11/16/2011

Jacqueline Mina In February 2011, the Goldsmiths Company in London hosted a retrospective of the work of the contemporary British goldsmith and jeweler Jacqueline Mina. The exhibition brought together some 130 selected works from 30 of her 45 years of active studio life in London. It provided a rare chance to see a comprehensive body of work, in gold and platinum, with the inclusion of significant private and public loans.

It seemed fitting that works were on show in a hall belonging to a guild or company tasked since medieval times with the support of the crafts of jewelry and metalwork. Mina’s jewelry, such as the roller-imprinted platinum and 18-karat gold disk necklace owned by the Goldsmiths Company shows deep roots in pre-industrial craft. It focuses on a high level of hand-skill and individual imagination rather than machine finishes and production values.

Jacqueline Mina The response from informed and new viewers was one of surprise and delight. Here was the art of gold at its most accomplished: expressive, sensuous jewels, understated (no Bond Street glitter here) yet commanding. Museum curators expressed a deepened understanding of her particular achievements. There were three loans from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) on show and a new work was acquired for the Alice and Louise Koch ring collection in Geneva. Other new private commissions and acquisitions have followed.

Jacqueline Mina Such accolades seem fitting for a senior figure who has been a quietly influential presence in United Kingdom jewelry for decades. Mina’s extensively exhibited work has been complemented by her widely respected teaching, up until the 1990s, at the Royal College of Art. Her protégés include contemporary goldsmiths such as Jacqueline Ryan and Giovanni Corvaja in Italy and Cynthia Cousens and Catherine Martin in the United Kingdom. Mina has been honored before – enjoying a rare solo show at the V&A in 1985 and winning the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for Jewellery in 2000, for example. Yet the artist and her work have often seemed to sit at a tangent to the critical debates that have fuelled studio jewelry in the United Kingdom and Europe in recent decades. Publications on her work are not numerous and public collections are noted for their depth rather than their breadth.

Perhaps it is that hers is a very private art, beyond the reach of more public accolades. One might consider in counterpoint the work of Wendy Ramshaw, Mina’s contemporary. Ramshaw’s brilliant, epic voice has animated myriad materials and forms, touching on the worlds of furniture and textile design, architectural metalwork, art installation, clothing and jewelry. Her work is represented in over 70 museums worldwide. Mina’s lyric voice, materially engaged, occupies a quieter, more private dialogue with the art of jewelry which perhaps has less immediate presence in the public realm. However, as with the world of music, different modes or forms require differentiated critical attention: appreciation of a Bach partita is not diminished by an understanding of the epic sweep of Wagnerian opera. The lack of critical visibility may lie with the fact that critical voices in the contemporary jewelry field, in the United Kingdom at least, have been too few in number and too narrow in their compass to allow the full register of innovation to be explored.

David Poston Connected to this may be another element, namely Mina’s choice of material. It is true that the choice of gold in a contemporary art jewelry world which has often rejected or satirized this high-value material as either not ethical or artistically possible any more (think David Poston’s slave manacle or Otto Künzli’s black rubber band) has created a space between Mina’s work and say, the work of radical contemporaries in the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom, such as Susanna Heron and Caroline Broadhead.

The new jewelry movement, born at that time, was specifically a counterblast to the perceived technical, material and ideological conservatism of United Kingdom jewelry. Key makers, including Ramshaw of course, looked to European innovation in countries like the Netherlands and responded to the radical imagination of artists and designers such as Gijs Bakker and Emmy van Leersum. Such boundary-crossing, both geographic (between island United Kingdom and mainland Europe) and material (paper, perspex and textile were the new fabric of democracy) refreshed and reanimated in very important ways, the field of jewelry in the United Kingdom.

