Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).
The Park Avenue Armory is much as the name suggests: a building completed in 1881 for the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard. SOFA NY (April 14-17, 2011) is held in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, a huge space of about 200 by 300 feet with a barrel-vaulted roof spanned by eleven wrought-iron arches. All that detail recedes into the darkness, obscured by the lights and carefully tended glitter and polish of the booths below, which vary in size and in their effects of spaciousness. Not surprisingly, the jewelry galleries pack a great deal into their allotted sections, with jewelry hanging on walls, littering plinths and shelves, stored in drawers and locked away in glass cases.
It’s hard to tell at a distance (and because I have nothing to compare it to, this being my first time at SOFA) but the opening doesn’t seem to be a frenzy of buying. Red dots have, by 8pm, begun to turn up in the booths, the half or full red dot a semaphore of desire and commitment. Mostly, the event seems to be about socializing, a fair bit of social kissing, but mostly what appears to be genuine affection and enjoyment in the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and old friends. As with all art fairs I have attended, there is a certain amount of endurance required, both physically (all that standing, walking, smiling) and mentally (all those objects, which get flattened after a while and lose their individuality in the sheer mass of stuff clamoring for your attention).
By the end of the night, I’ve decided that I am having a minicrisis in relation to the power and efficacy of contemporary jewelry and SOFA NY isn’t helping. Craft, lumped together in this environment, seems like an awful phenomenon, a category of objects that couldn’t be more disconnected from the world. I have begun to wonder what the point, and potential, of contemporary jewelry might be. It seems totally withdrawn from the larger world of jewelry, cut adrift as a set of artistically ambitious objects that trade on a (mythic) relationship to the rest of the jewelry world – the realm of conventional diamond rings and other jewelry forms that, while despised by contemporary jewelry fans, actually manifest the potential of jewelry to insinuate itself into people’s lives.
Bitching about all this to a friend, she tells me that the solution is not to look for what is terrible, but to search for those objects that have the potential for an interesting encounter. It sounds like an updated version of what my mother used to say about not being ungrateful for what I have, a self-serving piece of advice, I always thought, given that she was so responsible for the conditions of my happiness, but in fact it turns out to be the right thing to do. Out of the ruins of the opening, a richer experience starts to emerge.
Jewelry As Craft
There are six galleries attending SOFA NY who are members of AJF, and together they represent the span of contemporary jewelry. I can’t say for sure as I don’t know much about other craft practices, but it seems to me that jewelry is better represented at this fair than many other forms of craft. By that I mean that the spectrum of jewelry is on display and it is mostly ambitious and interesting. At one end of the spectrum is Aaron Faber Gallery, who represent the ongoing exploration of precious materials and traditional jewelry forms, the story that contemporary jewelry often forgets about, where artistic ambition meet and engage with what is rightly called conventional jewelry in lesser hands. Then spread across the other five galleries – Charon Kransen Arts, Gallery S O, Jewelers’ Werk Galerie, Ornamentum, Sienna Gallery – are the different strategies of contemporary jewelry that embraces the other spaces on and around the body that became available to contemporary jewelry through the experiments of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
While not all the contemporary jewelry on display is equally interesting, I didn’t see the bloated, out-of-control craft that appeared in other booths – the spectacular and empty objects that exist, so it seems, solely to appeal to rich collectors as a demonstration of technical skill. (Yes, studio glass, I am talking about you.) There is a seriousness, an intellectual integrity across the jewelry that I saw which was encouraging and which suggests that contemporary jewelry as a craft practice still has some kick. In the cold light of day, I realized that if SOFA NY made me uncomfortably aware of all the things I hate about craft, I could leave the fair still feeling all right about contemporary jewelry.
Tall and thick, the SOFA NY catalogue is glossy and surprisingly useful. It includes four essays, one written by Jeannine Falino and Jennifer Scanlan which talks about their exhibition Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design at the Museum of Arts and Design. But what really strikes me is the opportunity to look, without distraction, at the photographs of work in the Exhibitors section. Most galleries are represented by two images, which are actually really large, in some cases bigger than life size. While I am forever conceptually critiquing the ubiquity of the image over the real object – the image is the real home of contemporary jewelry, the way most of us encounter most jewelry – it is excellent to escape the clamor of the fair and be able to consider selected objects at your own pace. As an adjunct to the SOFA NY experience, the catalogue is a necessity. I’m not sure what life it will have beyond, or after, the four days of the event.
