While I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject of art history, I do consider
myself an ardent follower of contemporary art jewellery, having developed a tasted for it from my time in Central Saint Martins’ jewellery department. Armed with my experiences and what I have read on the subject, I approached this historical survey of some of the greats of the wearable art movement of the 70’s and 80’s.
The Good News
First the good news: Given the closure of several art jewellery galleries in Europe and America over the past decade or so, it seems we are seeing a gradual retiring of the old guard. However, given the steady and persistent rise in demand for bespoke and hand crafted work, it also seems the demand for brave designers willing to take chances with craft and design is greater than ever. In such a climate, this exhibition couldn’t be better timed.
Another blessing of the show is the chance to see in person some of the most challenging and baffling works ever created in the name of studio jewellery. Gijs Bakker, David Watkins, Wendy Ramshaw, Karl Fritsch, and others who pushed the envelope in their time have good representative work on display to be seen. At their best, studio jewellers blurred the lines between fashion, sculpture, and performance art, and the choice of work gives a fair representation of the weirdest and boldest designs ever undertaken for wearable art.
The Bad News
Which brings me to the bad news: This could have been a great show. It posed a golden opportunity for the Design Museum to show off the best of contemporary art jewellers gone by. Sadly, it was sabotaged by three tragic flaws in presentation.
First, they made the inexplicable decision to not show a single piece of jewellery on any sort of body, mannequin, hand, or even mandrel. This means visitors will puzzle at what many of the pieces actually are, let alone how they are worn. It’s almost akin to taking a Rembrandt out of its frame and leaving it half unrolled on a table.
To their credit, they at least decided to project onto an unused wall a rolling slide show of random artists and bohemians wearing a few select pieces, but it feels like an afterthought.
Second, the text descriptions posted by just about every display case were written in heavy type on glaring red or orange tablets. The effect made it hard to read, which was only made worse by the dense, dry, inaccessible art speak used in the descriptions. The few legible passages read more like an art student blagging their way through a project presentation.
The third problem only became clear after I left the exhibition, and perused the wonderful contemporary jewellery coffee table books in the gift shop. Seeing all these new and vital jewellers working on beautiful work and presenting it well through photography only showed how much of a disservice this exhibition was doing for its subject. While old work and student work was there to be seen, the under-representation of truly recent and exciting professional work left the exhibition feeling tired, as if it were an academic analysis of a dead subject. Of the three presentation mistakes this exhibition made, this is the least forgiveable.
It is no secret that contemporary art jewellery is not what it used to be– several major art jewellery galleries in the US and UK have closed in the past decade, and more have uncertain futures. But it is still a living art perpetrated by brave craftsmen. While this exhibition could have shown so much more than it does, and could have been presented so much better, it does at least give due respect to some great works from the history of art jewellery.
For this reason alone, I still recommend this show.
Showing until March 3. Design Museum, London SE1. The book Unexpected Pleasures: The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewellery, edited by Susan Cohn (£35, Rizzoli) is available at www.designmuseumshop.com