A Review by Marta Gorgopa
As a collection of fifty-four works by nineteen Canadian designer-makers, Seeing Red humbly exceeds the ‘Jewelry 101’ label so common with collective jewelry exhibitions. Given that jewelry shows typically feature multiple artists working across a range of styles and materials, such collections can easily become a mere catalogue of items. Rather than entering a purely aesthetic or skill-based retrospect, Seeing Red draws from conceptions of value and the body, the core of contemporary art jewelry. Curator and exhibiting artist Barbara Cohen invites a diverse group of artists into a single space, utilizing the collection’s variance as its point of consensus. By employing the colour red materially and conceptually, Seeing Red reignites the dialogue between art and jewelry, highlighting the ingenuity of a craft known to question how we define art, and sculpture.
The pieces found in Seeing Red employ non-value materials: resin, wood and even doll parts. This use of unconventional and mundane materials shifts jewelry’s value from precious materials towards proportion, form and balance[i]. As art jewelry scholar Damian Skinner explains in his book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, and what Cohen aims to foster with this exhibition, our investment in contemporary jewelry occurs through audience engagement and abstract thinking rather than economic status[ii]. Instead of viewing the work strictly as commodities, Cohen asks us to question “our preconceived notions of value,” using the colour red to reflect on ideas and influences surrounding the work.
This juxtaposition between objects of adornment and non-value materials can speak to ethics of production and manufacture. On the one hand, necklaces staged on white gallery walls, sequestered from reality perpetuate static displays of vanity and ornamentation[iii]. While on the other, their absence of precious materials alludes to political controversies as seen in the mining and trading of “blood”-diamonds[iv]. Cohen cleverly uses red to animate social injustices; while aesthetically captivating, she simultaneously references red’s historical associations, including blood and sacrifice. Rose Slivka, writer, critic and pivotal figure in American Craft notes, “Where before your jewelry showed your social status, now it shows where your head is at and what you are thinking about”[v]. Rather than veiling social history, favouring social injustice over social change, Seeing Red encourages these types of discussions. Jewelry acts as a prosthesis to the human body[vi], where individuals can profess statements of concern and demand awareness.
There is an inherent performative aspect to art jewelry – the process of manufacture, the act of wearing and the pleasure of observing. First, traces of artist labour and identity remain evident in the finished product. Second, art jewelry’s literal orientation to the human body; through its sculptural properties the wearer becomes part of the art itself. Finally, as an integral component of the work’s display, both the jewelry and wearer require audience activation. The meaning of each piece deepens with this collective engagement. Every piece in Seeing Red initiates its own discussions of art, the body and society through its reactive dialogue.
Seeing Red refutes craft’s historically disparaging reputation within Fine Art[vii]. As part of the third wave of the Arts and Craft Movement, art jewelry transcends romanticised artistic expression in lieu of cultivating social relations. Craft’s historical lack of privilege and authority as an art allows for new, non-prescribed ways of thinking about value and culture in society. Seeing Red is a space where red reflects more than imagination and ingenuity, but a liberation from conventional understandings of both art and jewelry.
Seeing Red will be showing at the Craft Council of BC Gallery, Granville Island from June 29th – August 10th, 2017.