Jillian Moore is a maker and writer who currently lives in Iowa City, United States, where she completed her MFA in jewelry and metal arts at the University of Iowa in 2008. She received her BFA in metalsmithing and jewelrymaking from Western Illinois University in Macomb, in 2004.
My normal life keeps me in Iowa, a state not known for its gallery scene, let alone its studio-craft community. I don’t want to imply that those things aren’t happening here – they are, but at a slower pace and a lower volume. The extreme shift from living most of my life in my studio (basement) to my annual visit to downtown Chicago is like interplanetary travel. To say that the glut of visual information at SOFA Chicago is overwhelming would be an understatement. This was my tenth year attending and it never gets easier to digest. I’ve learned to take small bites, by resting during lectures or simply running from the exhibition hall like a mad woman at semi-hourly intervals. The magnitude of this year’s event was further multiplied by the addition of the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art. The raw, uncouth and unpolished work often functioned as a foil to the bulk of what I try to block out at SOFA. Of course I could only read so many tragic biographies of outsider artists before I decided to buy a shed, lock all of my work inside and fake my own death so as to finally make bank.
It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that I don’t have fun at SOFA Chicago. There are great things to be found, but you have to sift a lot of chaff to find it. My assumption has always been that a large volume of the traffic at SOFA comes from buyers, not to be confused with collectors. Buyers have been tasked with filling corporate or domestic spaces following some arbitrary rules relating to number of pieces x space to fill. This is how I try to understand the bulk of generic dross that serves as an impediment to my scrounging every year. There’s enough facile whimsy to keep any Hallmark shopper enthralled for days. And if you’d like some grandma bling, they’ve got you covered as well. Digging scrupulously through all of it, the collectors come to find new artists in whatever media they’ve been fans of and to potentially discover new media as well.
The exhibitors make their best efforts to recreate the sacrosanct gallery aura within their little parsed booths and ignore the indoor football stadium quality of the space as best they can. The contrast is jarring and the booths that go out of their way to diverge from the semblance of white cube are much appreciated. I’ve found that the jewelry exhibitors in particular are more adventurous with their displays. And when it comes to art jewelry, I knew there were some regulars I could rely on. To try and play devil’s advocate I hoped to come across something that caught my eye elsewhere. I can honestly say I did not see any truly interesting jewelry at SOFA outside of Charon Kransen, Ornamentum, Sienna Gallery and Snyderman Works - specifically their featured body of work by Bruce Metcalf. I did find some interesting things at the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art that I squeaked in. I’ve included highlights from each and a further discussion of their booths as well.
Ever since I first went to SOFA Chicago at the age of eighteen, I’ve learned to fear Charon Kransen’s eyebrow. It’s always been a barometer for me – of how sales are going, how crowded it is around his booth and how long I’d overstayed my welcome leaving greasy face prints on his glass display cases. Maybe this is why I’ve always preferred his wall displays and the small shelves that display larger work. I find them easier to inspect. The tiers of glass filled with layer upon layer of brooches, necklaces, bracelets and rings start to give me vertigo by day three.
This year Eun Yeong Jeong was both a lecturer and featured artist in the booth. Her new work, a continuation of a series that began with her thesis last year, focuses on preservation and decay using dried ginger combined with materials from her earlier work. I’ve always loved Eun Yeong’s use of texture and form and I found the work seductive and disturbing in the best of ways. Forms cluster and overlap, calling to mind tumors, clusters of fungus, gonads and flora. Another winner of the AJF Emerging Artist Award (EAA), lecturer Andrea Janosik, also had work featured in Charon Kransen’s booth. Janosik works with both metal and leather, layering the leather to build form and texture. The colors were rich, but for me the flourishes at the end of many of the conical elements were distracting. I preferred the pieces in which the leather forms rolled under and their method of creation was less apparent.
Other artists with new work at Charon Kransen who caught my eye included Daniel DiCaprio, Robert Longyear, Barbara Paganin, Natalya Pinchuk and Lucy Sarneel. DiCaprio had brooches as well as larger sculptural forms on exhibit. His combination of bulbous, carved forms in wood and the fine bristles of metal wire are always satisfying. The larger sculptures find a conjunction between organism and instrument. Longyear showed new work that was more cohesive in form and color, but I missed the more chaotic effect of some of his earlier work. I suspect these pieces were selected because they would behave themselves in the glass display case. Barbara Paganin was a new find for me. Her work spans a diverse array of materials, but all are interesting in their attention to detail and their reference to organic forms. I very much enjoyed Natalya Pinchuk’s new pieces as well. Her large-scale brooches, often the size of my palm, were more colorful than past work. The metal forms married to the plastic floral elements were often bright pink and, along with felt, there were seductive leather elements as well. Though I have an obvious attraction to what might be considered hedonistic use of color, the zinc that Lucy Sarneel uses always fascinates me. The matt, cool gray is somewhere between fine silver and lead. She’s even got me liking beads – shocking!
Over to Ornamentum, where walking up to the booth I was immediately confronted with a wall covered in taxidermy bunny heads, their ears overflowing with hand-stitched beading and threadwork created by the Idiots - Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker. A group of Ted Noten’s ceramic phalluses were directly to the left and I do hope there was heated debate among visitors as to whether they fell into the 'sculptural object' category or the 'functional art' camp. I cannot tell you how pleasant it was to see this work right off the main SOFA drag, given that most exhibitors err well on the side of caution. Also, there’s a serious shortage of levity throughout the whole affair and I’m a bit tired of Noten’s acrylic handbags anyway.
