BOOK REVIEW | Shows and Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making

BOOK REVIEW | Shows and Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making

Published by Art Jewelry Forum

Discussing the work of Victoire de Castellane, in particular her exhibition titled Fleurs d’Exces, Benjamin Lignel writes: “…what the pieces lack in scale, they make up for with an overabundance of formal twists and colorful turns, born of excessive craftsmanship. The extensive use of lacquers, matt or gloss, sparkles, real of fake, texture, grainy, veinous, crinkled, on the clenched folds of her vegetation keeps the eye in a perpetual state of gasp. It fascinates and petrifies, as only such a concentration of effects can. It is, in short, spectacular craft.”

Shows and Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making is equally as spectacular, if not more so. In fact, I can sum it up in one word: exquisite. It is a thoughtful, critical (both inwardly and outwardly), dynamic dialogue of the intricate and diverse field of contemporary jewelry (or jewelry, or art jewelry, or studio jewelry depending on your affinity for sociological definitions). What is most surprising, and something I had not realized, is that even though the field has been discussed in a variety of approaches and from an array of viewpoints, it has not been addressed from the perspective of the exhibition. Or more accurately perhaps, from the perspective of the exhibition as a (if not the) point for giving “this craft its authorial dimension.” I find it curious that for a field that takes considerable risks in how its current work is displayed (I would argue more so than its fine art contemporaries) and to the extent of how much care is often taken in its presentation, that no one has sought to discuss exhibition-making with jewelry as its focal point before.

Shows and Tales remedies this absence by addressing the question of 'exhibiting jewelry' in several ways: “a series of commissioned articles on landmark exhibitions, commissioned essays by, and discussions with, curators on the challenges of curating jewelry, and many of the best exhibition reviews from Art Jewelry Forum’s archives that track some recent experimentation with display strategies.” Editor and author Benjamin Lignel has compiled a rich, diverse, global look at the field of contemporary jewelry based on the quintessential and definitive exhibitions over the last sixty-nine years: from Modern Handmade Jewelry (MoMA, 1946) to Objects to Wear (Van Abbemuseum, 1969) to Iris Eichenberg’s Graduation Show (Gerrit Rietveld Academie, 1994) to Dans la Ligne de more. Scenes du bijou contemporain en France (Museee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, 2014) and a multitude in-between. This gorgeous book, chicly petite and with a tasteful number of images, is divided into three logical parts: Part 1) which “plots the evolution of the field, using the exhibition space as a historical marker, Part 2) the starting point of “the analysis of specific aspects of exhibition-making,” and Part 3) “a series of exhibition reviews from the AJF archives with a view of tracking some recent experimentations with display strategies.” The text culminates in my favorite section: Part 4) checklists which painstakingly provide all the details of more than 30 exhibitions I could want, including all the individuals who “made” each exhibition plus sweet little nuggets of information Lignel felt would give a more accurate picture of individual projects. This part alone is worth its weight: consider this one of your new research resources.

As you might expect, and perhaps too obvious; but it is important to begin with the introduction by Lignel – he defines the premise and lays the groundwork for what the book will tackle: “…following Robert Storr, I find it more useful to treat exhibitions as actions rather than reports of practice – and exhibition-makers as producers rather than caretakers.” This guided his choice for the title of the book and how he presented the project to its contributors. I don’t often think of exhibitions as actions (unless of course it is performance art); so even a few pages in, I am enticed by the investigation and direction the book will take me. What is evident very early on is the truth in Lignel’s statement: “Shows are clearly one of the places where we ‘learn’ jewelry, but this education seemingly takes very personal paths.” This is the departure point, the key word being personal, for all the essays that follow: each uniquely addressing an exhibition or means of display, as well as over-reaching topics related to exhibition-making and the field of jewelry at large. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Glenn Adamson boldly begins his review of the definitive show Objects: USA with the confident: “Dare to Dream.” A statement he poses as the lesson to be learned from the exhibition by the same title at The National Collection of Fine Arts of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC in October 3 – November 16, 1969 – one he notes as “the most ambitious and influential show ever mounted on the subject of contemporary craft,” albeit not without its hiccups. From the glaring differences in the show’s two curators’ backgrounds and intentions to the conflicting message of celebrating craft while simultaneously referring to its liberation as Art (another volatile word), Objects: USA, as Adamson notes, “failed to cohere into a single, digestible message.” In looking back now, what it did do was create an open and tolerant platform that ultimately reinforced the power of craft and its ability to stand on its own and rise above the expectations placed on it by “the superficial observer.” Adamson is one of my favorite writers about craft, and he continues that legacy here.

