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.
Helen Britton has been very busy in the past couple of years, preparing an exhibit at the Neues Museum in Nürnberg, Germany, collaborating at FORM in Perth, Australia, preparing for gallery shows, writing for AJF, and so forth. How she also had time to pull together this show for Galerie Rob Koudijs in Amsterdam I will never know. Helen is a whirlwind. She is also one of the most professional and thoughtful artists working.
Susan Cummins: Helen, can you explain Heterogene as the title of your current show at Galerie Rob Koudijs?
Helen Britton: Heterogene is really from the word heterogeneous and refers to the diverse preoccupations in my work. The exhibition at Galerie Rob Koudijs includes, more or less, five different sections, one quite unrelated to another. There are the Dekorationswut pieces; a new drawing sequence that is autonomous but related to the Dekorationswut theme; a selection of the Industrial works, including what I am calling the New Industrial Gardens; as well as two major archival brooches. Then, there is The Big Ear, and of course a presentation of the Jewellery for T-Shirts project with Justine McKnight. It’s a pretty diverse show, and the first time I have presented so many different groups together. I usually have solo exhibitions where I just show one body of related work.
You have said you work in series. What is particular or different about this one?
Helen Britton: I am not sure if “series” is the right word, as it implies perhaps editions of pieces, and I basically only make one-off works. I do work in themes, and as I said, my interests are very diverse. I am often preoccupied with these interests/themes for many years, and it is necessary to come back to a body of work and continue, refresh, or revisit it every few years or however long the preoccupation lasts. The themes are very often unrelated, hence the title of this current exhibition.
You have been busy with numerous projects in the past year or so. Can you reflect on your experiences preparing and setting up your solo exhibition in Nürnberg? What did you learn from it?
Helen Britton: It is a great experience to work with a big museum, such as the Neue Sammlung that curated this exhibition at the Neues Museum in Nürnberg, and to get to understand museum machinery. Although this is not completely new to me, I have never before made an exhibition of this scale.
But before one starts to talk about this exhibition in particular, it is important to keep in mind how special it is that contemporary jewelry has a place on such a high-profile platform and in such a beautiful public museum as the Neues Museum in Nürnberg. That this is possible, of course, is due to the years of dedicated and strategic work by Professor Dr. Florian Hufnagl, director of the Neue Sammlung, which is one of the four museums that make up the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich. There are very, very few museums in the world that provide the understanding, support, and space to show contemporary jewelry continuously in the way the Neue Sammlung, Munich, does. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to make a solo exhibition with this institution. Frau Dr. Petra Hölscher, senior curator of the Neue Sammlung, worked tirelessly alongside me to ensure that the vision of the exhibition was not compromised in any way, and that the complex logistics and coordination of such a large scale project ran smoothly. To have the support and trust of such remarkable professionals as Herr Hufnagl, Frau Hölscher, and their great team of conservators and technicians is, of course, a gift and certainly a professional highlight. The backing of this fine-tuned museum machinery allowed me to realize, for example, the drawing sequence on a scale that I had hitherto only dreamed of. On another level, the exhibition provided me with an opportunity to reflect over the past 20 years of work and show pieces that would otherwise never be seen, such as very early works, archived pieces, and very private works, such as the shell necklaces. Alongside this, there was the decision of what exactly to show that would make sense to a museum-going public, often a very different public to that of my galleries. It was important for me to show the diversity of my work in a way that made sense, hence the decision to contrast the baroque conglomerations of the Decorationswut work in the context of the related drawing with the Industrial work, which is only metal and paint, as complete collections in one room. The second room contained “The Archive”—some of my sketchbooks and related rubble covering two decades of practice. We went there with 170 works and showed 90, so selection was made for the archive in situ. My decision to show these works on a complex landscape of covered plinths was to provide the public with an experience similar to walking around a large-scale version of one of my brooches where one could then become involved in the details. The whole experience provided me with a rare opportunity to show my work in a generous and comprehensive way for the sake of itself alone.
Also, you worked on a touring project called Awkward Beauty at FORM in Australia. Why was this an interesting project for you?
Helen Britton: Awkward Beauty came about when I was doing a residency at FORM’s Midland Ateliers in 2010. Justine McKnight and I had been talking about a project like this for a number of years and had already been working on and exhibiting the Jewellery for T-shirts project for some time. Michelle Taylor was documenting our stay (I was there with David Bielander), and it all just kind of happened in the way the best things do. Michelle is an experienced fashion photographer, and so we came up with the idea that I would make five jewelry pieces and give them to Justine. Justine would make five garments and give them to me, and then each of us would respond to the work of the other by making five more pieces of jewelry (me) or garments (Justine). We then gave Michelle the whole collection and an open brief. She shot the work on the site of FORM’s Midland Ateliers, where the whole idea started.
FORM was, of course, thrilled to show the resulting body of work in the space of the Midland Ateliers in 2011, and they assisted us also by co-financing the catalogue. We were fortunate to have the good will of Robert Cook, senior curator of photography and design at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. He accompanied the development of the project and wrote one of the most beautiful and sensitive catalogue essays for us that I have read so far. Then, Awkward Beauty travelled to Canberra and Melbourne, and the National Gallery of Australia acquired a section of it. Justine, Michelle, and I are currently working on a new project.
Why is this interesting you ask? Well, I love working with people who have interesting ideas. I am also a jeweler and very committed to making wearable work and very interested in seeing what happens when my pieces are worn and what they are worn on. It was really interesting to work with Justine’s garments and her ideas about garments and to make works in such a specific way. It was also really interesting to have Justine make the garments for the works I handed to her—to watch how we both challenged each other and expanded our understanding of what it means to wear something as a result of this process. Then, to have Michelle take all this work and look at it from a completely different perspective was, of course, marvelous.
Do you believe in inspiration? If so, can you tell us what inspires you?
Helen Britton: Do you mean in the sense of “Divine Inspiration?” I am not sure. I find life in general pretty inspiring. I find other artists very inspiring. Music, fashion, and food as well! I am very touched by everyday human gestures as they appear in popular culture, by their directness and sometimes fragility. This is, perhaps, the most consistent link between the diverse themes of my work. It also has a lot to do with jewelry. But I think of inspiration as an external impetus, and a great deal of what I have experienced in my many years of concentrated creative practice is something more of an internal pressure or drive that certainly feeds on inspiration but also comes from necessity. The works I make demand to be made, and I have little choice in the matter regardless of theme.
Is there a book or film or exhibition or two you can recommend?
Helen Britton: At the moment, from the top of my head:
Pieter Hugo Permanent Error
Darren Oldridge The Devil: A Very Short Introduction
Michael Chabon Telegraph Avenue
Winters Bone Debra Granik, director
Aernout Mik Communitas Jeu de Paume (Paris, France), Museum Folkwang (Essen, Germany), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands)