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Unlike traditional jewelry, which is appreciated for its use of precious metals and gems, contemporary studio jewelry is valued for its originality and conceptual content. Inexpensive materials such as plastic, ceramic or fabric are frequently preferred to precious materials for conceptual or expressive purposes. Following Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics, contemporary jewelers often focus as much on the social interactions provoked by the wearing of their work as they do on the work itself, an idea given form in Louise Perrone and Jan Smith’s exhibition Jewelry Dialogue: On and Off the Body.[1]

Both Perrone and Smith are experienced jewelers with numerous exhibitions to their credit. Both have pursued individual careers and established strong, individual approaches to their work. Perrone studied sculpture in Britain prior to immigrating to Canada, where she received a second undergraduate degree in jewelry and metals from the Alberta College of Art and Design. Her early work consisted of large, showy brooches and small sculptures in colourful anodized aluminum. Concerns about toxicity and the environment, however, encouraged a shift to working with recycled materials and textiles. Smith studied at Okanagan College and Emily Carr prior to pursing a BFA from NSCAD in Halifax. She brings strong skills in drawing and printmaking to her jewelry practice, focusing on enamel-on-copper, but she also incorporates other materials such as sterling silver, pearls, linen, paper and paint.

With this exhibition, the two artists, who have been friends for years, set out to work collaboratively, exploring what they called a “conversation about making, wearing and displaying jewelry.” For many years, Smith has worked with the circle, a form imbued with symbolic attributes relating to life cycles, eternity and enclosure. Perrone elected to counter the circle with an X, or cross, associating it with marking and measuring, identity and authorship. In the exhibition, Smith’s off-white circular badges are interspersed with Perrone’s bright red square ones. Arranged across the white gallery walls, the badges appear to spell out coded messages relating to the body and social interaction.

Smith’s circular badges are marked with raised lines that resemble stitches, which press through the thin skin of pale, vitreous enamel. Citing an interest in Indian textiles, notably Kantha embroidery, Smith arranges the stitch-like marks into series of related patterns: concentric rings, clusters of circles, crosses or individual lines. Groups of badges bear names relating to embroidery: Stitched Lines, French Knot, Crossed Stitch, echoing the artist’s interest in making and mending as metaphors for intimate life events. The loose geometry playing out across the circles is anchored by oxidized silver tabs, which consolidate the badge components and provide an underlying repetitive rhythm. What is especially interesting about these small works is the way in which they invoke related craft processes—printmaking and embroidery—yet transform them into something uniquely metal.

The reference to sister crafts also features in Perrone’s work. Seeking a way to work with textiles that would provide the structure and colour of her earlier aluminum works, Perrone turned to a form of patchwork quilting known as English paper piecing. In this technique, fabric swatches are adhered to paper patterns. The paper remains in place until after the pieces are assembled, allowing for precise patterns to be pieced using delicate fabrics. Perrone uses styrene rather than paper and leaves it in place, where it lends a stiffness and structure reminiscent of metal. Central to her interest is the use of discarded or recycled thrift store fabrics, which preserve some of their original meaning in the new piece. Her twenty badges, collectively named “Dialogue,” are constructed from bright red flag fabric, hand-sewn and embellished with tracks of tiny stitches that form crosses, squares and tartan checks. Each badge is as a tiny four-sided pyramid, with different degrees of projection from the wall. All attach to the body by means of rare-earth magnets, which means they can be worn on virtually any sort of fabric without causing damage.

In order to manifest the dialogue more publicly and to extend the discussion to both wearers and viewers of this work, the two artists staged a public event on Granville Island, inviting members of the public to try on the badges and to be photographed. The interaction allowed them to speak to people directly and to open a discussion about jewelry, its meanings and value in our lives. The interaction is documented by Polaroid photographs displayed on one gallery wall. In an age of endless selfies, one might be cynical about such photographs, but it is clear in looking at them that people of all ages and backgrounds took the opportunity to engage, and the event appears to have raised awareness of contemporary jewelry. As Smith points out, we rarely see jewelry on ourselves—we just notice the reaction in others seeing it on us. People were genuinely struck by their photographs and perhaps began to imagine how they might use jewelry to communicate private emotions and ideas as a form of public art. This part of the exhibition is especially successful, and one hopes it will be followed up by more opportunities for the public to engage with contemporary craft.

The exhibition also includes larger and more complex works previously completed by each artist. These works lend a context to the exhibition, and they extend our appreciation of the skills and range each artist brings to the dialogue, but they exist outside the dynamic conversation initiated by the badges. Possibly photographs of these works on viewers would have linked them more clearly to the badge installation. The heart of the exhibition lies in its clever use of series and repetition and its documented desire to connect with a wider world.

[1] August 18 to September 29, 2016, at the Craft Council of BC Crafthouse Gallery, Granville Island, Vancouver.