“The easy part is over in modern jewelry. From now on its uphill.” Mònica Gaspar opens her essay about Joieria Europea Contemporania – Seu Central de La Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona, February 4 – March 29, 1987 with this provocative quote from one of the texts in the catalog of the exhibition. Marking the end of an era for some in a period of self-indulgence for art jewelry, Gaspar argues that this exhibition in particular marks a shift in curatorial attitude and the focus of the catalog as “the black box of the full story.” An exhibition that in many ways went rogue in every direction, including its exile to the lobby of bank’s corporate office, the narrative elements and the catalog, in particular, became integral to not only the display but to the understanding of the work and its character as well as serving as a source of reference after the fact. Cleverly, the catalog had included images of locals (famous, infamous, and otherwise) modeling and interacting with the jewelry – a strategy that paid off several times over. I had not considered the catalog as such a poignant component of an exhibition before, it often seems an afterthought or inconsequential to the work. However, Gaspar makes an interesting case for considering the catalog as a launching point, of specifically jewelry exhibitions, into a new realm of propaganda and ultimately, raising the idea to “…treat jewelry as a catalyst for socially relevant interactions, not so much in museification.”

What is it That You Do Exactly? Categorizing Contemporary Jewelry through Exhibitions by Kellie Riggs leads me to the idea of utilizing exhibitions (or the study of) as grouping tools – challenging me to “consider exhibitions as a more or less conscious expression of the field’s drive to self-categorize.” She presents the idea that “sorting through various shows and analyzing the associations being forged between pieces and their authors can help us see more clearly what kind of work exists within the field.” Divided into two parts: 1.) which discusses obvious go-to exhibition themes, and 2.) more compelling contemporary jewelry exhibition categories. Written from the perspective of both maker and observer, Riggs carefully dissects the pros and cons of the how, where, and why of jewelry exhibitions (and the importance with whom one exhibits as noted in part 2) and subtlety nudges me to think about jewelry from the individual approaches of the artist. I couldn’t agree more – it is indeed “what lies underneath and holds afloat the pieces” that also interests me. It just so happens, that its an excellent way to organize an exhibition and develop new terms to describe the artists who make such complex and distinct works.

One of the aspects of the overall book that I found most interesting was that with each essay, as I read further and further into the text, my opinions were challenged and more questions were raised: what about art vs. craft, should they be separate? Why and how does the museum validate work that I am inherently attracted to and want to engage with? Is jewelry ornament, object, functional sculpture, or all of the above? Should an exhibition have to have text for me to appreciate/ understand the work? Just as I find myself jotting down a thought, I turn the page to find nearly the identical topic being addressed – a masterful job in facilitating the discussion by Lignel to provoke ideas and keep me turning the pages. This leads to my favorite section of the entire book, titled On Display which includes multiple case studies specific to the range of exhibition setup during Munich jewelry week: one of the touted annual epicenters for contemporary jewelry (its on my shortlist of trips). It is obvious that there are a plethora of ways to present jewelry (both traditional and not so traditional are explored); but it is apparent that this field in particular faces strategic challenges: accessibility, environment, scale, audience, the presence of the body, commerce – all of which raise questions of intention and purpose if not done addressed correctly. Authors Susan Cummins and Benjamin Lignel offer considered positions on the power of the environment and how to harness it when presenting contemporary jewelry.

