Currently curator of exhibitions at the Racine Art Museum, Lena Vigna has a particular interest in the contemporary fields of adornment, fiber, sculpture and installation. She has curated over 40 solo and group exhibitions and written numerous essays that explore issues relevant to contemporary art and society. A co-author of the recent Metalsmith article ‘Mining History: Ornamentalism Revisited,’ she was awarded a 2006 Craft Research Fund Project Grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design and her exhibition Adornment and Excess: Jewelry in the 21st Century received an AJF grant in 2009.
Considering the work featured in Adornment and Excess: Jewelry in the 21st Century within the context of decadence seems particularly appropriate. In curating the exhibition at the Miami University Art Museum, Ohio, I deliberately incorporated work dealing with consumption, luxury and excess on multiple levels – as it relates to jewelry and also as it relates to capitalist consumerism. In the Western world (speaking very generally) there are a lot of 'things' – objects made, consumed and discarded.
As I wrote in my catalog essay: 'The current global economic crisis forefronts concerns about luxury, consumption and excess. The residue of this unrest, perhaps on a psychological more than material level, coupled with the broader conversation regarding natural resources and consumer production, necessarily and significantly impacts the metaphorical construction of wealth, power and status. All of these art jewelers address this topic and weave a web that connects past and present, social dynamics and body adornment. They engage in considerations of material and metaphorical meaning and their address of the concepts of “luxury,” “consumption” and “excess” are fluid and dynamic.'
Gemstones and the history of jewelry as a signifier of luxury (and decadence) are ever present in this conversation. Those who take on the topic of luxury via the context of history (such as Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Kimberlie Tatalick, Erin Rose Gardner, The Opulent Project, Yael Friedman and emiko oye) do so without using luxurious materials. For example, Erin Rose Gardner uses mass-produced 'diamond' engagement rings that are compelling yet disturbing and that link the conversation about capitalism to feeling and emotion – so many rings, so much manufactured sentiment. emiko oye’s LEGO neckpieces based on royal jewelry are exaggerations of their antecedents, their largesse addressing the decadence of the original gemstones in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
Several of those involved with this exhibition are dealing with material ‘excess’ as it is reflected in the reuse and repurposing of objects already made, bought, sold or discarded – a fact that ultimately brings us back to what luxury could mean even beyond the context of jewelry (as it relates to the amount of what is produced and the amount of what is cast away). These jewelers investigate and draw attention to capitalist practices and their material choices not only echo an embrace of non-precious materials by decades of jewelry makers, but also reinforce the prevalence of available material in a material-driven culture.
In my catalog essay I wrote: 'New objects are being created but – either through choice of material or mode of production – they confront the very existence of the volume of other objects being produced daily across the globe. By changing the flow of goods (recovering some materials, renegotiating the space within which the jewelry operates), this jewelry highlights current critical conversations of sustainability, wealth and social status and personal responsibility. However, the conversation with “excess” does not end there. Within a modern Western context, jewelry can be inexpensive and fashionable or very expensive (and, perhaps, still connected to fashion). Yet, its relationship with notions of excess can extend beyond cost or number to form and design. What is excessive, opulent and ostentatious today? How does the manipulation of materials and content effect concepts of ornament and display?'
For example, Meg Drinkwater creates necklaces and earrings comprised of found costume jewelry. There is a doubling of excess here, both the actual accumulation of multiple gold and pearl necklaces and the mimicking, in the form of costume jewelry, of luxurious materials. As I put it in the catalog for Adornment and Excess, ‘Her rescue and re-use of the found jewelry is made all the more poignant when we consider that for all that she rescued there is still that much more out there. The conglomerations and piles of chains are simultaneously appealing and unsettling . . . some pieces are encased in resin as if the “preciousness” of these discarded goods needed to be preserved . . .’
Others such as Anya Kivarkis directly connect jewelry to value, status, image, luxury and decadence. The brooches and earrings in her Vanishing Point series address the ambiguity of status as a social construct. From my catalog: 'Kivarkis’ jewels – of silver, white gold and auto paint – are representations of million dollar objects as conveyed via image – details are obscured and turned into flat spaces, necklaces and earrings are rendered as the light captures them, with areas obscured and imperfectly translated. Lavish adornment becomes silhouette and diminished form. Throughout much of her recent work, Kivarkis has asked questions about the context of jewelry as an object of creative construction, as an outgrowth of personal taste or aspiration and as a mode of communication – luxury is always viewed through the lens of a question and, by implication, the culture and people who define it.'
And, yes, there is a tension in this investigation. The abundance of objects are the result of someone’s labor at one level or another – it is not as if this particular group of artists, as whole, is calling for a revolution of capitalism or a complete restructuring of the whole system (whether that is good or bad). They do seem, however, to be self-aware of their role and the potential power of the conversation they could raise. Both Gabriel Craig and the Ethical Metalsmiths take on the intersection of luxury, decadence and materiality in a way that engages the community-at-large and directly undercuts contemporary mechanisms of consumer culture – their projects reiterate the importance of handmade jewelry (and, consequently, other handmade goods) and play on the idea of jewelry as an object of exchange as well as carrier of meaning on multiple levels.
Here’s how I describe this in my catalog essay: 'In order to provide a vernacular context for handmade jewelry, Gabriel Craig has taken his “studio to the street” for performances that involve dialogue, jewelry production and exchange. Craig’s performance series developed from the recognition that jewelry production is not common knowledge and that the cultural value of jewelry could and should be stressed to a broad public… Not only does he provide insight into a studio process, but he also makes a practice of giving away his work… Craig’s actions undercut practices of consumption and challenge ideas of luxury. His efforts – and, by association, the value associated with it – operates beyond a culture of capitalism while still commenting on it.'
And this: 'Driven to “educate and connect people with responsibly sourced materials,” Ethical Metalsmiths has conceptualized and organized community-based projects under the title of “Radical Jewelry Makeover.” The public is asked to donate their unwanted jewelry (basically, to mine their own homes) to volunteer jewelers and metalsmiths who will use this “excess” to construct new jewelry objects. The new jewels are exhibited and offered for sale. Providing not only a framework in which to understand the mining of resources for jewelry but also a new framework in which to consider material consumption, the Radical Jewelry Makeover events highlight resourcing, process, technique and creativity…The end product is not just the tangible objects – brooches, rings and necklaces that combine past and present – but also the sense of community engendered in the process and the renewal of cast-off objects.'
This jewelry develops a new strategy for defining decadence – one concerned with material value, certainly, but also volume and context. They are in concert with larger conversations that affect people across economic lines and social status.