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The Decorative Impulse
The title of the exhibition “The Decorative Impulse,” may seem like an obvious statement in relation to jewelry and metalsmiths who tend to make objects and other work often adorning or related to the body, but this exhibition takes a broad view of ornamentation as subject matter of its own through the work of six international artists with very different perspectives. Guest curated by Yevgeniya Kaganovich, head of metalsmithing and jewelry at Peck School of the Arts in Milwaukee, the show explores various strategies that look critically at the “decorative” from a contemporary point of view and through reinterpretations or reuses of various historical representations in jewelry and other decorative objects.
We tend to think of the “decorative” as the add on, an embellishment and representation of style layered on top of function, often taking for granted what style represents as an expression of tradition or as a cultural commodity. The work in the show challenges the role of the decorative first and foremost by presenting it in a space dedicated to celebrating a more traditional decorative arts heritage. This contrast, which could have enjoyed an even stronger push, creates a tension that is oppositional in regard to some of the philosophical impulses in the work, yet fits comfortably in the museum space as a trajectory of the continuum within the aesthetic order of the decorative arts.
Some of the more memorable work from the show includes Jonathan Wahl’s Jet Drawing series (2009) of Victorian jet-mourning jewelry. These large, charcoal drawings assume a monumental posture on the museum walls. Wahl renders them more seductively than a photograph could, subverting their original function as objects appropriate for mourning and offering them as a devices of desire with larger proportions and seductive, reflective, and shiny surfaces we want to touch.
Amelia Toelke plays with two- and three- dimensional perception at the same time she is questioning jewelry’s symbolic use as an authoritative statement of accomplishment. In her Banner Brooch series (2009), she flattens banner scrolls as jewelry devoid of any proclamation of personal signage as a means to expose some of the authority that jewelry carries on behalf of the wearer.
While Toelke wants to make us aware that the jewelry we wear is much more than the sum of its parts, Rory Hooper flattens inherited gold pieces for quite different purposes. In an ongoing body of work called Smashed (2004-2011), he literally takes a hammer to his grandmother’s gold rings and bracelets, flattening them and recasting some as new pieces that retain their heirloom status frozen in their own time, while simultaneously being brought into the future.
Jamie Bennett’s meticulous enamel work is in its own class. The masterful creations exemplify the enduring dialogues artists have had with nature since antiquity and are examples of human creativity that rival the originality in nature itself. He considers all aspects of form in his brooches with unique narratives that show an intense engagement with natural forms, fluid integration of materials, and a high regard for his craft.
Gésine Hackenberg invents new uses for ceramic tableware in Kitchen Necklace with Red Ornament (2007), and Anya Kivarkis makes objects from paparazzi photographs and divorces the context of celebrity culture that surrounds them in Red Carpet series (2010), making forms that, according to the artist, “capture the gesture of the body advancing through space.”
"The Decorative Impulse" runs through May 20, 2012, at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee.
Fo Wilson is a maker, writer, independent curator, and assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago.