wall, to be looked at and nothing more. I think that if it doesn’t contain enormous rubies, diamonds -if it’s just enamel or sterling- it’s not treated as well as it might be. But the definition of jewelry has to make room for someone like Manfred Nisslmuller, too. He’s much more of a conceptualist, interested in the nature of jewelry and the process by which jewelry comes to be. Manfred makes observations and responds to them. The pieces are not about opulence or about the jeweler’s skills, but about his reflections and thoughts on jewelry.

This whole issue of language seems to have come to the fore in the ’70s, to expand terms in the world of art and crafts or decorative arts. There are places that sell jewelry and call it “jewelry,” and then their are places that call it “sculpture to wear” or “wearable art,” and I don’t know if what one sells is any different than the other. It’s a matter of language.

If you take something and put it on a chain, on a pin or on a post you make it an ornament or a decorative part of someone’s body or clothing, it could either be called jewelry or one of these other things, I don’t know if adding these new terms is productive or a way of inflating the profession. Maybe I’m being to ridgid about my definition of jewelry versus sculpture. The work of the jeweler, like much creative work, is often taken for granted. Having been part of higher education for a long time, I see how much trouble students, faculty and my colleagues go through developing an idea in drawings and models, refining it, changing proportions and color. All that, which is the responsibility of the author, is never seen. All you see is the end result. The interplay between the author and the materials is really, in a sense, what it’s all about. If something is ornamental, it’s somehow less monumental than painting or sculpture. And yet I think that something that;s done with intelligence and integrity is just that; it doesn’t matter what label it carries.”

What do you think ? 

A View by Two: Contemporary Jewelry, exh. cat., Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, East Greenwich: Meridian Printing, 2001.

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