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.
Yevgeniya Kaganovich is a very diversified and articulate artist. Her show at Heidi Lowe Gallery called Function Fictions is a continuation of an investigation of her fascination with pearls. She has some interesting thoughts about them and a new process for using them in the making of her necklaces. I also asked her about some of her earlier work, which veers out of the jewelry realm but stays in the land of the body.
Susan Cummins: Pearls have been your thing for a long time. What kind of hold do they have on you?
Yevgeniya Kaganovich: I am fascinated by the distance between “pearl” the object and “pearl” the cultural contract. Pearls have come to have so many different, sometimes diametrically opposing connotations: status, wealth, power, glamour, celebrity, purity, innocence, corruption, and seduction. The pearl operates as a signifier of these cultural constructs. But in reality, the pearl is this very unlikely object. Considering its origin, a pearl is a scar, an imperfection that has been glorified, elevated to a status of preciousness, and ascribed a high monetary value. For all of its cultural conditions, prestige, and historical statue, a pearl has a meager beginning as a mere irritation, an anomaly. It gets even more complicated with cultured pearls. They are deliberate intrusions into live organisms—hybrids, mutants. And then there is nacre, the iridescent outer coating of pearls, which is a bit magical, because its formation is not fully understood scientifically. It is secreted by a mollusk. Its function is to smooth the shell surface and protect the soft tissues from debris/future pearls. A mollusk deposits successive layers of nacre onto a pearl all its life. We value the pearl based on how thick and lustrous its nacre is. In my pearl work, I attempt to think through some of these dichotomies.
How does the new series of pearl-related jewelry in the Function Fictions show differ from the series made earlier, from 2005–2009?
Yevgeniya Kaganovich: While the 2005–2009 series dealt with the pearl as object and image, the new series focuses more explicitly on the pearl necklace format, particularly the traditional pearl clasp.
In the older work, I wanted to examine the cultural value of pearls by transforming small freshwater pearls into an image of a large perfect pearl necklace. I was juxtaposing precious and experimental materials to question the cultural value of precious jewelry. Through blanking, silhouetting, inflating, or flattening the image, I was attempting to transform the work into iconic images of jewelry. These pieces were both literal and cultural images of a pearl necklace.
The new series utilizes altered images of a traditional pearl clasp and porcelain “pearls.” I flatten, inflate, gradate, and deform the clasps, disrupting their function in this transformation and making them into decorative elements. I slip cast porcelain to resemble pearls, and then give them nacre by melting actual freshwater pearls onto the surface.
During an artist residency at Hungary The International Ceramics Studio, Kecskemét, Hungary, I made a discovery that when pearls are crushed and fired on the surface of porcelain to cone 13, they make a transparent blue glaze. In this new work, freshwater pearls are transformed into puddles of luster on the surface of otherwise soft, slightly deformed large round porcelain forms. Fusing two precious materials, freshwater pearls and porcelain, changes both, creating a new kind of precious jewel.
Can you elaborate on the title of the show Function Fictions? What does it mean or refer to?
Yevgeniya Kaganovich: Function Fictions refers to multiple dichotomies that I aim to explore in this body of work: precious/nonprecious; functional/decorative; and jewel setting/connectors/mechanisms.
In my mind, pearls are almost mythical fictitious constructs. In this new series, large perfectly round pearls are approximated in porcelain, while real pearls serve as connectors. I am also creating a fictitious jewel by melting pearls onto the surface of porcelain. There is a lot of play with inverting and distorting the traditional functions of pearls as cultural, social, and precious-material constructs. Another material fiction of sorts occurs with the rhodium-plated silver.
There is also a more direct inversion of functional elements, particularly the traditional pearl clasps becoming decorative. They are inflated, gradated, fragmented, flattened, blanked out, and juxtaposed with negative silhouettes of pearls. Their decorative characteristics are played up to the point where they loose their use as mechanisms. Clasps become ornate decorative elements, hooks become “beads” and “pendants.”
Your investigations and projects have often included strange-looking devises that interact with the body. Some of these are wearable and some are not. Is the body, rather than jewelry, your territory of inquiry?
