Hard Core Romance

Hard Core Romance


bubblegumheart, 2009, brooch, stainless steel, vintage rhinestones, 14k gold, copper, vitreous enamel, 2.75 x 2.5 x 1.33 in.

Tatsuro Nishimura

Lola Brooks’s exquisite and preposterous jewelry is not for the faint of heart.

In Nirvana’s Valentines’ scourge, the conventions of romantic love take on nightmarish tones, leaving Kurt Cobain’s narrator “trapped for weeks” in his lover‘s “Heart Shaped Box.” For most of her life, the jeweler Lola Brooks shared his fear. “Romantic clichés,” she says, “left a bad taste in my mouth.”

And then, one day she fell in love with “romance.” She was finishing an exercise in a wax-carving class and realized she was taken with the “big juicy cleave” of the heart she had just carved. A hip-hop fan, Brooks humorously drew a parallel to JLo’s butt. She remains smitten, and since 2008, the tropes of love in their most obvious forms have overrun her work. There are roses on hearts, bows on hearts, hearts on hearts. Fragonard would be proud. In Sentimental Foolery, her latest series, blood-red garnets set in heart-shaped bezels dangle from heart-shaped brooches. Even the reviled bubblegum pink has crept into her aesthetic, in pink vintage rhinestones and erotic bows coated in Pepto-Bismol enamel. “Even though [they] are like empty shells, I think there's always tasty cream to suck from them,” she told me.

A visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Brooks is represented by Sienna Gallery in Lenox, MA, and her work is in the collection of both the Museum of Arts and Design and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like many of her contemporaries, she has established a practice based on a postmodern concern with history and a poetic inversion of jewelry’s hierarchies. Her earliest pieces were explorations of mimesis and surrogacy: cutting steel to look like the shadowy mirror-images of precious stones or pitting massive inexpensive crystals against tiny diamonds to see who “came out on top.” An admirer of Berlin iron jewelry, which citizens of that city received from the government when they contributed their gold and silver to fund the war against Napoleon, Brooks in her own work similarly honored the valueless. She treated utilitarian materials with the reverence of a goldsmith, fusing machismo metal like stainless steel into delicate filigrees, while the solder, usually the glue invisible in the spectacle of bijouterie, was often the costliest element in a piece.

Down to its molecular composition, Brooks’s jewelry is a rigorous critique of tradition. And yet she engages the pomp that many contemporary jewelers dare not indulge. Take cut steel brooch (belly), 2004, of stainless steel: readable as a sort of methadone therapy for diamond lust, this extravagant clump of steel might be just as intoxicating. Beyond parody and pastiche, it seems that Brooks has peered so deep into the looking glass that she’s fallen through to the other side. For a 2008 brooch she chose jet as the main material, a reference, she writes, to the opaque black stone used by Victorians for mourning jewelry. But rather than repurposing jet for modern use or echoing historical forms, Brooks has succumbed to the material's inherent charms. She massed the modest stones in an exuberant mound, and between each she placed little diamonds and crystals, scattered like confetti.

Then, tacking ornament onto ornament, Brooks cut into the jet itself and implanted silver studs. In a statement, she described the elements as dramatis personae and the brooch as the theater. Jet’s “dark sobriety almost mocks the garish sparkle of the quartz and diamonds, yet even it is foiled by the rash of cut steel scattered upon its surfaces.” As we stare into the black of this modern-da y curiosity-an irresistible and freakish amalgamation of too much “bling”—the work seems to tell us that possession is the disease and the cure at once.

How long can studio jewelers remain at a purely critical distance from an art that has forever been a shameless celebration of wealth and excess? In a 2004 statement Brooks wrote, “It is a simple matter to question material hierarchies... but how does one subvert the status of a material without blatant disregard for what is also intrinsically desirable?” She is fascinated with the enduring power of jewels, the legend of the mesmerizing yet lethal Spoonmaker diamond, for example; “tales of jewelry, beauty and desire and seduction and love and death” weigh heavily on Brooks's mind. Metaphors for the irrational pull of mankind's desires, the paradoxes that Brooks seeks in jewelry are likewise inextricable from who she is as a maker.

Even the tattoos on her body invoke a passionate hyperbole. On her left shoulder is a classic scene of a vanitas, inked by Andrea Elston: an owl, a mirror and a human skull form a triangle of vanity, death and wisdom. At the skull’s base, pearls are scattered, and a rose graces its forehead. On a scroll below are the words memento homo quid es, et quis eris (remember man what thou art and what thou shall become). On Brooks’s right arm, Virginia Elwood from NYAdorned has, over the years, tattooed shapes that recur in the jewelry: diamonds, rosebuds and a ribbon tied perfectly in a bow. On her upper arm, another tattoo artist has given her a crown of thorns, and on the shoulder, a swollen heart with a knife through it bleeds indefinitely.

Brooks’s apartment on Canal Street in Manhattan, decorated in a dramatic vintage style, is a part-time studio, a curiosity cabinet for her worldly possessions and a fishbowl for her anxieties about the deceit of ownership. In a slideshow of personal images she played for me, the same 1960 turquoise Chevy Impala appeared again and again in different locales, finally crushed like a can. It‘s her old car, and the loss was devastating to her. But in the morose delectation of nostalgia, Brooks appeared to take pleasure in these extravagant emotions. “I‘m absolutely terrified of losing things,” she told me. And that’s why she takes comfort in her tattoos. “I can own them in a completely different way than I can own any object,” she explains. A self-described hoarder, Brooks showed me some of her impressive and odd collections: pantsuits, rhinestone sunglasses and brands of canned meat (Spam). “I find power in accumulation. It is an inextricable piece of who I am in the world. With only a few things, I tuck them away to keep safe.... If I am lucky, they will become a hoard.”

The urge to collect small, talismanic objects is something many jewelers share, but Brooks channels the impulse directly into her signature compositions, which are miniature hoards themselves. Her 2008 Confection series is Brooks's response to finding a stash of carved ivory roses on Ebay, sold at a fraction of their worth. Brooks treats these rare white buds like a cake maker would frosting, smothering her surfaces with them. The pieces that result are a gluttonous indulgence. Her rosewreath brooch, a wreath crowded with ivory rosebuds, includes tiny diamonds, set on delicate springs, that quiver and swoon when its wearer moves. More than a piece of jewelry, it is a prop, and to wear it is to attract an audience.

But how much is too much? Echoing what Jay-Z once rapped to his girlfriend Beyoncé, “That rock on ya finger is like a tumor,” Brooks’s brooches and necklaces bulge malignantly from their wearers. Some observers consider that an ostentatious display or, even worse, a facile conflation of wealth with status. When Brooks attached little silver bows on springs to her works, she told me, colleagues “wouldn‘t touch them.” But she welcomes and challenges this initial revulsion. Brooks knows that her jewelry is not for the timid. Setting "jewelry" and all of its tarnished associations in quotation marks, Brooks’s jewelry is for people like her, those self-identified “hard-core romantics” willing to abandon disbelief.

Mimi Luse lives in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Art Papers, Black Book, Corduroy Magazine, The L Magazine and the blog BushwickBK.