When Jewelry Has Its Own Idea

Organic geometry: Kazumi Nagano’s brooch of folded linen paper and other materials.

Can jewelry actually speak? The Cooper Hewitt curators thought so when they went through the expansive collection that a donor had assembled, as shown in Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection, on view in New York through May 28.

Lewin, who donated her collection to the Smithsonian, was passionate about collecting fairly conceptual wearable art pieces – works that reflected pop culture, or held great symbolic meaning, or told a story that was significant to the artist.

Around 150 bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and rings are on display in the show. They’re all intriguing works on their own, each telling a story, but the selections are nicely classified into sub-groups, such as Nature, Symbol and Metaphor, Memory, and so on.

Nature: Daniel Kruger’s necklace with pressed flowers and leaves.

Some groups tell the art-for-art’s sake story; other groups are made of materials with charged significance. But all reflect the deep thought that jewelry artists give to their work and the delight the wearer has in either sharing the story of the piece or just keeping its secret to themselves.

The show emphasizes how ground-breaking artists have conceptualized jewelry to go beyond the constraints of simply pretty, glitzy, or decorative ends.

For example, the paper necklaces by Kiff Siemmons speak to the artist’s interest in pulling dramatic shapes out of lowly materials and in cross-cultural collaboration – in this case, working with artisans from Oaxaca’s Arte Papel who are expertly reviving pre-Columbian paper making technology with traditional, plant-based dyes.

Attai Chen’s paper, paint and coal necklace from Nature section of the show

In the portion of the show where jewelry reflects society and the human condition, designer Deganit Stern Schocken used crushed soda cans and zircons in a piece named after Israel’s largest checkpoint, evoking the daily West Bank anxieties of passing between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The fact that Estonian artist Kadri Malik incorporated a large shark tooth in her “It’s Getting So Dark” necklace gives the piece a voice that speaks volumes, even if the wearer doesn’t say a word. The same is true for Attai Chen’s dark riff on nature — dramatic necklace formed from paper, paint and coal.

Art Smith’s 1948 Modernette Cuff Bracelet reflecting the art world’s interest in biomorphic forms

The show also touches on the history of post-war wearable art by innovators in America and Europe, including a biomorphic piece by Sixties jewelry maker Art Smith, who was connecting the dots among the cultural influences he was seeing in painting and dance studios from his Village studio.

What about other art for art’s sake? The curators showcase collection pieces that are colorfully painted, baubles incorporating found objects, and art that simply conveys the joy of pure, clean, abstractions.

Lewin certainly had fun collecting and wearing provocative pieces, and the curators also seemed to have enjoyed displaying these fascinating works in a context that suits them.

Take a look at some of our favorites in our Flickr album.

To give an idea of how kinetic artist Friedrich Becker conceptualized his work in motion, here’s a video showing how his ring activates to convey its story when worn:

This show focuses upon an international array of artists. But for anyone that wants to dig deeper into the roots of American studio jewelry 1940 – 1970, art historian Toni Greenbaum  describes how artist-made jewelry came to its cherished place in the art and design worlds today:

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