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Doing What to Hu? Jewelry at the Yale University Art Gallery

November 29, 2009

Two weekends ago, I spoke at a symposium on American jewelry at the Yale University Art Gallery. It was an interesting event with a diverse audience: jewelry historians, dealers, appraisers, interested curators, and a few jewelers. Part of the program was an opportunity to look at parts of the Yale jewelry collection. A curator provided background info and of participants got to handle the objects. For the first session, I elected to look at some examples of Yale’s costume jewelry collection.

 

I had no idea that Yale collects costume jewelry, or even that the genre qualified for scholarly attention. I was in for a surprise. A Fellow at the Gallery, Emily Orr, has done a fair amount of research on the various items she selected. She presented original advertisements for the majority of the pieces, and traced the evolution of American jewelry fashion. Normally, I could have cared less. But Orr’s depth of knowledge and the sheer weirdness of some of the jewelry made for a fascinating session.

 

To conclude the presentation, Ms. Orr took us up to the Gallery’s permanent collection, where a display of Yale’s American jewelry collection had been installed temporarily, pending reinstallation of the entire gallery. There was a 1930s Alexander Calder, a beautiful Mary Lee Hu necklace, a Robert Ebendorf. There were also necklaces from Stephen Dweck and Mary McFadden and a buckle from Mimi di N. Studio jewelry and costume jewelry (and antique jewelry) were all exhibited cheek-by-jowl. In fact, the costume jewelry was given pride of place: prominent positions at eye level, anchoring the arrangements of both display cases.

 

It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that Yale University Art Gallery regards costume jewelry and studio jewelry as equivalent. And why not? Both are forms of jewelry, after all. In the second half of the 20th century, the scale of both expanded, and both genres exploited all kinds of non-precious materials. Thus, it makes sense to exhibit jewelry with jewelry. To me, though, the combination was creepy. As a studio jeweler who spends months (or sometimes years) conceiving and making a single necklace, I have a hard time accepting that my work could be seen as the equivalent of mass-produced jewelry.

 

It seems every field in the visual arts needs to distance itself from a close neighbor. Painting wants distance from illustration; sculpture from statuary; art photography from commercial photography. In each case, a field is divided into high and low, pure art and commerce, good and mediocre. Philip Pearlstein is distinguished from Thomas Kincaid, despite the fact that both men make paintings. A Richard Serra ellipse is separated from a cast iron lawn deer, despite the fact that both are sculptures.

 

Sometimes, the distinction was obvious. In the mid-19th century, illustrations were wood or steel engravings, with none of the color and optical richness of paintings. But with the introduction of chromolithography, illustration came much closer to painting, particularly when the original illustrations actually were oil paintings. Fine art had a problem. Here was work for hire that was in many ways indistinguishable from high art. Two options emerged: make painting as unlike illustration as possible; or make illustration appear to be degraded – a “bad” version of painting. Among painters of a certain age, to say a painting is illustrative is completely dismissive. And so we have an intellectual tug-of-war in which illustrators like Norman Rockwell are regarded as kitschmeisters by a certain portion of the artworld, even as more liberal observers point out his redeeming qualities. (And even as most Americans love Rockwell’s work.)

 

The boundary between high and low is never fixed. Bodies of work that were once irrefutably low are occasionally elevated to a much higher status. Think of Weegee’s crime photos: once sensationalist journalism, now quasi-high art. Or, perhaps more convincingly, the snapshots Jacques-Henri Lartigue took as a child, which were later admitted into the photography canon in such magisterial exhibitions as “The Art of Fixing a Shadow.”

 

Despite such occasional migrations, most art fields maintain a tall fence between high and low. Most often, the distance between the two is based on a qualitative distinction, whatever “quality” might happen to mean. Thus, a Pearlstein painting is better than Kincaid because Kincaid churns out kitsch, which is of low quality. However, quality is notoriously difficult to define, and is usually based on subjective criteria, despite all claims to the contrary. A cynic would say “quality” is a marketing ploy: an effort to restrict competition by rendering massive amounts of potentially marketable material invisible.

 

Personally, I’m not very convinced by hierarchies. Instead, I see different kinds of work within most fields. Each kind is distinguished by a different set of conditions or purposes. Within Western jewelry, for instance, there is precious jewelry, costume jewelry, and studio jewelry. Precious jewelry is expensive, is often used to symbolize important life events, and these days is fairly static and conservative. Costume jewelry is made in relatively large numbers, is intended to appeal to an accordingly large audience, and often tracks changes in fashion. Studio jewelry is generally made by hand in small numbers, has its own distribution system, and is sometimes intended to serve expressive or conceptual ends. Each kind of jewelry can be measured by how well it succeeds in fulfilling its own purposes.

 

With more clarity as to purpose, each kind of jewelry can be (more) reasonably subjected to a qualitative judgment. Is there bad costume jewelry? You bet! If you have ever seen a commercial casting catalogue, you know that the low end of costume jewelry consists of every cliché imaginable – from bunnies to crucifixes – rendered without imagination or intelligence. Dumb shit for cash flow, nothing more. Is there good costume jewelry? Again, you bet. I have always admired Ted Muehling and 1980’s Robert Lee Morris jewelry. 

 

I spent the weekend at Yale trying to complete an analogy: studio jewelry is to costume jewelry as painting is to… what? Ultimately, I decided on posters. Both costume jewelry and posters are commercial forms, intended to have a certain amount of graphic impact. Both are produced in multiples, and both are more democratic and populist than their upmarket cousins. And I think both are forms of design.

