Show Me, Tell Me.

A review of the book Shows And Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making

Unlike conventional forms of visual art- in the guises of painting, sculpture, installation, film, and/or performance- of the present, jewelry and crafted objects do not have the luxury of separating themselves from inevitable commodification. Whether a piece of pottery or furniture, or a necklace or collar, was made in the past or will be made in the future, it’s utility is specific. A gold-rimmed lapis amulet sourced in Egypt seems most at home in a temperature-controlled glass casing to us, but at one point, it adorned the neck, hand, or wrist of an aristocrat. It is difficult, then, to allow crafted objects to be displayed in such a way that its purpose is distanced from its makers’ technical mastery.

«Should future forms of jewelry be worn at all?»

Can handmade jewelry be appreciated for its own sake? Has this been achieved and further developed (in the modern period) since the seminal 1946 MoMA exhibition Modern Handmade Jewelry?

Show And Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making, produced by Art Jewelry Forum and edited by Benjamin Lignel, attempts to deliver a broad response. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first book to outline a history of, and a possible future for, exhibition-making for studio-based jewelry production.

In his introduction, Lignel remarks that “the art world” (referring to the aforementioned conventional creative gestures) has published a breadth of self-reflexive material regarding its task of presenting work from both spatial and theoretical standpoints. Jewelry exhibitions, he argues, have not been treated with the same rigor in considering how “display equipment and mediation material” is deployed in its critical function of presenting jewelry to a viewing public, and analyzing “the jewelry exhibition-maker’s need to occupy space”.

«Shows And Tales appears to be three things: a useful chronology of the discipline, a series of uninformative interviews, and reviews lacking clear expectations»

Toni Greenbaum commences with a crisp, straightforward report on that 1946 exhibition, with particular attention paid to the museum’s designer in their circulating exhibitions department, Charlotte Trowbridge (who was given an operating budget of $200 USD). Subsequent reports on both U.S. and European jewelry exhibitions continue chronologically from 1959 until 2004, when Lizzie Atkins details The Three Schools Project: a hybrid platform of students acting as living plinths for jewelry between universities in Munich, Amsterdam, and Tokyo. It is, however, after the 1987 Joieria Europea Contemporània (outlined by Mònica Gaspar) in Barcelona that the delineations between traditional and current jewelry presentation platforms begin to disappear.

Jewelry was notably democratized both in its wearers and materiality; even as the MoMA show presented objects made from copper, steel wiring, and safety pins, those objects were still rendered unwearable. Live performance made its way into the core presentation of the objects, their plinths and platforms became moveable within the exhibition space in real-time, and the formations of the objects, themselves, drifted further and further away from what jewelry resembles in a typical sense (so large, or small, or amorphous they became that they could no longer be worn as an adornment).

Eleven reports, two essays, two interviews, and three reviews are the core contents of Show And Tales. It is at this point that practical readership and absorption of the material becomes difficult. Between repeated attempts at validating and anti-categorizing the jewelry-maker’s end goal and varying hypotheses on the future of exhibition potentialities for jewelry, everything begins to blur. Should future forms of jewelry be worn at all? Is the conventional museum now considered too restrictive to present the work of contemporary jewelry-makers? Are precious metals or stones now considered taboo devices within the community’s own creative language?

On the subject of jewelry, its production process, and its presentation to the public, Shows And Tales appears to be three things: a useful chronology of the discipline, a series of uninformative interviews, and reviews lacking clear expectations (perhaps with the sole exception of Lignel’s own review of Victoire de Castellane’s Fleurs d’Excès show at Gagosian Gallery, Paris in 2011). Hilde De Decker and Ruudt Peters have healthy catalogues of jewelry made for wear and raw display, but their responses to their interviewers reveal little to nothing regarding their tangible processes or any direct thoughts on topics related to classical or contemporary jewelry and where the future may lie for themselves or other artists like them.

«Between repeated attempts at validating and anti-categorizing the jewelry-maker’s end goal and varying hypotheses on the future of exhibition potentialities for jewelry, everything begins to blur. »

Taken out of context, the majority of De Decker and Ruudt’s musings are indiscernible from that of any fine artist (musician, dancer, actor, etc.) The accompanying imagery in the second part of the book shows everything but that which resembles wearable objects; where the images have an opportunity to broaden a general understanding of a particular artist’s work or to illustrate its presence in a curatorial context, they simply confuse and detract. If anything, a saving grace towards the end of the book is David Beytelmann’s conclusive remarks “On the Possible Definitions and Debates Surrounding Contemporary Jewelry.” In a few short paragraphs, he builds a cohesive, literal bridge between the arenas of the “great maisons” of jewelers like Chanel and Hermès to more current interpretations of what jewelry looks like now, and closes with how contemporary jewelry is displayed and perceived by the viewing public.

If Show And Tales were comprised solely of the first eleven reports coupled with Lignel and Beytelmann’s insightful exhibition reviews, it would be a concise, definitive guide to both newcomers and veterans to the complex world of contemporary jewelry production processes. Yet, I couldn’t help but get terribly lost in the consistent urge to qualify object-making as an artistic practice versus a sincere attempt to illustrate it for the outside reader. Even as an educated observer, I struggled to grasp the book’s thesis; is it a guide? Is it a primary reference? Is another encrypted discussion only amongst those in the field of applied craft and jewelry?

In the end, I couldn’t tell what the book was trying to achieve. But maybe the creation of a mediated, well-informed chronology is an achievement, in and of itself.

First released in march 2015
Art Jewelry Forum, Mills Valley
edited by Benjamin Lignel
264 pages. 30 essays and articles.
More than 40 exhibitions reviewed, in 10 different countries.
With essays, reviews and interviews by: Glenn Adamson, Sarah Archer, Jivan Astfalck, Lizzie Atkins, David Beytelmann, Gabriel Craig, Susan Cummins, Liesbeth den Besten, Iris Eichenberg, Mònica Gaspar, Toni Greenbaum, Ursula Ilse-Neuman, Marthe Le Van, Benjamin Lignel, Jennifer Navva Milliken, Kellie Riggs, Damian Skinner, Cindi Strauss, Meredith Turnbull, Jorunn Veiteberg, and Namita Gupta Wiggers.