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 first thing you encounter in The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellvue Washington are two covered plinths which display examples of the Wood Pins (1995) and Figure Pins (1997). Carved from wood, which has been adorned with gold leaf, these brooches also feature other, more ‘precious’ materials, in most cases used to create the objects each figure holds. The figures are all active, performing various tasks, but the taxonomic titles (invoking the series and a number) give nothing away, maintaining a kind of inscrutability.
The numbers in the titles run quite high, into the hundreds and I find it hard to believe that there are literally hundreds of such carefully crafted objects in both series. I assume that Metcalf created many sketches of possible brooches and then made a few, the number in the title relating to the sequence of drawings, rather than actual objects. This would certainly make sense given Metcalf’s investment in the problematic of narrative art – the requirement to select a frozen moment pregnant with a sense of before and after.
All of the figures have plant heads, which are much larger than their bodies (so they are characteristic Metcalf figures) and their actions seem to be divided between tending the natural environment and playing music (with a couple of more inscrutable activities thrown into the mix). In terms of display, they are suspended upright on long gold-colored pins that attach to the brooch pin and then run into the plinth. This allows the figure to perform its activity and mimics the way you would encounter the brooch when worn, pinned on its backdrop of clothing.
Thinking about it, this is a very nice introduction to Metcalf’s jewelry. The Wood Pins and Figure Pins are in the ‘narrative-symbolist’ mode, to use Metcalf’s own term and they concentrate on the human figure, drawing on the devices of cartooning to achieve their particular communicative outcomes. As Metcalf puts it in his catalog essay, ‘I used a standard convention from editorial cartooning – big heads and little bodies. I found I could make highly expressive figures by manipulating relatively few elements – principally body posture, eyes and mouth. Since humans are hard-wired to read emotional states through facial expression, it was logical to inflate the heads of my figures, and reduce the bodies to schematic representations.’ These brooches introduce a new element, in that the heads are replaced by plant motifs, but the overall effect remains the same: abstracted to a certain extent a bulb, seed pod or branch still reads as a face and can still transmit emotional states.
And most importantly, these figures, with their connection to the earth, in honest forms of labor, reveal Metcalf’s particular investment in a worldview that emerged in the 1960s, in which the values of care, of responsibility, of connection between people and the environment, of political action, are understood in a precise way. His jewelry has, for the past 30 years, been exploring the implications of this view of the world and the Wood Pins and Figure Pins are a single moment adding to Metcalf’s speculations about the human condition. As exhibition curator Signe Mayfield notes in the catalog, these brooches are related to Karl Blossfeldt’s book Art Forms in Nature (1928) in which microphotographs of plants reveal a fabulous world in close-up. ‘Metcalf mined Blossfeldt’s images of leaves, fern heads, and seed pods for their iconic qualities and transformed them into heads for his carved, sometimes pot-bellied, figures,’ writes Mayfield. ‘No longer big-headed protagonists, these strangely credible, surreal hybrids offer up responsible actions in the collision of culture with nature by actively fixing things, protecting a seed, gardening, or providing sustenance.’
Coming from outside the United States, Metcalf’s jewelry is not an easy proposition. While I can see everything these brooches are doing and respect their conviction and seriousness, they also seem unfashionable, almost kitschy. Figurative and narrative, with their origins in cartooning, their unashamedly populist address and desire to communicate, their redemptive interest in human nature, the sense of humor, the challenges to modernism: all of these things read weirdly against a backdrop of the mainstream contemporary jewelry concerns – by which I mean European jewelry concerns informed by modernism that have been central to the contemporary jewelry practices I am most familiar with.
So if the Wood Pins and Figure Pins sit awkwardly according to the framework I carry as a default position because of my background, do they succeed according to another set of terms? I believe they do. They are skillful, inventive, absorbing of your attention and they reward study, establish interesting relations with the viewer. They take the narrative tradition of jewelry in an interesting new direction. They are wearable. As far as I can see, they satisfy all the demands required of contemporary jewelry: conceptual, historically literate, sophisticated in their potential to intervene in the communicative square of maker-wearer-viewer-object. And finally they are excellent within the terms of Metcalf’s own production – an expression of the 1960s idealism and humanism and belief in craft as a transformative activity that animates his work.
The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf continues with a vitrine holding three sketchbooks (undated) which set up the role of drawing in the creative process as well as connecting to the large-scale drawings on the walls of the gallery. This is very useful because it provides an important insight into Metcalf’s practice, as well as showing something about the demands of narrative art (a means of imbuing your frozen moment with a sense of before and after). At full scale, life size, the wall drawings play an interesting/important role in establishing the issue of miniature and monumental that animates this exhibition: we see that the large drawings and the small jewelry objects are the same, and therefore we can draw on the experience of scale in the wall drawings when we are looking at the jewelry. (That the wall drawings relate directly to works in the show is made clear by a drawing on the wall of A Fan Club of One (1996) a brooch that is presented inside one of the peephole cases on the wall beside it.)
I was a little disappointed with the introductory wall text, which is mostly taken up with a catalog of Metcalf’s achievements as a writer/jeweler. Given that the exhibition has such a strong, intentional point to make in relation to Metcalf’s work – and one that some viewers might find contestable – it would have been useful to see this addressed more directly. But this text does raise the important question of whether Metcalf’s work is jewelry or sculpture. As Mayfield writes, ‘Whether Metcalf’s work is at rest as compelling sculptural form, or worn out in the world as jewelry to the surprise of an unsuspecting public, it is certain to provoke thought and meaningful conversation.’