 

It’s well established that the posters are a subset of graphic design, which itself is a subset of design. To my way of thinking, a design is usually a plan: a set of instructions turned over to a worker (or a machine) for production. The final object, be it a chair or a brooch, does not typically require the designer’s physical labor, no matter how much he or she might have been involved in the prototyping stage. Think of Charles and Ray Eames’s early plywood chairs. Once the two designers figured out how to bend plywood reliably and efficiently, they turned production over to a factory, and moved on to other things.

 

Design is also about multiples. There can be unique prototypes and limited production runs, but the design project is oriented towards manufacturing lots of identical objects.

 

(By the way, I want to note that I don’t bear any prejudice towards commerce. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a capitalist and trying to sell stuff. I object to waste and exploitation, but those crimes are just as common in socialist economies as in capitalist ones. Nor do multiples necessarily make for a lower order of art. Great design takes advantage of mass-production technology to achieve extraordinary results, from the way flat colors are layered to describe space and pattern in Ukiyo-e prints to the thrillingly peculiar forms of Marcel Wanders “Airborne Snotty” vases.)

 

Now, posters are frequently exhibited in major museums, and not just as ephemera that provides context for paintings on the walls. However, the intentions behind posters are radically different from the intentions of paintings and sculptures and other forms of “fine art,” and posters are usually exhibited in design galleries. The attributes I mentioned above are probably better understood in like company. Posters make sense in the proximity of similar kinds of work.

 

Which (finally!) brings me back to exhibiting studio jewelry and costume jewelry together, as they were at Yale. I have tried to establish that the two genres are not equivalent. Costume jewelry is more akin to design than studio jewelry (which is a form of craft) is. And while craft and design might share lots of interesting overlaps, craft and design are not the same. Sound familiar?

 

Actually, I think the Yale University Art Gallery understands both costume and studio jewelry as a form of decorative art. I have argued elsewhere that craft often shares more affinities with decorative art, classically defined, than it does with art forms like sculpture, painting, installation or performance. (Hopefully, my speech on the subject at the GAS conference last summer will be posted on this website soon!) Jewelry of any kind can be regarded as a form of decorative art, with the possible exception of the most dematerialized conceptual jewelry.

 

In my opinion, aligning jewelry with decorative art is useful. The Dec Arts provide context, history, inspiration and an interpretive scheme to the project of making jewelry. There seem to be quite a few jewelers who agree with me, as Lena Vigna and Namita Gupta Wiggers’s recent article in Metalsmith on ornamental jewelry suggests.

 

Yale takes the alignment of jewelry and Dec Arts to its logical conclusion: putting all jewelry into a single category. For the purposes of taxonomy and institutional responsibility, jewelry is one of the decorative arts at Yale. And yet, despite my advocacy for exactly this way of thinking, I was not happy.

 

I mean, there was a Mary McFadden right next to a Mary Lee Hu. The McFadden necklace consisted of tooled leaf forms cut from a thin metal foil, strung on a simple support – I forget if it was a chain or a string. I figure she was looking at Sumerian gold jewelry from the royal tombs of Ur, which have similar tooled leaves. The McFadden necklace is graphically very strong, and would certainly look good when worn. But it has no subtlety, no complexity, and little sense of the designer having transformed her source material. It’s all Pow! and nothing else. Which is fine as far as it goes. There’s a place for jewelry that goes Pow!

 

The Hu necklace, on the other hand, is subtle and complex. It’s a small piece of Hu’s lifelong investigation into the possibilities of wire, and represents years of research into inventing a new visual language from historical sources. It shows how jewelry can becomes precious for reasons other than the cost of materials. And there’s also an investment of care that is utterly lacking in the McFadden. For those who know what they’re looking at, Hu’s necklace goes far beyond its first impression. There’s a Pow! for sure, but there’s also something to think about.

 

I was bothered that these two very different objects were treated as if they are equivalent. They are not. The McFadden is like a poster – a potent one – but the Mary Lee Hu is like a painting, rich and layered.

 

Not coincidentally, I saw some great paintings in the Yale galleries, but no posters.

 

Granted, the installation of jewelry at the Yale University Art Gallery is temporary, and the curators figure their jewelry will be incorporated into the larger collection once the galleries are revised in the near future. And one could presume that Yale’s audience would be able to figure out the difference between the McFadden and the Hu on their own – but I’m not optimistic about that. Most people take what they are given. If Yale suggests that costume jewelry is pretty much the same as studio jewelry, most people will assume it’s true.

 

Throughout the Yale galleries, text panels explain the particulars of many of their paintings. Clearly, the curators believe some teaching is called for. There’s a difference between the Fauves and the Nabis, for instance, and part of the purpose of the institution is to explain such differences.

 

Studio craftspeople work hard to go beyond ordinary things – the plates and vases and clothing and jewelry that cascade out of the malls and into our lives. Craft might share a common root with everyday functional objects, but it heads off in a different direction. Great craft is always extraordinary. It’s layered. It carries on a discussion with history, instead of just quoting it. And, as I said, great craft is invested with a measure of care that mass-produced objects just cannot have.

 

I don’t mind that the Yale University Art gallery exhibits costume jewelry, not at all. However, I was annoyed that different kinds of jewelry were treated as if they were all the same. I hope Yale’s curators see an opportunity for teaching here. Will they apply the same kind of scholarship to their jewelry collection that they devote to painting? We’ll find out soon enough.

 

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