Artists have been casting their impressions on the jewelry world for centuries, but a new group of makers are getting utterly conceptual with their designs.
Alexander Calder once quipped, “I have been making wire jewelry, and think I’ll really do something with it, eventually.” Eventually, the Connecticut-and-France-based sculptor produced more than 1,500 pieces—from hammered gold and silver mobile-invoking necklaces to rings and belt buckles made with found materials and glass—that were worn by everyone from Peggy Guggenheim to Georgia O’Keeffe. Of course, the history of artist-made jewelry extends well beyond Calder’s passions, and is hardly limited to Picasso, Bertoia and Dalí. As evidenced by the 135 artists represented in “Picasso to Koons: Artist as Jeweler, an Exhibition of Wearable Sculpture,” the 2011 survey at the Museum of Art and Design, sartorialist interventions were executed by everyone from Georges Braques and Lucio Fontana to Yoko Ono and Anish Kapoor. British jeweler Elisabetta Cipriani has been featuring the wearable art of countless artists—think Tom Sachs’ Hermés-styled New Bedford G-Shock watch or golden rebar cuffs from Ai Weiwei—at her buzzy London boutique.
Meanwhile, for “The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment,” his multi-tiered fashion bonanza at Red Bull Studios New York, Bjarne Melgaard created more than 100 blinged out gold and silver pendants and shakers—with original pornographic drawings and sapphire chihuahuas scaling diamond penises—which he launched in vitrines surrounding a live pink pig pen this February. “Artists like the idea of pieces you can take from place to place and either display or take for a walk on the street,” says Celia Forner Venturi, the London-based model-turned jewelry designer-turned-cosmetics entrepreneur who is producing and curating her seven-years- in-the-making “Portable Art Project” survey (running through June at Hauser & Wirth’s 69th Street gallery). The concept for the show began with a gold cuff made by Louise Bourgeois for a 2008 auction that eventually grew into a series of 15 commissioned pieces from artists including John Baldessari, Stefan Brüggemann, Paul McCarthy and Pipilotti Rist. “There have been shows in the past of artists who made jewelry but never has it happened that artists were commissioned for a show. When you wear these works you have to adapt to the piece, with their scale and shape, it’s not just jewelry by artists.”
Matthew Day Jackson
As a kid growing up in Washington state, Matthew Day Jackson worshipped at the temple of the Cult; his fashion god the band’s lead singer Ian Astbury. “I’d skateboard to school in 8th grade with a dashiki, a crazy paisley headband and Navajo jewelry,” recalls Jackson, who made intricate beaded necklaces, one of which contained his wisdom teeth, as a teenager. For his very first show in New York at Perry Rubenstein Gallery in 2005 he created a wall-mounted sculpture called Sculpture for my Left Hand featuring an abstracted bear claw (minus a thumb), with a southwestern styled ring on each finger: index (signifying direction and purpose); middle: (“FUCK YOUness”); ring (philosophy, connectedness and marriage to an idea rather than just a person); pinky (family of people and ideas). “The rings made the claws human. The title indicated that the four fingers were from a left hand to begin a puzzle of meaning in relationship to each of the four rings,” says Jackson. “The left hand is generally associated with ideas or beliefs, and in relationship to the moment in which this sculpture was made. I thought of my right hand as a tool to make or to fight with.” In the ensuing years he’s made many other baubles, including a set of brass knuckles inscribed with the Victor Frankl quote: “What is to give light must endure burning.” “I like the idea that if you punch somebody there would be this branding of this quote in somebody’s head,” jokes Jackson. The artist also contributed to Hauser & Wirth’s “Portable Art Project” with a chunk of wood sprouting a silver tree branch upon which is impaled a golden geometric skull with a cranium that detaches and affixes to the branch allowing for a table-top sculpture and a skull ring with diamond eyes. “Jewelry is sort of a conversation piece and a framing device at the same time—this outward expression, willful by the owner, that could be used to exert power, to create a boundary between the wearer and viewer and that’s like the history of crowns,” says Jackson. “It defines the haves and have nots. Naturally we think about these things as visual art but it provides a really playful space somewhere between the useless and utility.”
You could easily label Josiah McElheny a glass artist, Ken Price a ceramicist and Jill Magid a diamond specialist. Of course you’d be wrong, most notably for reducing the scope of their sweeping conceptual art practices to material concerns. This is especially true of Magid. In the fall of 2015, with the permission of the Barragán family and Jalisco government, she exhumed the ashes from the national monument in Guadalajara where Luis Barragán was interred—and turned them into a two-carat memorial diamond—in exchange for returning the Mexican architect’s archive (including thousands drawings, photos and manuscripts) to its homeland and sharing it with the public. (The project was fittingly titled, The Proposal, and shown at the San Francisco Art Institute last fall.) Two decades prior, this trove was allegedly purchased as a wedding gift for Federica Zanco in lieu of a ring by her then-boyfriend Rolf Fehlbaum, CEO of Vitra, where the archive is now held in the bunker of his company’s Swiss headquarters. “For me, it’s not like I’m making jewelry. The making of that ring was less about walking into the territory of jewelry design as it was about making a conceptual art piece. The ring made sense for that story,” says Magid, who had been working with artworks involving “eventual diamonds” for more than a decade. She first became interested in the stone’s (art) historical implications in 2005 after discovering LifeGem, the first U.S. company to develop a method for carbon extraction of human remains. “I usually use myself as a tool,” explains Magid, who made a contract with the Chicago firm stating her intent to be turned into a one carat diamond ring upon her death. As such, her seminal piece, Auto Portrait Pending, consists of the aforementioned contract, a gold ring with an empty setting and the artist’s preamble that begins: “Make me a diamond when I die. Cut me round and brilliant, weigh me at one carat, ensure that I am real.”
Over the past quarter century, New York-based conceptual artist Lisa Kirk has created everything from a fragrance that replicated the smell of revolution to a rentable “shanty timeshare” inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard that art patrons could occupy for $199.99 a week. But when she decided she wanted to make cast sterling, platinum and 14 karat gold pipe bomb sculptures to hold the Revolution fragrance, curator Lia Gangitano put her in touch with Jelena Behrend. “She makes all this intense rock and roll heavy metal jewelry for artists and she crafted Revolution Pipe Bomb for me,” says Kirk, whose father was the award-winning jewelry designer Alexis Kirk beloved by everyone from Jackie O and the Duchess of Windsor to the cast of Dynasty. “He was literally on his death bed dying of brain cancer and I had the original pipe bomb in my possession and I got to bring it to him and show it to him and it was the first time I realized I was making work directly influenced by my dad.” Over the past decade she’s continued to explore the family business with unique “alchemical artifacts”—including gold- and silver-plated bronze casts of Doritos, Cheetos, Lucky Charms, Oreos and owl feathers that take the form of dream catchers, pendants and sculpture. “I’m into this idea of New Ageism as a way to escape the horrors of American popular culture and the environment completely collapsing and a lot of these objects are signifiers of what we did to ruin our society,” says Kirk. “The idea is that you can never get enough of this junk food and never get enough of your hopes and aspirations that might never really manifest so a bronze Dorito could be a relic of the demise of our demise.”