Bruce Metcalf is a studio jeweler and writer from the Philadelphia area. His jewelry has been included in hundreds of national and international exhibitions in the past 40 years. Metcalf has also written extensively about issues in contemporary craft and is co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft with critic Janet Koplos.
I was intrigued to hear about Liesbeth den Besten’s new book about contemporary jewelry. It promised to be far more thoughtful than the older model of picture-book-plus-text, like Barbara Cartlidge’s Twentieth Century Jewelry (1985) or even Peter Dormer and Ralph Turner’s The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions (also 1985). More recently, we have Cindi Strauss’s Ornament as Art (2007), but even this book remains a picture-heavy exhibition catalogue, not a sustained examination of the means and ends of jewelry. Den Besten, on the other hand, delivers. The book is text-heavy, with smallish color illustrations grouped in two sections and tiny black-and-white pictures sprinkled throughout. The field has been waiting for a book like this for a long time.
Other craft mediums have benefited from thoughtful examinations for years. In ceramics, Bernard Leach’s hugely influential A Potter’s Book (first published in 1940) was partly a philosophical rumination and Philip Rawson’s Ceramics (1971) was very much an art historical text. Soetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman (1972) offered a detailed examination of the Japanese ‘tea taste’ and has been read by thousands. Ceramics has also been graced with Garth Clark’s writing since the mid-1970s. Fiber has a number of theoretical texts in place, including The Object of Labor (2006). Each of the books I mention put the emphasis on the intellect, not on pretty pictures. They all attempt to place craft within the context of thinking, quite beyond the purely visual.
All of a sudden, jewelry has several: not only do we have den Besten’s book, but also Roberta Bernabei’s Contemporary Jewellers: Interviews with European Artists and Thinking Jewellery: On the Way Towards a Theory of Jewellery, an anthology edited by Wilhelm Lindemann (both 2011).
As befits a compendium, den Besten’s book concentrates on discussions of individual jewelers and artists, which are grouped into one of seven general themes. They are, in the order in which they appear: jewelry and photography; jewelry as installation; storytelling and narrative; jewelry ‘on the fringe’ (which seems to involve relational aesthetics and more installations); the body; the ornamental; and traditions. There is also an introduction that broadly considers the meaning of jewelry, largely through historical examples.
I found the thematic organization completely mysterious. Why start with jewelry and photography? Why finish with tradition? Why have two categories (installation and fringe) that overlap so much? As a result, On Jewellery lacks an arc, a development from one point to another in a logical sequence. The book needed a strong editor who would reshape it until it made some kind of narrative sense.
Interestingly, On Jewellery doesn’t have a chapter on conceptual jewelry. This is not an omission, though. Den Besten regards all jewelry as being inherently conceptual, which is a wonderfully enlightened attitude. I can’t agree, but most of the work she considers does, in fact, qualify. This is very much a book about the various concepts that presently inform studio jewelry.
Instead of using the terms ‘studio jewelry’ or ‘art jewelry,’ den Besten invents a new phrase. She calls the work that she is examining ‘author jewelry.’ In this, she is influenced by French movie criticism from the 1960s and 1970s, when people were fascinated with movies as reflecting the singular vision of the director. Thus auteur cinema. To den Besten, the jewelry she’s interested in also reflects a singular authorial position. So: author jewelry. I don’t think it will stick. First of all, it’s awkward. The phrase 'author jewelry' hardly rolls off the tongue and it’s a collision of literary and visual references that is not fortuitous. Second, it ignores the hot debates about the impossibility of originality (and thus authorship) that occurred in the 1980s. Me, I still favor studio jewelry.
For each of her themes, den Besten collects a number of jewelers to illustrate and enlarge upon her idea. Usually, this is effective. Naturally, some jewelers could fall into several categories, but that’s not important. On occasion, she makes surprising choices. She uses Gijs Bakker to illustrate ornamentation, which is delightfully perverse. In the end, Bakker is very much a modernist and he has been very clear that he regards decoration as corrupt. Den Besten correctly points out that Bakker’s work functions not so much as a critique of decoration, but as a purely decorative object itself. In a few cases, she misses the mark completely. For instance, she recruits Pierre Degen’s work from the 1980s to talk about the body, which is a serious misunderstanding of his intentions. Degen was pushing (and perhaps breaking) the envelope of jewelry with his ladders and balloons: that’s what they were all about. The body was only a scaffold to remind you that the objects were more-or-less jewelry.