Of course, neither the material nor the geographical location creates interesting work. It is rather the attentive hand and eye of the artist who, rarely bounded by the often-rigid conceptual orthodoxies of the critic’s world, can find new form. And, as the English potter Gordon Baldwin remarked, 'every artist needs a material to do his thinking in,' be it gold, bronze, or paint. (Baldwin, 2010) In many ways it takes particular independence of spirit to choose gold as a medium for artistic exploration – with such a weight of associative tradition, both honored and traduced. I am reminded of some thoughts noted in the journal of the German painter Gerhard Richter who reflects that, ‘the art scene [like the contemporary jewelry scene] is a perpetual social game that fulfils the need for communication … Art happens despite this, rarely and always unexpectedly, never because we make it happen.’ (Richter, 1048)

Jacqueline Mina In the United Kingdom and in Europe, we have a long history of working metal for ornament and use, which sits behind and informs much contemporary work. On a recent visit to New Zealand, I visited the studio of the German goldsmith Karl Fritsch. Amid a plethora of ring forms, cast in many metals, in his characteristic improvised or informe style, there ran a deep thread of conversation with historic gold work – an undoubted dialogue with gold – in some cases quite literally as he fuses found gold rings with new structures. He, like Mina, articulates verbally and in built form a connection to deeper cultural histories of European jewelry and metalwork. It is used as a route to consider his own expressive place and context in the contemporary world. His own awareness of European goldwork may be currently intensified by recent personal dislocation, to a very different culture, in which stone rather than metal carries the deepest historical resonance.

Karl Fritsch Gold and precious metals are deeply embedded cultural materials in Europe. Our museums are filled with expressive work in gold and silver through time. A recent find in Leicestershire, United Kingdom, for example, of an iron-age artifact, the Corieltavi silver bowl (currently on show at Goldsmiths Hall in London) dates from 2000 years ago. This simple vessel form remains miraculously resonant today in our very different twenty-first century world, as well as reinforcing a sense of a rich, human tradition of making in metal through time. Continuity is something that Mina understands well and works with. ‘It is not from novelty but from an unbroken tradition that real human warmth can be obtained, like a peat fire that has been rekindled continuously for hundreds of years.’ (Clark, 87)

Jacqueline Mina A sense of work connected through time was underpinned in Mina’s recent show by a display case which included a collection of simple collars and bracelets formed from twisted strips of gold. These were inspired by work the artist was invited to undertake with archaeologists at the Museum of London, investigating a Roman jewelry hoard. Mina was able to demonstrate to historians how these early works were made and this, in turn, informed some new improvisations of her own.

Jacqueline Mina This particular example of artistic inquiry and development reveals the importance of making, as a form of innovative thinking that can prompt new connections and perhaps deeper cultural understanding. As Ernst Fischer points out in The Necessity of Art, ‘creative consciousness developed as a late result of the manual discoveries that stones could be broken, split, sharpened.’ (Fischer, 31) The thinking hand produces the idea rather than the reverse.

Mina works in a very direct, embodied way with her material, using mostly hand tools. This is in line with the dictum that ‘a wise artist works with his/her entire body and sense of self’ in the creation of significant form. (Pallasmaa, 12) Embodied attention seems particularly appropriate for an artist who chooses to make jewelry – art experienced at its most intimate and physical. Mina has always been very attentive to how her jewelry works when worn – the drape of the necklace; the weight and movement of the earrings. Her inspiration rests, in part at least, in this dialogue with an imagined wearer. The intention herein, coupled with the extremely rigorous inquiry into and execution of, forms in metal, recalls other British work, such as the deceptively simple fashion designs of the late Jean Muir. Muir’s clothes, recently exhibited at the National Museums in Edinburgh, are described as having the ‘appearance of graceful simplicity, but are in fact intricately constructed’ – words which apply well to Mina’s jewelry. (National Museums Scotland, 2009) Simplicity is a hard won art.

To return to an earlier thought – why is it that Mina’s work is sometimes overlooked in the critical discourse around contemporary studio jewelry? Perhaps the innovative qualities of her work are only fully understood by wearing pieces as jewelry through time – something one suspects many critics and commentators may rarely do. Although pieces such as the wonderful Pod necklace owned by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art have a felt aesthetic presence in a showcase, they are most fully appreciated as works of quality and innovation when handled and worn. This realm of experience goes beyond words – those principal tools of the critic.

To dwell on Mina’s place within a rich culture of British and European jewelry metalwork is not to deny her wider interests and contexts. As a student during the 1950s at Hornsey College of Art, she studied sculpture, drawing and textiles as well as silversmithing. She recalls with interest the excitement of studying in a period in which Bauhaus-inspired theories on basic design and color theory had begun to supplant the more traditional academic models of life drawing and anatomy. The European influence on this period of art education in the United Kingdom is significant, created, at least in part, by the human diaspora of the second world war which saw artists and designers of the caliber of Gerda Flockinger teaching in London.

Mina also cites a lifelong interest in modern British sculptors who came to prominence in this period – particularly Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Their sensuous organic forms owe at least some debt, like Mina’s own work, to early cultural artifacts. This connection was recently well explored in the Theft by Finding display at the Modern British Sculpture show staged at the Royal Academy in London. As Moore himself said, ‘a sculptor is a person who is interested in the shape of things,’ be they from the manmade or natural world. (Moore)

A grouping within Mina’s recent Goldsmiths Hall show was entitled ‘Cycladic Forms.’ It brought together a group of bold, abstract works from the mid-1990s whose pared-down sensuality made clear reference to early Cycladic sculpture – albeit in the form it has reached us today, stripped of color and context. Her response to these early works, seen in the Goulandris Museum in Athens, shows both a sculptor’s eye and a jeweler’s love of detail: two gold brooches in particular are scored, folded, the edge polished to emphasize the form in space which is otherwise of the utmost simplicity. They seemed possessed of an embodied and articulate ‘spirit resonance’ like the works that inspired them.

Jacqueline Mina The section titled ‘Dialogues in Gold’ articulated another element of Mina’s life that is a constant, present source of inspiration – namely music. The grouping of works in the show echoed the musical structures of themes and variations. Marina Vaizey reflected that she found ‘Mina’s art curiously and surprisingly unassertive: rather like the extraordinary compositions of J C Bach, his two and three part inventions, preludes and fugues, the play with formality transcends rules.’ (Vaizey, 3) Mina began her training as a singer and was brought up in a family steeped in the professional realm of classical music. Musical rhythms and pace infuse the work and indeed her way of working. Hours of patient time spent at the bench, perfecting her art, recall the dedicated practice of classical musicians, as does her openness to the wealth of traditional forms within which she finds her own improvisations and voice.

Jacqueline Mina So therein perhaps lies the creative paradox of Mina’s art. It is first and foremost the art of jewelry in gold. This is a highly specific, specialist world of made objects to wear – bounded in Europe by the weight of luxury goods and historical decorative arts – destined, when viewed in this framework, to sit uncomfortably in the realm of artistic innovation. Yet Mina’s work is also a resonant, poetic form of human expression, which draws deeply on a love and knowledge of music; sculpture and indeed natural forms, as well as a more ancient world of adornment and ritual. Mina is respected by jewelers, painters and musicians; her work owned and worn in everyday lives by many devoted patrons. She re-imagines tradition and creates art for us in the very material that is constantly called into service in a world which can seem careless of the poetics of time and human experience.

I leave the final words to another European interpreter of extraordinary traditions, Pablo Casals, who writes that ‘Real understanding does not come from what we learn in books; it comes from what we learn from love of nature, of music, of man. For only what is learned in that way is truly understood.’ (Corredor)

Amanda Game

Amanda Game has enjoyed a 30-year career as an exhibition maker, curator, and events producer with a specialist interest in supporting contemporary makers: their thinking and their objects. A 21-year career in commercial practice, at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh (1986-2007) has been followed by establishing and running an independent studio to foster imaginative exhibition making in both public and private galleries, working with clients which include Dovecot Tapestry Studios, Edinburgh; the V&A, London; Goldsmiths' Centre, London; and Jerwood Charitable Foundation and National Museums, Edinburgh. She has recently completed an MPhil Research project at the Royal College of Art, London, exploring the languages of contemporary exhibition-making.

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