Yevgeniya Kaganovich: The body is often the subject and/or the site, but function, whether it’s utilitarian, social, or evocative, is probably just as important in my practice. My work has developed in three distinct but related directions: sculptural body extensions that display a physiological condition defined by the corporeal body and the social environment; jewelry that explores cultural and social functions of adornment; and installations that attempt to locate the human experience within architectural and cultural constructs.
In making jewelry, I am interested in exploring the cultural and social functions of adornment. I am fascinated by the function of craft objects beyond utility. Specifically, I am interested in how jewelry functions to signal identity, power, fraternity, and status, as well as its ability to communicate ideas about the wearer, project a desired image, attract, and seduce. Much of how a piece of adornment functions is determined by the materials and the value attributed to these materials. This is the focus of much of my wearable work.
Throughout the long-standing series of body extensions, I address the complexities of inner personal and social interactions conditioned by the corporal body. I explore the absurdity of our attempts to express, perceive, communicate, and understand. I think of the pieces I make as body extensions and as projections of mental habits and bodily knowledge. I aim to make objects that, through their use, comment on aspects of our existence, our experiences, our interactions, and our bodies. I am interested in function as a point of access for the viewer and an opportunity to create meaning. It’s important that the work is not read as sculpture to be observed, but that it invites the viewer’s participation, whether actual or imagined. It’s through this engagement that the function and implications of each piece are considered.
While the objects I make mark the body as the site of exchange, in installation I attempt to locate the human body within architectural and cultural constructs and consider our existence within and our effect on them.
Throughout its various modes, my work is defined by my training and practice in jewelry and metalsmithing. My handling of the materials is informed by sensibilities that are prevalent in making jewelry and metal objects. The range of specific processes, methodologies, and materials enhances my ability to engage topics that are inherent to craft—wearability, the body, function, ritual, and preciousness. I firmly believe in the ability of creative objects to carry meaning and communicate ideas through their historical, social, and cultural use. The advantage of originating in a craft discipline is the opportunity to utilize formats rooted within the applied tradition and employ craft strategies to create objects that explore and communicate ways of existing and making sense in the world. Craft scholar Lisa Norton stresses that craft has an inherent capacity to talk about “the stuff of life” through objects because craft in general is primarily about the body, use, and life.
Whether it is through format, process, material, performance of labor, or the cultural implications of objects, I strive to create objects and experiences—all in one way or another tangential to the applied tradition—and locate them at a point of the body as the site of exchange. Through these objects, I explore ideas about being and making our way through life. The variety of approaches to material, format, and process, allows me to address these concepts, ultimately resulting in a hybrid practice.
Collaborations using film, installations, balloons, literature, and so forth are prominent in your list of projects. Is there a focus to the subjects of these projects?
Yevgeniya Kaganovich: I’ve been really fortunate to have an opportunity to collaborate with a few amazing artists. While the subjects of these investigations are often consistent with my overall practice, collaborative work offers different and new ways to address these same ideas.
For me, collaborations are always an exercise in letting go, giving up a certain amount of control for the sake of ending up somewhere new and different. My current project, grow, is probably the most extreme version of that. I am the initiator and the primary maker, but many other people, artists and non-artists, contribute their time, skills, and materials to the project. I developed the initial forms, processes, and parameters for this installation, but I don’t know how, where, or when it is going to end.
grow is a series of durational installations in a number of public buildings throughout the city of Milwaukee. At each location, a system of interconnected plant-like forms grows over time, simulating a self-propagating organism in multiple stages of development, and utilizing reused plastic bags as base material. Layers of plastic are fused together to create a surface similar to leather or skin, molded into plant-like volumes, and connected with plastic bag “thread,” creating a system made out a singular material. I’ve set up official plastic recycling bins at each location, where I periodically collect the bags and add onto each organism. Like weeds, these organisms grow into unused spaces, niches, stairwells, and other peripheral architectural elements. Through grow, my goals are to transform an artificial manipulated material into a seemingly unchecked, feral, opportunistic growth and to visualize and punctuate reuse by juxtaposing it with slow, methodical, labor-intensive making that plays with control, “craftiness,” and precision. Public involvement ranges from contributing plastic bags for specific locations to participating in workshops that I regularly hold with my student assistants who work with me through a terrific undergraduate research program at my university.
Can you recommend any particular books you have enjoyed recently?
Vibrant Matter by political theorist Jane Bennett