What I like best about On Jewellery is that den Besten introduced me to a number of European artists with whom I’m not familiar. Among the jewelers and artists who were new to me are Suska Mackert, Hans Stofer, Kim Buck, and Manon van Kouswijk. It was good to learn about these people. (On the other hand, important jewelers like Karl Fritsch and Wendy Ramshaw are not discussed, and jewelers from Japan and Korea appear to be totally absent.) The essay on the decorative was very sympathetic, which is refreshing. Her mini-essays on each jeweler were clear and often insightful. She writes in straightforward and accessible language, thankfully free of academic jargon. For the most part, the book was a satisfying read.
There was one thing that annoyed me, though. Den Besten seems to be totally in love with non-craft forms like installations and performances. She spills a good deal of ink on projects that could never be described as actual jewelry. Instead, these artworks – and they are art – take jewelry as a subject. This divide between actuality (the thing actually being a piece of jewelry that you could wear) and referentiality (the thing being about jewelry, but not jewelry itself) is the cause of a certain amount of confusion. What exactly is the status of a work that is about jewelry, but can’t possibly be worn? In this case, most of these installations and performances are not jewelry at all.
Installations have been around since the early 1960s at least. A famous early example is Claes Oldenberg’s Store from 1961. This was a piece done shortly after New York artists started experimenting with Happenings. Oldenberg occupied a storefront in Manhattan and made a number of sloppy, pseudo-expressionist consumer goods, including a shirt and a hamburger. You could walk in the room and buy artworks right off the shelves. Nowadays, the installation is basically the default form for major international art exhibitions. Want to prove you’re a real artist? Make an installation! As a form, it’s not news and is no longer avant-garde. Not at all. Installations are not special and not remarkable. They are just what a lot of artists do, almost what painting used to be. But den Besten reserves her most approving language for installations and other non-craft forms. Among the installation artists she deals with in detail are Dinie Besems, Ted Noten, Susan Pietzsch, Mah Rana and Hans Stofer. I find a number of the installations that den Besten mentions so approvingly to be flat, like Dinie Besems’s chain strung around her apartment in Amsterdam. Big deal. So what?
Years ago, I heard the British art historian Charles Harrison offer a criterion for the judgment of newer art forms. He said that artworks must be vivid. I agree. We can judge an installation or a performance on the impact it has on us and on its visual drama. Thus, for me, Janine Antoni’s Chocolate Gnaw (1992) a three-foot cube of chocolate that she chomped around the edges to make a series of fake lipsticks, was incredibly vivid. First, the whole room smelled like chocolate. Then, I marveled at how much chocolate she had to eat to make the lipsticks and how disgusting the process must have been after a while. (The chocolate cube was covered with thousands of teeth marks.) My response was powerful, visceral and immediate. Besems’s chain, in comparison, is weak. It’s not strong visually. The logic for the placement of the chain (it draws a full-scale map of her apartment) leads nowhere. As a visual experience and as a philosophical question, it’s nothing special. It’s not vivid. Besems’s work may be an installation, but it’s not a particularly good one.
Den Besten also devotes quite a bit of attention to the artists who work in a more performative mode, like Yuka Oyama, Lauren Kalman and early Otto Künzli. Den Besten seems to be biased in favor of these forms simply because they have the aura of the avant-garde. But the forms are not avant-garde and I find this attitude naive. Such forms may be new to jewelry, but not fine art. The notion that every idea that has been borrowed from the art world must be innovative within jewelry is a very bad idea indeed. In the end, it’s a provincial argument. If a form or a concept is familiar outside the confines of jewelry, it’s no longer news. Period. And jewelers have no excuse for pretending otherwise. The real question is whether it’s a good installation or a good performance, not if it’s a newer form of art-making. Still, it’s reasonable to have art about jewelry included in a book about jewelry. I just wish I could believe the author was more discriminating.
I also wish den Besten had dealt directly with several important issues. What are we to make of quasi-jewelry that will never be placed on the body in a social space? Isn’t much of the power of jewelry lost if it’s only treated as an idea? And what of sloppy jewelry? How are we to deal with intentionally bad craftsmanship, especially now that it’s so popular among young jewelers?
Nonetheless, I would recommend On Jewellery to anybody with an open mind and who is curious about developments on the international stage. The book is a laudable effort and an important contribution to the field.