Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).
We are, it would seem, in an age of ornament. An exhibition called Decorative Resurgence, ‘A juried exhibition of contemporary jewelry and metalwork inspired by historic decoration and ornament’, took place in Glassboro, New Jersey, in April 2009 (supported by an exhibition grant from AJF) and the most recent issue of Metalsmith (v.29, n.3) turned its attention to the charms and critical possibilities of ornament in two different articles.
In the catalog for Decorative Resurgence, Jennifer A Zwilling argues that ornament’s return has come about because we have given up on a ‘teleological’ view of art history – the idea that history is a march towards some more perfect future that can only be reached by jettisoning the past. Ornament, the art that adorns art, is deeply indebted to the past. It is based in the artist’s knowledge of the styles of past cultures, which can be drawn on and transformed into terms appropriate to the present. Modernism turned ornament into a crime and chucked it overboard, but craft in part kept its connections with the past and now sits in an enviable position when it comes to ornament’s resurgence. Zwilling says that an important trend in contemporary jewelry is ‘the reexamination of ornament as a tool to convey concept and evoke emotion,' and she notes that this often means engaging with the past: ‘The Modernist aesthetic so thoroughly expunged ornament from our visual vocabulary in the mid Twentieth Century that the mere suggestion of decorative elements on an object can now evoke a sense of the distant past.’ She also makes a case as to why ornament is so prominent in jewelry. ‘By definition, jewelry objects are items worn as ornament of the body, a fact that allows jewelry makers and connoisseurs to have been more open to the concept even when it was rejected by much of the art/craft community.’
The curators/jurors of Decorative Resurgence, Jill Baker Gower and Jessica Calderwood, write that the work was selected because it ‘successfully re-contextualized the chosen historical decorative influence into thoughtful and contemporary art as well as illustrated research and knowledge of the decorative inspiration.' They also suggest that ornament is used by these jewelers in a number of different ways: ‘to add emotion, memory or sentiment; to create social commentary; to interpret nature; to acknowledge, commemorate or honor a lineage, history, or a historic process; to evoke nostalgia; to make gender or age associations; to create cultural connections; and to convey fragility or loss.’ No wonder ornament is having such a good run: it can do almost anything.
For Lena Vigna and Namita Gupta Wiggers writing in Metalsmith, the question is how contemporary jewellers are engaging with the trend towards ornament that has swept the industrial design world. As they write: 'A contemporary vocabulary is emerging in which the baroque, the rococo, the curvilinear and the unabashedly ornate features of historic jewelry are taking a new, redefined center stage. Artists are looking backwards to look forward, democratizing forms and patterns previously preserved for royalty through a range of new materials (from precious to industrial) and via such unexpected vehicles as T-shirts and installations.'
Vigna and Wiggers go on to identify five ways that contemporary jewelers use ornament: fragmenting and abstracting historical forms, employing new technologies, creating new versions of ‘familiar’ jewels, neutralising markers of luxury and examining the relationship between jewellery, the body and space.
There’s no doubt something interesting is going on with ornament and these writers and curators are proposing intelligent and productive ways to understand ornament’s triumphant return. But I can’t help wondering about how complicit, how reactionary, this turn towards ornament might be. Are we being seduced by ornament’s charms, losing sight of its limitations? Vigna and Wiggers talk about contemporary jewelers democratising the signs of ornament that historically have been deeply connected to class and shifting ornament away from its important role within colonial and imperial histories to something personal. As they put it, the jewelry ‘becomes about class and access – not culture and race – and is ironically liberated in this redefinition.’ The past becomes flattened, a rich source of possibilities to be mined, but as they note, 'Explicit in such historical conversations is the affirmation of a formal relationship with a historical past; implicit is a consideration of social and cultural meanings.' The italics are mine and it worries me that thinking about social and cultural meanings becomes implicit – i.e. invisible. Ornament in contemporary jewelry, as in contemporary design, starts to seem suspiciously toothless and indulgent. Vigna and Wiggers quote Julie Lasky, who wrote in I.D. magazine’s ornament issue, ‘An exuberant tangle of styles, colors, and textures no longer suggests chaos or eccentricity but individuality – the kind of plenitude that could match taste or need on demand.’ It is, in other words, all very easy and not at all troubling – decorative in the very worst sense. (Having said that, I acknowledge that Vigna has written a very nuanced account of contemporary jewellery’s ornamental turn in relation to the past in her essay ‘Heirlooms: Navigating the Personal in Contemporary Jewelry’, published on the AJF website.)
In Lisa Walker’s recent book, Unwearable, Paul Derrez from Galerie Ra in Amsterdam wrote that contemporary jewelry is currently shaped by ‘A zeitgeist in which the focus is on complex beauty: sculptures and structures that are refined, glamorous and rich-looking – magical and imposing in the way historical jewellery can be.’ His point is that Walker’s work is too raw and confrontational to function well in such a historical moment. I’m not suggesting that jewelers should have to function as Walker does, in either process or materials, but I think there is something to be said for being raw and confrontational rather than smooth and easy. Maybe we should take a bit more time to sort out the ornamented and tough jewelry from the work that looks great in the current zeitgeist, but which won’t be capable of holding our attention when we decide beauty might just be skin deep after all.
Then again, I am hearted and challenged by a number of jewelers who are positioned right in the centre of ornament’s return. Take emiko oye, for example. Her jewels constructed from Lego building blocks are entirely satisfying. As Vigna and Wiggers note, oye’s My First Royal Jewels Jewelry Collection comes ‘complete with instructions on how to deconstruct a necklace into several separate wearable parts (much like a parure).' The connections to jewelry history and tradition are tight, convincing and the jewels themselves are lavish and ornamental. Yet the fact this is Lego, the fact that, to quote Vigna and Wiggers, ‘The construction and reconstruction of the jewelry mimics the active play of the Lego blocks, while simultaneously linking artist and wearer through process and material,' means oye’s work doesn’t allow social and cultural meanings to get submerged. Her references to ornament are critically deployed. She makes connection to historical ornament and then modifies these references through her materials and the way in which play opens up the possibilities of process and therefore asks questions about what jewelry is, the role of the wearer and the maker, the importance of process as opposed to object.
I also find a very satisfactory use of ornament in the work of David Bielander. His use of nature, one of the most common sources of ornament, is complicated by a game of transformation that takes place in the work. The ornamental possibilities of a beetle, or raspberries, are exploited in his jewelry, but this enjoyment of subject matter is only the first level of meaning. Once we recognise the subject, we are confronted with the particular act of transformation that makes the piece, one thing becoming another (a spoon becomes a beetle; woven plastic tube becomes raspberries). And then finally we are able to consider the jewel as something to be worn, to ornament the body. Bielander purposefully locates himself in an ambivalent position in relation to jewelry history, somewhere between the precious materials and conventions of luxury jewelry and the innovation and originality of contemporary jewelry. Ornament is crucial to Bielander’s work, but again it is put to work in a very specific way and undercut by choices in materials and process. Again, social and cultural meanings are positioned right up front. Ornament is something strange, awkward, active, somewhat more than just asserting a decontextualised relationship with the past.