Yumi Janairo Roth is professor of sculpture at the University of Colorado. She received a BA in anthropology from Tufts University, a BFA from the School for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and an MFA from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She has exhibited and participated in artist-in residencies nationally and internationally.
To Be: (Determined) – An Exhibition of the First Five presents a broad survey of contemporary metalsmithing at The Hatton Gallery at the Colorado State University (October 26 – November 20, 2009). Exhibition organizer Haley Bates and jurors Sarah Turner and Maria Phillips state that ‘The exhibition showcases artists within the “first five” [years since completing training within the field of jewelry and metalsmithing]: it is an exhibition which offers a moment to encourage momentum, and is an occasion to recognize new developments in the field of jewelry and metalsmithing.’ Although the works represent broad interpretations of tools, jewelry and sculpture, a few themes predominate and sometimes overlap, namely a reconsideration of the ordinary, the notion of the abject and an exploration of the absurd.
Several artists including Gabrielle Fitzgibbon, Yong Joo Kim, Jessica Stephens, Seth Papac and Laura Prieto-Velasco make modest materials the subject of their work. Fitzgibbon, Kim and Stephens transform ordinary plastic and foam to create refined pieces of jewelry. Each artist elevates and transforms their material, from everyday to jewel-like. In Fitzgibbon’s necklace, finely cut sheets of mylar glisten like mica; black drinking straws in Kim’s necklace are repackaged as precious bundles of onyx; and Stephens sets, like stones, colored craft foam amid brightly enamel-painted copper. Seth Papac and Laura Prieto-Velasco seem less interested in concealing the humbleness of their materials. Papac plays with the aristocratic origins of parures, but where historic parures might feature gems and fine metalwork, Papac’s parures incorporate obvious bits of trash, including deflated balloons, plastic bag scraps and discarded luggage tags. Prieto-Velasco’s brooches combine strategies found in both Papac’s and Kim’s work. Her carpet tacks and scraps of tape are held together with silver and iron wire to create elegant, gestural forms.
Nathan Dube, Burcu Büyükünal, Sarah Troper and Lauren Vanessa Tickle take a more humorous approach towards their objects. Typically, kids improvise spitball shooters from straws and paper wads, but Dube fabricates elaborate versions of the delinquent’s trade complete with gun site, targets and multiple spitball chambers. Büyükünal’s piece, Redetermined Destiny, is more menacing than Dube’s playful spitball weapons. The crisply designed palmistry kit includes jigs that fit over one’s hand and knives intended to recut the lines on one’s palm, ostensibly to create a more desirable future. Troper commemorates the remnants of a carnival by remaking paper tickets and party hats out of steel. Crumpled and creased, the metal hats and tickets freeze in time the aftermath of a party. Tickle makes overt the value of jewelry by employing paper money in lieu of precious metal and gems.
Where humor, a pop sensibility and a lightness of touch mark many of the works in the exhibition, a couple of jewelers, namely Miel-Margarita Paredes and Maurie Polak also explore the darker aspects of adornment. Paredes creates a series of architectural ornaments that fuse botanical motifs with rodent muzzles. At first glance her work seems innocuous, a minimal pattern on the gallery’s back wall. Upon closer inspection, however, each ornament depicts the mouths and teeth of rats, mice and squirrels, animals that one might find hidden in the walls of a dilapidated house. Her title, Gnaw, suggests that these creatures might in fact be trying to pry themselves out of the walls and into human space. Polak convincingly replicates animal hooves, hide and fur in her amulets. She explores the long tradition of infusing animal parts, from rabbit feet to eagle feathers, with ritual significance.
When attempting to locate contemporary metalwork within the discourse of contemporary art, an artist like Cornelia Parker often comes to mind. She has steamrolled elegant silver tableware, crushed French horns and trombones, cut and reassembled gold wedding rings and drawn into fine wire, teaspoons and coins that measure the immeasurable. Actually, she hasn't done anything to these objects. Rather she has hired others, skilled laborers and craftsmen to execute her ideas. As I visited this exhibition, I couldn't help but think of Parker, an artist who reveres craft, but only as a means to its unmaking. Conversely, the work in To Be: (Determined) presents emerging artists who have honed their craft, honoring the history of their materials and the esoteric knowledge necessary to produce the range of objects on display. Where an artist like Parker subverts the history of craft through grand gestures of destruction, the jewelers in To Be: (Determined) subvert the history of metalsmithing through their use of quotidian materials and their representation of seemingly inconsequential actions, all the while maintaining a dedication to their discipline.