Walking into the first floor of the Society of Arts and Crafts on Newbury Street, visitors enter into a storefront filled to the brim with work designed and fabricated by local and national artists working in glass, metal, fibers, jewelry, ceramics and wood. The unique work on display fills the room so completely that it is easy to miss the small staircase leading up to the second floor, where visitors can find the Society of Arts and Crafts gallery, a space devoted to promoting the diverse world of contemporary craft.
The current exhibit, From Minimal to Bling: Contemporary Studio Jewelry, highlights the work of twenty-three emerging and established art jewelers. It is a dynamic display of the many possibilities of a field often overlooked by the art world at large. Stylistically, the show is a snapshot of the most prevalent trends in materials and processes in studio jewelry. For those new to the world of studio jewelry, this show is a compelling introduction to the field; confirmation that the world of jewelry extends past the cheap glitter of costume jewelry, beyond the dripping decadence of Tiffany's, into the realm of contemporary art. Jewelry can be witty, tragic, funny; it lives in the world, and shares an intimacy with the viewer that is unparalleled in the arts, because unlike any other medium, jewelry is in constant dialogue with the body.
The interactive nature of jewelry is accentuated in this exhibition by the presence of jewelry boxes and mirrors interspersed at regular intervals with the wearable work. Visitors are encouraged (with the assistance of staff) to touch the work, to pick it up and try it on; to see the work in its natural habitat and experience it first-hand. The jewelry boxes, chests and mirrors were all expertly crafted by local artists, and the inclusion of these pieces is a recognition of the function and lived experience of jewelry, as well as an acknowledgment of the interrelated nature of the crafts.
Some standout work in this show include Jim Bove’s minimalist forms and Cat Cole’s steel brooches. Cole borrows from the visual language of the built environment, fabricating elegantly simplified industrial forms reminiscent of grain silos. The folded surfaces of her brooches are peppered with cold, blue-gray enamel. Occasional touches of the steel surface show through, making the architectural forms appear in a state of gradual deterioration. The body of the wearer becomes part of the architecture of the piece, appearing solid and stable when contrasted against the quiet, dismal delicacy of the brooch. In contrast to the understated quality of Bove and Cole’s work, Betty Stoukides necklaces are a jumble of colors, textures, and materials. There is a refreshingly improvisational feel to her work: in several pieces, leather is cut into long, winding loose fringe that hangs like shining cords of black seaweed about the neck, tickling the wearer and moving gently with changes in the air. Her work seems loosely abstracted from forms found in nature, turning the body into an exotic environment.
The Society of Arts and Crafts inhabits a curious zone between museum, store and gallery, but it has been happily occupying this liminal space since it was first founded in 1897. The plight of SAC is similar to that of craft as a field of professional artistic production; often misunderstood, or reduced to only one of its facets of existence. Craft is messy, complex, and confusing, straddling a strange divide between function and art. At its best, craft provides valuable insight into the everyday, inhabiting those moments when we are engaged in the mundane business of living life. From Minimal to Bling is in many ways a safe show, leaving out some of the more conceptually challenging studio jewelry of our current moment, but there remain instances of innovation, humor, and surprise that make it a show well worth seeing.
From Minimal to Bling: Contemporary Studio Jewelry will be up at the Society of Arts and Crafts through January 11th.