A brooch is defined as “an ornament fastened to clothing with a hinged pin and catch;” however, the recent exhibition a•brooch•able at Lillstreet Art Gallery proved this traditional and often more formal piece of jewelry is far more than a mere ornament with a simple hook and closure. Interestingly, each work presented here confidently postures as an art object, or small sculpture, as it does a work of adornment – it is not an easy feat to straddle both arenas and do so successfully. Although the exhibition has since closed (sometimes I need time to ruminate on the work I’m viewing and reviews come after the fact), I found this rousing collection of contemporary art jewelry brooches from both national and international artists incredibly intriguing. And more importantly, I find myself still thinking about and going back to a number of these fantastic pieces – signifying the sheer power that jewelry still wields to impact my subconscious.
Michael Dale Bernard’s Trill Blue (shown at top), was one of the most sculptural works of the exhibition – a bold work of contrasting electric blue reclaimed architectural stampings confined within an abysmally matte black grid with hunks of ebony are carved into chunky gems tucked inside the powder coated clusters. At once precious and discarded, Bernard explores ideas of commodity and decay, purpose and value. The work is ornate but chaotic, yet governed by structure – resulting in what Bernard defines as “urban, clinical, and governed by fresh and shifted underlying formulas.” I find his feminine forms guided by such a visibly masculine hand delightfully exquisite.
Feather Brooch, by Maia Leppo, is a bold statement piece juxtaposing unconventional materials with natural motifs to explore expanded aesthetic possibilities in body adornment as well as conceptual questions surrounding moral questions of improvement, advancement, and the constant need to “upgrade.” Hot pink feathers are arrested in place, a white crust formed where the fibers should be separated, while sponges and scrub pads are transformed into crustaceans and coral. It feels archaic, simplistic even, in its materials and textures; yet simultaneously modern in its composition, color and saturation. Leppo reinvents the actual into the imagined and raises questions about preservation, intervention, and what I might term, the inevitable. Where her work makes the most interesting detour, is that once it is placed on the body, the query multiplies: expounding on the notion of improvement, natural or otherwise, as either progressive or disruptive within the confines of the physical, psychological, and moral domains. A single brooch has pushed me to consider complex questions from dueling viewpoints, one as a viewer (spectator) and the other as the wearer (participant) confirming Leppo’s deceptively simple work is anything but.
Also working in unconventional jewelry materials, Reneé Zettle-Sterling’s Object of Mourning: Gone Before, though suggestive of the traditional memorial / mourning jewelry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is crafted from upholstery foam, paint and beads. The bulbous dangling mass, suspended by a small link chain, feels heavy and cumbersome – unforgiving and lifeless; forever attached to the non-descript, flat black, square to which it is hinged. In contrast, the beaded surface glistens in the spotlights – a whimsical reminder of the impersonal and manufactured material the work is composed from. It is also a more serious reflection of the total abandonment of rigorous mourning codes, and perhaps of how we commemorate loss as a society at large; as well as a comment on what we value and worry most about losing (more often than not, it has become things rather than people). Zettle-Sterling mourns this loss, I think, as I do more than any other.
Alicia Jane Boswell presented Welt, a brooch from a body of work meant to be a response to personal experiences, occurrences and feelings associated with that of displacement. Broadly considered, transposition can occur geographically, circumstantially, emotionally and physically; however, Boswell’s work feels far more intimate and personal. Aptly so, as she notes that she was “…specifically influenced by the 18th and 19th ‘huswifs’ (patch-worked oblong pockets or pouches worn hidden under a woman’s dress and usually stitched from scraps of fabric or lace…often holding important sewing tools (steel needles) or intimate smaller items such as jewels.” The delicate enameled surface feels like handmade lace with pockets of lavender and mauve scales peeking and emerging outward through the surface. It is a piece in transition, veins of hard, stainless steel spheres solidly announce their position, punctuated by the delicate hint of sparkling white sapphires – it is hopeful, a work (a person) returning to life and being and joy.
Peony III, by Nicolette Absil, is a gorgeous and delicate drawing of a peony flower, embellished with a decadent 24k gold center, using the ancient art of fusing glass to metal known as enameling. The refined illustration, cropped to remove any semblance of the extraneous, focuses purely on the serenity of the flower and the repetitive shapes found within its form. The slight curve of the surface and nearly invisible four-prong setting allow the brooch to stand alone as a snapshot of existence, a brief seizure of a bloom, of a season. It is decidedly feminine and transportive – reminiscent of traditional commemorative works of adornment, but more celebrative than commemorative. Absil reminds me to celebrate the beauty that is here, that is now, rather than waiting until it can, or must, come from memory.
Working oppositely, Securing A Thought by Tova Lund seeks to capture a memory, of experience and place, and transform it into an artifact of found stones and precious metals. Although it was one of the smallest works of the exhibition, it carried the most visual weight – the darkened brass and meaty joints solidly convey the importance of the work, of the memory it represents; while the crisp white quartz pinpoints the precise place, and landscape, in which the significant event occurred. There is an innate feeling of history in this work, as if it has already had an existence of its own in its current state, as if it has a past that it carries with it that transfers to the wearer. Unlike a burden, it feels rather like an acknowledgment – a rite of some kind – to a larger understanding of our connections to places and in turn, to ourselves.
a•brooch•able, an invitational exhibition of contemporary art jewelry brooches, curated by Pam Robinson & Jessica Armstrong was on view at Lillstreet Gallery located at 4401 N Ravenswood, Chicago, IL and included works by the following artists in addition to those featured above: Jessica Armstrong, Sarah Chapman, Daniel DiCaprio, Teresa Faris, Joanna Gollberg, Arthur Hash*, Sarah Holden, Andrew Kuebeck, Brooke Marks Swanson*, Sharon Massey, Paul McClure*, Tedd McDonah, Carla Nessa, Mary Hallam Pearse, Pam Robinson, and Caitie Sellers.
Images from top to bottom: Michael Dale Bernard, Trill Blue, 2014, Steel, Reclaimed Architectural Stampings, Ebony, Stainless, Vitreous Enamel, Powder Coat; Maia Leppo, Feather Brooch, 2014, Silver, Feather, Gesso, Sponge, Paint, Copper, Scrub Pad; Reneé Zettle-Sterling, Object of Mourning: Gone Before, 2014, Upholstery Foam, Paint, Beads; Alicia Jane Boswell, Welt, 2011, Enamel on Fine Silver, Sterling Silver, Sapphires, Stainless Steel; Nicolette Absil, Peony III, 2014, Sterling Silver, Copper, Vitreous Enamel, Graphite, 24k Gold, Garnet, Steel; Tova Lund, Securing A Thought, 2015, Brass, Silver, Quartz; Full exhibition view