Metcalf is quite clear that his jewelry is not sculpture and on balance I’m convinced that the idea of miniature – and the stage sets that he builds for a lot of his work – is not about trying to sneak his way into the white cube of the art gallery and the conversation about art that surrounds it. It answers a problem about what to do with jewelry when it isn’t being worn and it appeals to the challenge of his particular narrative-symbolist approach to jewelry discourse (recognizing that his work is always straining to go somewhere else). And it makes sense in terms of Metcalf’s purposes in jewelry, to establish an imaginary world and plumb or expand on the possibilities of the imagination as a force in the world (a product of his particular biography as a child of the 1960s). But I think invoking sculpture, as curator Mayfield does in this introduction and in her essay, is wrongheaded, too simplistic. The work simply doesn’t need it.
The exhibition features peephole cases, through which you look at the work. The intention seems to have been to force the viewer into a particular scale relationship with the objects, so that the sense of smallness would be overcome. While they do this, looming large when you look through the peephole, they are also hard to see (meaning many viewers won’t bother) and I wonder if the peephole doesn’t introduce a whole range of other meanings (such as voyeurism) that aren’t so useful. Is it intentional that we see Second Theology Lesson (1998) in which God’s hand instructs/strikes a hapless human figure, from what can only be described as the eye of God perspective? In other cases the relationship is quite nicely handled. A series of Figure Pins from 1996 and 1997 all have damaged or deformed body parts, meaning that the peephole cases actually work quite well in implying a sense of choice, of forbidden or off-limits viewing.
As you move about this exhibition you start to develop a good sense of the range of Metcalf’s jewelry and its various concerns. Take, for example, the Design Lesson brooches, about modernism and the various dogmas of art that Metcalf has tried to address and overcome in his work. The curatorial strategy works strongly here, kicking into gear to pull together a cluster of nine brooches that together make clear Metcalf’s anti-modernist statement, neatly installed into a vertical case that sits at the intersection of two walls. Two Views (1996) and the Sentry Box brooches (1990) in this context talk about paradigms and gatekeepers, while in between them the various Design Lesson brooches and Pomo Party Hat (for Philip Johnson) (1990) stage Metcalf’s resistance to modernism. It’s nicely done, never too heavy handed but always to the point.
This is really how the show is organized, groups of work displayed together to explore themes that are important within Metcalf’s jewelry. Sometimes these present series or bodies of work by the jeweler, such as a group of brooches about love from 1999, but other times brooches from different periods will be pulled together to represent a theme. These include topics such as the possibility and probability of hope, acts of service for self and other (including the redemptive possibilities of craft) sustenance and sharing. You can begin to see that Metcalf’s work is essentially stubbornly unfashionable and why it might be seen as sentimental – he cares, he believes, he hopes and he makes jewelry about it.
I’m not sure how convinced I am by the more diorama-style works, such as Advent of the Damaged Angel (1997) or Life Among the Mummies (1997). When the architecture becomes a stage, rather than part of the jewelry (where the game is to make something small yet monumental) it runs the risk of becoming dinky, cute, overly sentimental and ultimately lazy. And it also runs the risk, in this context, of being unfavorably compared to the scaled-down train model that Metcalf built for Marklin HO trains, also in the show, which is a detailed model railway, a scene of a village near Munich in the middle of winter. The stages have nothing on this quite astounding model train, as they are neither jewelry nor model and therefore they miss out on what makes Metcalf’s jewelry and his miniature railway wonderful objects.
The model/jewelry which is most successful, in my opinion, are the objects from the 1970s: A Light Lost at Sea (1977), Vessel with a Cargo of Light (1980), You’re in Utopia (1978), Pewter Peanut with Box (1973), and Worms from Mars Invade an Authentic New England Village (1971). All of these do something essential with their object-ness, their model-ness. That they are tableau, toys, small models, is somehow essential. It makes them zing and amplifies their message. (The plastic perfection of You’re in Utopia at model scale because utopia cannot hope to exist any larger; the Pewter Peanut with Box mocking art world, craft and toy collector pretensions while also delighting in the possibilities of whimsical obsession; and the parodic joy of crazy combinations in Worms from Mars . . . , the sheer wonder that such an object can exist, the possibility that some kid might actually own and play with it and how that would short-circuit the industrial-military complex and the imperial narratives of America.)
When compared to this kind of wit, the staged works seem a little too obvious, as though their main function is secondary, an add-on which serves a purpose that isn’t fundamental or urgent. Maybe it is the sense that Metcalf doesn’t have to fight hard enough for his narrative-symbolism when he can build a set and stage the action. Having to focus it into a brooch scale ensures that it is both punchy and more ambiguous. Deliverance from a Guilded Cage (1994) and Catcher for a Young Icarus (1994) don’t convince me because their narrative is too obvious, too easily staged (in the bad sense of that word) and thus too clearly an appeal for my sympathies. This is sentimental, which in this case means an absence of the dramatic excellence that Metcalf achieves elsewhere.
Still, by the end of this exhibition I found myself convinced and involved, which is surely the best indication that The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf is successful. There’s a lovely pace here, both complicated and straightforward, where the fullness and richness of Metcalf’s jewelry is allowed to happen without any great work of education going on. The show, in other words, seems to share the qualities of Metcalf’s jewelry: an act of kindness and faith that, if you want to take the time to look, is easy to connect with.
After seeing Metcalf’s show, you know the world is still a terrible place, but you see the beauty of futile resistance, the majesty of the small gesture, the elegance of acting in the face of the knowledge that you will almost certainly fail. And you see that this – which is also a metaphor for the work of the jeweler, who takes the same risks, hopes in the same way, with every piece of jewelry – is really success.