Jennifer Cross Gans is a writer and collector of jewelry and a member of AJF, SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) and MAG (Metal Arts Guild).
At first sight, this new exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, California, holds the delight of a child’s playroom. There are oversize drawings on the walls, a large case with a train set in a rocky, wintry landscape and some display cases with peepholes to entice the viewer. Children – and any adults raised on cartoons – instantly get the message.
Signe Mayfield, the exhibition’s curator, notes that 'the idea of the miniature world fascinated me' and quotes Bruce Metcalf in the exhibition catalog: 'The miniature can only be entered through an act of imaginative projection. Looking at small objects, viewers will get very close and the object will fill their field of vision. There’s no scale in the imagination, and very small things can become psychologically large.' But isn’t this supposed to be a jewelry show? Well, yes and no.
In a broader sense, the exhibition showcases Metcalf’s versatility as an artist, cartoonist, model-maker, jeweler and writer. Mayfield thought the idea was a perfect fit after her previous major successes with traveling exhibitions and catalogs that include Marriage in Form: Bob Stocksdale; Dominic Di Mare: A Retrospective; Big Idea: The Maquettes of Robert Arneson; and The Thought of Things: Jewelry by Kiff Slemmons. She adds that 'organizing each exhibition is a process of discovery.'
This one is certainly a discovery for visitors. Collectors will observe at least three more recent 'chapters' among the 76 pieces in the show. There is none of the abstract work shown in the Helen Williams Drutt collection. There are several mostly gold-leafed figures from the artist’s romantic, sentimental phase, some relating to his fascination with Karl Blossfeld, Victorian jewelry and interest in the classics. Other Dada-influenced sets have the playful quality of children’s toys, like Pewter Peanut with Box and Worms from Mars Invade an Authentic New England Village.
The most fascinating and disturbing pieces are the swollen headed, big-eyed, spindly legged homunculi laughing, crying, striving, pleading and begging for attention. They have a cartoon quality which is simultaneously delightful and repulsive. At first sight, many are no more than goggle-eyed freaks.
On reflection, the power of this artist’s message carries a powerful punch. Suggests Mayfield, 'Metcalf’s work is intensely autobiographical, but he has taken us outside himself to give a larger framework. His work also expands the potential for jewelry to go way beyond visual expression. He nudges the boundaries of beauty.' In doing so he also invites people to speculate, thoughtfully, about what he is trying to communicate. Adds Metcalf: 'I see all artworks, jewelry included, as having the potential to be symbolic gestures . . . reminders that we don’t have to accept things as they are. Either way, it’s doubtful that jewelry is an effective agent of change. It may, however, get out into the world and make a few people think.'
For better or worse, Metcalf brilliantly illustrates the laughable sorrow of the human condition. Most of his little people are well intentioned, but ultimately doomed. The Catcher for a Young Icarus can swat all he wants with the butterfly net but his quarry will ultimately grow up and drown. The guy with the band-aid tries to save the world, mend a broken leg or heart but doesn’t have much help to offer (though at least the band-aid is 14k). Even angels don’t fare much better. The Advent of a Damaged Angel shows the poor creature in a state of sad disrepair, while Angel in Pursuit in hunting a winged heart rather like Harry Potter in pursuit of the snitch: maybe he’ll catch it, maybe not. Equally haunting is Blindfold, showing a young woman with a gold blindfold stepping out of a wooden coffin. Is she stepping bravely into the hereafter, bound for hell? Or heaven? Or just got sick of sleeping in a regular bed? Fortunately, other pieces display hope laced with humor. Metcalf’s little people light candles in the darkness, offer wine and fruit, prune each other’s greenery and above all, keep moving and striving. Why not? They are just like all of us.
While most of the jewelry is (theoretically) wearable, it is inextricably bound to its (often classical) settings, displaying both Metcalf’s intent and his talent as a former architectural model-maker. For example, detach the suffering humanoid caterpillar from Parable of Resistance and you are left with a nasty wriggling thing. Add the copper structure about to crush it and you instantly get the point. Each carefully made setting reinforces the point of the jewel, turning both into miniature sculpture which is its own tiny world, whether it’s a classical archway (Soul Catcher) or a wooden shack (Learning to Build). When you look closely at the jewels themselves you also recognize the artist’s skill as a master craftsman in metal, wood and any other medium he likes to use. If you are craftsperson yourself, the micro-miniature hammers, shears, nets and other tools carried by the little people are a special delight.
The first challenge of creating this show, said Mayfield, was the imperative not to display the jewelry as flat pieces. The display cases show work standing, or hanging, in thematic design chapters, occasionally located in unusual places to reinforce its message. Hence one of the golden angels hovers in a corner of the gallery close to the ceiling and The New Bunker Mentality hunkers down on the floor. While most of the work openly encourages viewer participation, some are in a doll's house environment seen through peepholes. To create relief from eye-strain, there are enlarged cartoons of Metcalf’s artwork sketches, plus a self-portrait encouraging visitors to write or draw their comments.
The second major challenge, not surprisingly, was how to finance both the exhibition and accompanying catalog. Fortunately, the PAAC received help from several foundations, including the Windgate Charitable Foundation, the Rotasa Foundation and the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation, as well as Art Jewelry Forum member Susan Beech and other private donors. Many private and institutional collectors were also generous enough to lend their work to make the exhibition possible.