Also worth mentioning are Distance and Respect – Kellie Riggs in conversation with Ruudt Peters because, well… its Ruudt Peters. I love a man who unapologetically wants to be a jeweler – embracing every single thing that this term means, implies, and honors – and ends an interview with “I know also exactly where I am.” Also eye-opening was Everyone a Curator – Home Exhibitions by Liesbeth den Besten which highlights the return to the atypical idea of hosting exhibitions in one’s home or of one’s private collection, although this was far more common in the early days of contemporary jewelry. From Dutch artist Dinie Besems testing out conceptual ideas by presenting various forms of Salons in her studio, kitchen, or garden to Australian artist Zoe Brand hosting intimate yet public exhibitions from her bedroom to expand her own ideas as well as expose the jewelry of others, or Collectors Peter Jones and Susan Taylor sharing their private collection in a project called Spare Room 33 – den Besten: each illustrates “how private pleasures can yield knowledge and reflection.” This kind of out-of-the-box exhibitionism and presentation from serious artists and collectors (an important distinction I think as it negates the naivety of the hobbyist), opens up new channels previously untested and, for me, unknown. And finally, The Flyer and Other Printed Matters: Words Worth by Marthe Le Van who reaffirms notions I’ve felt all along about both art and jewelry and any ground in-between in its “ability to be profound and transformative” and that “objects can speak for themselves.” While I agree with her idea of the well-placed, well-written use of words, I, too, am a self-directed viewer who prefers for the artist’s work within their selected environment to serve as my point of connection – jewelry or otherwise. In the round, I found myself nodding yes more along with her words than any other.

Shows and Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making is a fantastic compilation of insightful treatises from the essential artists, tastemakers, writers, and critics of the field; as well as a robust timeline of the movement based on how it has been exhibited, viewed, and subsequently critiqued. It is discerning and academic for those serious about the field; but offers an easy-to-read introduction for those curious or just beginning to really dip their toes into the discipline. Each essay delights in one way or another, and of course some more than others; but as a whole – I found the discussion sweeping, incredibly engaging, and an important read for students, makers, curators, collectors, or critics interested in not only contemporary jewelry, but craft and exhibition-making in general. To purchase your own copy of Shows and Tales, and I suggest that you do, visit the AJF bookstore:

Footnotes: [1] Benjamin Lignel, Victoire de Castellane: Fleurs d’Exces – Gagosian Gallery, Paris, March 2 – 22, 2011, 149-153.; [2] Benjamin Lignel, Introduction, 7.; [3] Benjamin Lignel, Introduction, 10.; [4] Benjamin Lignel, Introduction, 9.; [5] Benjamin Lignel, Acknowledgments, 14.; [6] Glenn Adamson, Objects: USA, 43-47; [7] Glenn Adamson quoting Olaf Skoogfors, artist’s statement, quoted in Objects: USA, 221 / 47.; [8] Mònica Gaspar, Joieria Europea Contemporania – Seu Central de La Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona, February 4 – March 29, 1987, 55-59.; [9] Kellie Riggs, What is it That You Do Exactly? Categorizing Contemporary Jewelry through Exhibitions, 108-117.; [10] Distance and Respect – Kellie Riggs in conversation with Ruudt Peters, 135-145; [11] Liesbeth den Besten, Everyone a Curator – Home Exhibitions, 67-71.; [12] Marthe Le Van, The Flyer and Other Printed Matters: Words Worth, 195-197.

Shows and Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-Making was published by Art Jewelry Forum in March of 2015. Surveyed exhibitions include: Modern Handmade Jewelry (1946), Schmuck (1959-present), The International Exhibition of Modern Jewelry (1961), Objects to Wear & Objects: USA (1969), The Jewellery Project (1983), Joieria Europea Contemporania (1987), Interno (1992), Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (1995), Nocturnus (2002), Dinie Besems’s Salons, Touching Warms the Art (2008), Objects Performed (2011), Ligne de Mire (2013), and many more. Featured essays, reviews and interviews by: Glenn Adamson, Sarah Archer, Jivan Astfalck, Lizzie Atkins, David Beytelmann, Susan Cummins, Liesbeth den Besten, Iris Eichenberg (DE/USA), Mònica Gaspar, Toni Greenbaum, Marthe Le Van, Benjamin Lignel, Jennifer Navva Milliken, Kellie Riggs, Damian Skinner, Cindi Strauss, Jorunn Veiteberg and Namita Gupta Wiggers.

All images courtesy Art Jewelry Forum.

Art Jewelry Forum (AJF) is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting art jewelry as a collectible art form; to encouraging and promoting jewelry artists; and to supporting research and writing in the field. If you are interested in learning more about contemporary art jewelry or AJF, visit their website:

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