It is really interesting looking at the way the six different member galleries of AJF display their jewelry. Sienna Gallery has a restricted exhibition of four jewelers represented by multiple pieces of recent work and the display furniture is a four-table arrangement of dynamic wedges with faux-sharkskin vinyl. The effect is a kind of special domesticity – not out of the ordinary, or, better, just out of the ordinary enough. There are no labels of any kind, so you have to solicit information from the booth attendants. But the most notable aspect of Sienna Gallery’s booth is the Costume Costume Photo Booth by Opulent Project. A selection of new work by younger jewelers is displayed on shelves. While it is all for sale, the purpose of the booth is that you can put the jewelry on and then take photographs of yourself. The set-up is a web camera, a computer and a printer, which spits out a postcard of your photos from a slot in the wall, while also displaying a revolving slideshow of the images on a monitor at the front of the booth. This is both smart and funny, engaging people as well as the often-missing activity of wearing. Jewelry is restored to the body, while at the same time advertising what the gallery does and sells.
Gallery S O favors a model closest to the museum, one of the reasons it stands out, along with its representation of silversmithing alongside jewelry. Featuring approximately fourteen makers, the objects are a mixture of older and recent work, although the majority on display comes from the past five years. The objects are hung on walls, sit on shelves and lie in vitrines, tables with glass tops, and everything is accompanied by neat labels which provide all the details (artist, title, date, medium, price). This is the logic of the art gallery and museum, with everything carefully identified for the viewer. The experience, as a result, is different, a kind of browsing that requires interaction at the point you decide to look closer, or try something on.
At Charon Kransen Arts, the jewelry is displayed in profusion, a plethora of jewelry spreading over tables and up the walls. Nothing is in cases, which creates a certain immediacy, establishing a connection between object and (possible) buyer. Here the name of the jeweler is indicated by a discrete silver nametag, but there is no information about title, date or medium – requiring interaction with the staff of the gallery. Most of the jewelers are represented by more than one piece of recent work, so there is depth within individual practices, but the sheer number of jewelers on display introduces the visitor/viewer to a sense of the breadth of contemporary jewelry as a practice – the variety of approaches, materials, techniques, addresses to the body.
Around the corner at Jewelers’ Work Galerie, the jewelry is laid out on tables and hung on the walls. Most of the work laid flat is covered by cases, although these are Perspex cases that sit over the jewelry and can easily be moved. Each of the eleven jewelers is represented by a number of works, and because a lot of it is small, the booth actually has a great deal of jewelry within it, without seeming crowded. The names of the jewelers are written in pencil beside the work and as in most cases, there is no information about title, date and medium – the requirement for engagement with the gallery’s staff.
Ornamentum follows the logic of the contemporary jewelry gallery, with work displayed on shelves and in drawers, as well as hanging on the walls. As with the other galleries, there is a refusal of the case, allowing the viewer/visitor to interact directly with the work by handling it or trying it on. What Ornamentum does offer, which is slightly different from the other galleries, is two mini solo shows of Jiro Kamata and Jennifer Trask at either end of the booth, both of which are spatially and graphically distinguished within the space. Like Charon Kransen Arts, Ornamentum’s display seems to be primarily about representing the breadth of practice found in the gallery for the SOFA audience, as if the gallery has, for these four days, relocated to New York.
Finally, the Aaron Faber Gallery displays its jewelry mostly within display cases with glass shelves, with a smaller amount of work hanging on the walls, without glass. In keeping with the precious materials, small scale and traditional forms (rings, necklaces, brooches) of this jewelry, the exhibition logic is more in keeping with the jewelry store or gallery. Pieces rest on the glass shelves or are propped up on square blocks so they can be properly seen, the sparkle and luster of stones and surfaces displayed to the viewer. As with most of the booths, the names of the jewelers are given, but the specific details of individual works are not provided, so that the viewer who wants to know more needs to interact with the staff. Most jewelers are represented by more than one work, offering a sense of depth within individual practices, and the jewelry is recent, with the exception of some estate jewelry and watches, and a selection of jewelry by Earl Pardon.
SOFA NY is, I realize, about more than the craft on display in the booths. It is also about meeting people and listening to people talk. There are a surprising number of opportunities for learning during the four-day fair. I attended a lecture by Jeannine Falino, co-sponsored by AJF and SNAG, which surveyed a variety of mid-century modernist American jewelers, designers and artists who made jewelry, that are to be included in MAD’s upcoming exhibition in October 2011. I also heard talks by Lisa Walker, Jennifer Trask and Sergey Jivetin, which were part of the official lecture program and a presentation by Daniel Kruger in the VIP lounge. I had the chance to meet and talk to a number of colleagues who were attending the fair.
All of which is to say that SOFA NY is a contradiction and it can’t be viewed as a whole, a coherent entity, but rather as an event in relation to which you can curate your own experience, identifying that which is interesting and screening out that which is unimportant. A fair like SOFA is ultimately what you make of it.