Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of AJF and California College of the Arts.
Warwick Freeman is a New Zealand jeweler who is widely recognized outside of his country. At Schmuck 2013 in Munich, he was the featured master with a case devoted exclusively to his work. In 2002, Freeman was awarded both the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation award and The Arts Foundation Laureate Award. An exhibition of his work called Given travelled to Amsterdam and around New Zealand museums in 2004–2007, accompanied by a catalogue with text written by Damian Skinner. And besides all that, Freeman was a partner in the well-known contemporary jewelry cooperative Fingers, which opened in 1988. His street cred is excellent. This show with The National gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand is a mini retrospective of his work.
Susan Cummins: How did you learn to make jewelry? What attracted you to it?
Warwick Freeman: I usually make the claim that I’m an autodidact because I never went to an art school or attended any type of jewelry course. It’s basically the truth, but that belies the actual story which involves myriad contacts with workshops concerned with both the manufacture of the industrial and art. Learning tricks, observing ways of working—learning the habits of making.
But, when I think about the moments I developed some of the distinctive characteristics of my practice, I think I was probably alone, finding my own way by trial and error. I think that experiential learning was actually one of the things that attracted me to jewelry making, the workshop part of jewelry making anyway.
Warwick Freeman: That process started quite early for me, some time in the middle of the 1980s. When you consider the size of New Zealand’s population, less than 4 million people, and our closest neighbor Australia has that population in some of its cities, there has always been an economic and cultural pull to the outside for New Zealanders. Australia, because it’s closest, and traditionally we all made trips to the UK in our late youth, early 20s. I made such a trip when I was in my late teens, but I wasn’t making jewelry then or even of thinking of making it.
Australia in the mid-80s was my first foray overseas with work, and from there it spring-boarded to Europe and then to the US. There was a Ping-Pong affect once I started. The axis was always inclined towards Europe. The jewelry made in Europe looked more interesting than the jewelry made in the US. That was probably an unfair call, but despite New Zealand jewelry relying on a strong identity narrative at the time (in the 1980s), it was the more intellectual framing of the narrative that appealed to me in European jewelry. Some of that European influence came our way with visits by Hermann Jünger in 1984 and Otto Künzli in 1990. They came into this tiny pool of makers, so they were very influential.
I never approached any gallery. I was always asked, which made the process very easy, and there is huge serendipity at play in how it unfolds. Paul Derrez visited Australia and saw a piece of mine in the National Gallery of Australia collection, and I ended up showing in Amsterdam. That Paul Derrez made that call on one piece of jewelry says something about his eye.
When I did get US representation, it was the result of a new breed of US gallery owners looking to Europe for work. Jewelers’werk’s Ellen Reiben saw my work in Germany, not in New Zealand.
But, also remember, the worldview in the 1980s and 90s around contemporary jewelry was still quite small. I could name most of my international colleagues and follow their production through the very few publications. I probably bought every monograph and catalogue by a colleague up to the mid 90s—wouldn’t try that now, wouldn’t want to.
Warwick Freeman: I’ve been forced to consider this recently because I am selecting a show of New Zealand jewelry for an exhibition at Schmuck in 2014. My co-curator is Karl Fritsch, who lives in New Zealand, but he is from jewelry’s German heartland— Bavaria—and his eye has been tuned by a completely different background, so he sees particular qualities, maybe not in the places I would look, but ones he thinks are particular to New Zealand. And I don’t mean motif or materials, but qualities that stem from a particular attitude to making. It’s a difference I’ve observed, but just not in the positive light that Karl views it.
There was a strong natural-materials movement in the 1980s that still leaves its mark on current production, but there is very little in it that would distinguish it from, say, Finland, or some other Scandinavian approaches.
There is a particular local narrative that doesn’t export well, so I wouldn’t say it distinguishes the work outside of New Zealand—not on face value anyway—it’s either highly nuanced for local consumption or badly presented for tourists. Karl and I are trying to introduce some of that nuance into our Munich show selection. I really don’t know if it will work or not.
Warwick Freeman: Most of it was made very much in the past tense. When I show these days, it comes from a very broad margin of my working career. Pieces from a long time ago are in the show and pieces made a few weeks ago are in it. I’m not putting them out as “old” and “new,” but as pieces that belong together in the same room.
A colleague once talked about exhibitions being about “putting stuff in rooms.” That’s essentially the type of exhibition practice I have. “Putting stuff in rooms” is a feeling that’s more related to the idea of the museum rather than the art gallery. I’m not an installation artist, well not a good one, so I don’t “install” in that way. I want the room to have a feeling, but its all got to emanate from the work. I’m trying to avoid the “Great video, shame about the song” syndrome. The work is the song.
What piece of jewelry has had the most impact on you?
Warwick Freeman: Hard call. I bought a simple open-sided bangle when I was traveling in Afghanistan in the early 1970s. I don’t know why I bought it particularly, but I was looking at it the other day and I’ve often wondered if it had something to do with triggering my awareness of jewelry. If it did, then it wins the prize for the most impact.
Who, in your view, is the most overlooked jeweler in New Zealand?
Warwick Freeman: Pass. Actually, it’s such a small country that you can’t overlook anyone, so if you are overlooked, then that’s probably of your own design.
Warwick Freeman: I should be pleading the fifth on these questions. But putting any care of incrimination aside, I’ll trot out a few from my formative past.
Dorothea Prüehl, Otto Künzli, Bernhard Schobinger. They have all made work that, at the right time in my career, has made me think, “There’s something going on here that fits with how my world works.”
What was the most important exhibition you have seen this year?
Warwick Freeman: I don’t know how to rank importance. There’s plenty of stuff on show at anytime that should make you weep and wonder why you bother, but I’ll stick to contemporary jewellery exhibitions. Well, it was my first visit to Schmuck this March, so I can’t go past Otto Künzli’s The Exhibition. It showed to us all why we think he’s good.
What kinds of jewelry are you drawn to?
Warwick Freeman: I have a great fondness for work that carries its responsibility as jewelry with some lightness but with absolute confidence. It doesn’t worry if it’s art or not. To get to that place, it can just be something with a hole in it, but there’s something right about the hole, where it is, and what it’s in.
Makes for an odd view of what works and what doesn’t, and the hardest thing is to allow my own work that same permission to exist. Trouble is, it usually results in the type of gesture that looks like anyone could make.
I know art isn’t often bothered by that assessment, but jewelry has a strong inbuilt sense of virtuosity to contend with, and I’ve had the odd virtuosic moment myself. But, if it has to answer the question “what is it?” I would rather it answered “a piece of jewelry” rather than “a piece of art.”
What kind of books are you drawn to?
Warwick Freeman: At the moment, I’m very much enjoying books that have a presence as record. Finding a strange attraction to art monographs and surveys from the mid-twentieth century. Maybe it’s an anti-Google reaction. Unlike the Internet, the book limits the viewpoint. Publishing is constantly uncovering new layers about what happened in that century. Witness the uncovering of jewelry practice by many more artist-makers than what we were exposed to back then. The printing of the old art books is pretty average, but even going back to the era in which color plates were pasted in is intriguing my eye. That’s it really—books are for my eye.