An art historian (BA) and furniture designer (MA) by training, Benjamin Lignel veered toward jewelry design just after earning his master's degree. Lignel describes himself as a designer, writer, and curator. In 2007, he co-founded la garantie, association pour le bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewelry. He became a member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts, in 2009, and was a guest teacher at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Nuremberg, Germany) in 2013. Lignel was appointed editor of Art Jewelry Forum in January of the same year. In 2015, he edited the first book-length study of jewelry exhibition-making, "Shows and Tales."
‘Ecstasy is represented by two sensuous flowers. Having popped a pill they are utterly uninhibited and expose themselves, sweaty from sexual exertions.’ So begins the highly evocative description of Extasium Ethero Coïtus, one of ten pieces of jewelry showcased by the Gagosian gallery in its recently opened Paris space. The exhibition, called Fleurs d'Excès (Flowers of Excess), is billed as showing Victoire de Castellane's 'first autonomous sculptural work,’ and stands like yet another exclamation mark in her highly successful career as high-end jewelry designer. After fourteen years at Chanel, she was appointed the first creative director at Dior’s jewellery department in 1998. Her first one-woman show was at the Orangerie Museum and paired her creations with Monet paintings. This show, Castellane’s first with Gagosian, is also Gagosian's first with a jewelry designer. Does this overture – quite unprecedented in the contemporary art world – signal a willingness to embrace jewelry as a major art, one wonders with bated breath?
The display is bare enough. Four whitewashed tables occupy, but do not crowd, Gagosian's second floor 'project space.’ Two or three pieces mushroom on each one: they are encapsulated under glass domes and are either discreetly top lit or bask in the suffused light of a dedicated built-in light box. If the domes are meant to evoke cabinets of curiosity, as suggested to me by the gallery clerk, they fail to do so. This scenographic shorthand is all but ubiquitous these days in Paris jewelry boutiques and is gradually losing whatever connection it once had with the accumulation of unclassified artifacts by the deep-pocketed social elite of the late renaissance. Thanks to the gallery's otherwise empty white space, the overall effect is crisp and, were it not for the irregular placement of the minimal tables, might evoke a lab or, possibly, a high-power American gallery's 'project space.’
It helps to see the exhibition with explanatory notes in hand. Indeed, most of the people I saw on the last day of the show spent their time bent over the jewels, eyes darting to and from the lines that explain them. The captions, in two parts, list the materials and dimension of each work (with and without base) followed by the explanatory texts mentioned above. The latter are paragraph-long exercises in symbolic encoding, detailing the correspondences between that plant, this stone, those colors and finishes and the ten different drug uses that inspired Castellane's exhibits. This briolette diamond, we learn, is a drop of post-ecstasy sperm, while that carmine matte lacquer is inspired by the chinoiserie of opium dens. They read like the passionate evocation of ten demi-mondaines (hedonistic women) under the influence. Castellane refers to her pieces as 'she' in the gallery's lush publication and clearly wishes to cast each one of her drug/flower/jewels as distinct feminine personae. She has also given clear instructions that her descriptions not be released into the world, which is a bit surprising: they are only shocking if the word 'sperm' makes you blush or you would sooner pluck your eyes out than read 'crystal meth.' If anything, I would fault the schoolgirl didacticism of her texts, rather than the supposed débaucherie they imply.
Each of the ten 'flowers' sits on a box – or nest – carved from stone, from which it either erupts (Quo Caïnus Magic Disco, L. Es Delirium Flash, Crystalucinae Metha Agressiva, sprouts (Extasium Ethero Coïtus), overflows (Acidae Lili Pervertus) or crawls up (Cana Bisextem Now). These 'stands' – for want of a better word – are designed to erase the jewel's more identifiable concession to wearability and play up the organic, freestyle proliferation of each piece (the three necklaces in the show are exceptions: they simply rest atop their base, and are very 'readable' as neckpieces). Castellane's stylistic choices are informed to some extent by the drug she means to represent, while the serial format – ten flowers, ten drugs – allows the artist to flaunt her creativity and the skills of her artisans by experimenting with different formal and visual styles. This makes for some unhappy results – crystal meth, a surprising association of heavy-handed art déco lines with pop-art decals; LSD, a bloated homage to Nicky de Saint Phalle's swirls of primaries – and some extremely happy ones. To represent ecstasy, crack, opium, heroine and hemp, the artist chose the more 'evocative' sort of flowers and focused on the polymorphous expressiveness of their corolla, rather than the need to show off a center stone. The petals look in turn tumescent or supine, puckered or fatigued, making much of the formal analogy between flowers and genital labia. (The woman-flower identification, as well as the designer's relentless evocation of nature reconstructed, bring Lalique to mind: she cites him as a clear role model.)
Castellane's fearless use of bright colors on gold is part of her subversive appeal in the conservative world of French luxury jewelry. One would have to start from 'gaudy' and work up a new lexicon to do justice to the toxic splashes of her fermenting microfollies. What the pieces lack in scale, they make up for with an overabundance of formal twists and colorful turns, born of excessive craftsmanship. The extensive use of lacquers, matt or gloss, sparkles, real or fake, texture, grainy, veinous, crinkled, on the clenched folds of her vegetation keeps the eye in a perpetual state of gasp. It fascinates and petrifies, as only such a concentration of effects can. It is, in short, spectacular craft.
Is this the reason she is shown at Gagosian? Certainly the exhibition holds its own – does very well, in fact – compared to the Sugimoto photographs shown in the main gallery. Nor is it the outcome of a behind-the-scene alliance between contemporary art's finest and fashion royalty (read Dior and behind it, the luxury behemoth that is LVMH). Castellane funded the show herself, thus sidestepping the danger of having it dismissed as a vanity stunt.
The question, in the end, is less about jewelry's legitimate presence between white walls and about what it means to see it in this context. For starters it means bigger access: more people will have walked up Gagosian's stairs than would ever dare push the door at Dior's flagship. For all the commodification of contemporary art – or possibly because of it – high-end art galleries strive very hard to look like public institutions. This 'museification,’ meant to suggest that galleries are temples to art rather than commerce, makes it comparatively easy to visit them. Four ladies from the posher sort of crowd were there that day but also five students from the Parisian school of contemporary jewelry (AFEDAP). The jewels received from both groups of visitors the type of scrutiny that few artworks command. This has to do, I believe, with the odd mix of technical prowess and visual audacity of the collection, making novelty and craftsmanship the subject of our wonder.
These are not criteria usually applied to contemporary art. They come from traditional craft and defined the rules of engagement between the bigger luxury houses until the 1930s. In fact, the glass domes, the white tables, the tall reception desk, do not really erase the show's affiliation to haute-craft, nor do they manage to blur the distinction between craft and art. There is a discursive attempt to do so, however, and the main casualty, on the craft side, is wearability. I was informed at the desk that buyers were collectors from the art world, rather than the fashion or luxury world and that the pieces were pointedly 'not necessarily meant to be put on.’ This strategy echoes recent development in contemporary jewelry and assumes that function weakens the work's bid for respectability. It encourages the production of a new typology of objects: predicated on use (a ring, a necklace, a bracelet; objects for the body) they must remain unused to deploy their weird kind of magic.