I was most interested in work by Sam Tho Duong. The pieces all referenced branches and segments, leaving them more open in their intent and the surfaces were completely covered with oblong seed pearls. The handwork was beautiful and, more importantly, visually engaging. The pearls seemed more like seeds or eggs than adornment.
Ornamentum also showed work by Agnes Larsson, winner of AJF’s EAA this year and Adam Grinovich, another SNAG Emerging Artist lecturer. Both of their work on display relied heavily on texture and the restricted use of color. Larsson’s work combined carbon and horsehair to create monochromatic pieces that felt cryptic and severe. The wall they were displayed on was painted accordingly and added to the mood of the work in a way I enjoyed. (I really liked her iron pieces.) Generally, I found the pieces too sober, but a necklace with symmetrical oblong pendant forms was enigmatic. Grinovich’s work relied on various materials repurposed to create new forms and textures. However the images shown in his lecture felt more actualized than they did on the displays. Grinovich’s work is more activated by the body, especially the pieces on pedestals which appeared limp and difficult to study due to lighting in their corner of the space.
Two groups of featured work, by Bettina Speckner and Maisie Broadhead, bookended the booth of Sienna Gallery. Speckner’s work is intimate, using found photographs with precious elements that often bolster the content and tone of the images selected. Broadhead’s photographs are staged farces in response to old-master paintings. Often the pieces are shown with three-dimensional objects, typically jewelry, that is either taken from or based on the image. They were an interesting conjunction of photography and jewelry, with enough irreverence to shy away from becoming stuffy in any way.
A mixture of tables that were easy to get cozy with as well as pedestals and wall displays made the space very dynamic. Work by both Iris Bodemer and Marta Mattsson were only familiar to me from images, so I was happy to find them as fascinating in person as I had hoped. Bodemer’s work often feels totemic and primitive, but not severe. Resin and insects feel painfully overdone, but Mattsson’s pieces are bisected and the body cavities are then filled with gems. The bodies of the insects are often obscured by paint or resin pushing them further from what has been too familiar in other work. Melanie Bilenker’s work is always amazing in person and continued to hold my attention. The mundane scenes she creates with hair set in resin are always sweet, but not saccharine. And though the method of their creation is impressive, the fact that Bilenker continues to show restraint and approach it as a drawing medium keeps them fresh. I have to confess that I started suffering from ‘gem fatigue’ some time last year, but Michael Dale Bernard’s new brooches were therapeutic. The small clustered ‘gems’ were carved in wood and painted in bright, cheeky colors. Along with the construction of the brooch hardware, his work is always charmingly, cartoonishly masculine – a hot-rod-obsessed grade school boy’s earnest conception of jewelry?
Snyderman Works Gallery presented Bruce Metcalf. I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a long-time fan of Metcalf’s jewelry. I’ve been pining after his work since my years cobbling together bad jewelry in the early 2000s. The booth had large drawings visible from the grand boulevard of SOFA – a beguiling little puti and a chimera of belly and orifice that was much more inscrutable. Possibly a GMO puti. I do love the collision of forms and stories in Metcalf’s necklaces, but this year the brooches won out for me. Instead of having to handle a crowd, they give me a one-on-one connection to the piece. The brooches on the wall were easy to inspect and get to know, some more floral specimen, some were pocket comedians. They do not apologize for their scale and juicy colors are welcome.
In addition to all of the work on display, makers and collectors of art jewelry could attend SNAG’s Emerging Artist lectures, which provided an interesting platform for jewelry makers who are about to graduate or are usually within their first five years of making their mark. The speakers are given a shorter timespan than lectures typically hosted at the SNAG conference, or even expected of a visiting artist in an academic setting – the three always share one hour. This means it is often an unpolished performance, but how often do young artists have the opportunity to experiment with the material for a lecture? This is a chance for an artist to try out ideas with a smaller group and see what works and what doesn’t. This year’s speakers, Adam Grinovich, Eun Yeong Jeong and Andrea Janosik, were all new and interesting voices.
This year, SNAG also sponsored a lecture by Garth Clark titled ‘Peering Over the Palace Wall: The Neo-palatial Aesthetic in Contemporary Art.' This provided Clark with a platform to expand on his ideas in this year’s Metalsmith exhibition in print with images of work that had been cut and time to go into his opinions on the topic more honestly. A tangible exhibition of the work will follow and hopefully spark further dialog on the topic. As Clark has maintained in both his lecture and the EIP, there is something both tantalizing and satisfyingly satirical about the language of opulence when it is subverted. Especially given the current economic climate.
In general, I leave SOFA Chicago feeling utterly exhausted, irritated and longing for my own bed and studio. This year was no exception. I also leave feeling like there is far too much pinch-faced, sourpuss seriousness for my liking. I was initially attracted by art jewelry and studio craft in general, because it wasn’t so stuffy. I spend every visit to SOFA searching out the irreverent, experimental and ridiculous because I need to feel like there’s still a viable place for that work. This year wasn’t as encouraging as I would have liked, but where there are GMO puti, ginger mummies and dildos, there’s hope.
And making another push for levity, there was a great necklace by Ruudt Peters addressing the phallus as well. Ornamentum showed work on the wall and on a long shelf with something akin to a sneeze guard at a buffet, though this was more like a purse/elbow guard that made everyone relax while stumbling through on the third day. Below the shelf there were drawers that had more work from the jewelers displayed above.