Barbara Smith received her Master of Arts in photography and related media from Purdue University and her Master of Fine Arts in metal from the State University of New York at New Paltz. Her work was recently included in exhibitions at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and the Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in New York. She was a recipient of a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in crafts/sculpture. http://www.barbarasmithart.com/
Ornamentum’s current exhibition, History Repeating II, presents a collection of recent jewelry from Viennese jeweler Petra Zimmermann. This is Zimmermann’s first solo exhibition in the United States. Her work is a reflection on the overlap between art jewelry and fashion, mixing high-couture sensibilities with a twenty-first century ‘mash-up’ aesthetic. In Ornamentum’s newly renovated exhibition space, Zimmermann’s bracelets and rings are centrally located on a long, flesh-colored pedestal. The arrangement is overwhelmingly glamorous; overhead lighting emphasizes the glint of gold leaf, creating tiny reflections in each faceted stone. Repeated circular planes of framed space serve as an invitation to the body. Playful visual relationships and opulent surfaces offer a pleasing cacophony comparable to Cellini’s decadent Salt Cellar or the Baroque architecture of Versailles.
Zimmermann’s interest in costume jewelry is undeniable. Masses of gemstones resemble floral arrangements, while prong settings caught in cast plastic create mysterious and undulating surfaces. The brilliant, gold-leafed exteriors are often balanced with quiet, transparent interior spaces that hint at Zimmermann’s making process. The work is a fashionable marriage of the heaped gemstones of Karl Fritsch and the ‘Golden Phase’ of Viennese Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt. For several of the bracelets, the overabundance of embellishment cultivates a sense of wonder and beauty that undermines a clear understanding of function. The bracelets are not just bracelets; they are emphatically gaudy. Unlike the work of Klimt and Fritsch, Zimmermann has not arrived at the ultimate stage in developing a critical sense of ornament. Within the art- jewelry context of Ornamentum, we are left looking at bedazzlers on steroids.
On the walls surrounding the pedestal hang large, graphic necklaces and brooches on dark purple canvases. Free-floating bodies of ‘pin-up girls’ are awkwardly placed on a long necklace chain; are the images a design motif, a nostalgic gesture, or a critical commentary? Their relationship to the larger body of work on view at Ornamentum is tenuous and irresolute. More straightforward are the floral brooches, which have a stronger and simpler objective within the context of the show. Displayed as ‘drawings,’ they are reminiscent of Dale Chihuly’s glasswork, but often maintain a tentative flatness as they struggle to take on form. In their reference to Art Nouveau, they fall short at utilizing the decorative ‘whiplash’ motif of dynamic curves and undulating lines. Clearly, Zimmermann wants us to covet the brooch. Magazine clippings, colored plastic and embedded stones create saccharine surfaces to be celebrated as a site of playful material exploration.
Zimmermann employs jewelry’s most seductive symbols and harnesses their iconic value: sentimentality and inherent beauty. Cut gemstones, the glint of gold, bows, floral motifs and prong settings are standard jewelry strategies that cultivate desire. But where does the work begin to transcend its own limitations? In considering the series of bracelets specifically, an appealing component is Zimmermann’s obvious consideration of wearability. Several pieces include oxidized silver spheres on the interior surface that at first glance appear rather strange. Their function is twofold: they both wick heat away from the body for comfortable wear and hold the bracelet in the correct orientation. The ball creates a pressure point and maintains a space between the material and the wrist. This fascinating consideration of jewelry and ergonomics illustrates Zimmermann’s recognition of the experiential. These bracelets enter into a fledgling art jewelry dialogue concerning the performance of wear. And with one foot in fashion, they make a strong case for designs that exercise precise control over function and present unique ways to utilize the body as part of that strategic design.
A poignant break in the rhythm of the display is a small pedestal holding a solitary floral brooch. Utilizing the same process as before, Zimmermann pushes one step further. This particular brooch is a moment of success where the building material has been seductively transformed. The plastic sheets take on an aggressive volume; the piece becomes a much more expressive form. Zimmermann has utilized the logic of the material to both embed a drawing within the plastic and then later draw upon the hardened surface. With sudden curves and undulating lines flowing in a syncopated rhythm, this brooch participates in the strongest dialog with Art Nouveau. This piece promises the pleasure of discovery. The brooch’s placement on the pedestal combined with the suppleness of the form makes one want to bring it to the body. So one does. Where Zimmermann succeeds in elevating the function of ergonomic bracelets, she falls short with the pin backs. Clean and simple, the thin wire structures are evidence of a pin back as afterthought. The gauge of wire feels a bit too thin and manipulating the double pin stem is an awkward struggle.
What does the work from History Repeating II say about jewelry now, what jewelry is doing and where jewelry is going? Though seductive and titillating, these pieces are clearly not conceptual. They do fit within a certain brand of vintage-gemstone-flower-jewelry without being overtly critical of that context. For instance, the work in the show is analogous with the work of New Zealand jeweler Renee Bevan and British jeweler Peter Chang. Lisa Juen’s Ling Bling and Lisa Walker’s controlled mess also come to mind. In recognition of a territory well traveled, what does this work add to the contemporary jewelry conversation? For a start, Zimmerman’s jewelry makes a bold statement by creating a moment-of-wear-as-spectacle. As the wearer, you are placed in the position of the pinup girl; the position of the viewed. If Zimmerman’s intent is to critique the history of art jewelry, she misses. The superficial anti-aesthetic and the attention to the performance of wear participate more clearly in a fashion dialogue. Part of what the work does well is set a stage for self-conscious wear. For Zimmermann, an opportunity lies in her ability to train the spotlight on the wearer, if only for a short, dazzling moment. Her jewelry is as an opportunity for a spectacle that asks, ‘Who is my audience?’