Last week, I opened my first solo exhibit of new work in eight years. That’s too long for a working artist. I’ve been busy with other things – I did manage to write half a book and help put together a major traveling retrospective, after all. I also lost two important gallery affiliations (Cummins and Drutt) about 2003. So this new show at Snyderman Gallery is a big deal.
Rick Snyderman took a risk when he offered me his street-level gallery. It’s a big space: 13 foot ceilings; two large blank walls; and lots of acreage in between. It’s the kind of room that furniture does well in. I’m pretty sure Rick worried that jewelry might be dwarfed in there. I worried about it too. I was used to tiny spaces like Helen Drutt’s back room. She had two cases with self-contained lighting. 10 or 15 brooches could fit comfortably in those cases, and everything was tidy and clearly demarcated. Jewelry was always in the back of the gallery, tucked away in boxes, with ceramics up front in the light.
Sculptors used to talk about “activating space.” I find that phrase a bit suspect – I think they meant that artwork should be big enough to not feel small when it’s on display. So what do you do when the objects on display are small? In the wrong conditions, small objects in big rooms look dinky.
I was lucky that I had a fair amount of work on hand that had never been exhibited in Philadelphia. Some of it goes back to 2002, which means it’s not exactly fresh. Luckily, the older work is visually consistent with my recent jewelry. In the end, I edited out only two older brooches. I have also been more productive in recent moths, and I had about a dozen fairly new pieces. In all, I was able to scrape together 36 brooches and necklaces, which is a lot for me. Most of my solo shows have consisted of 10 to 15 pieces of jewelry, no more.
Snyderman asked me to build closed wall cases for all my necklaces. I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect, but he was concerned about security. The crowds that show up for First Friday, the opening night, were a particular concern. So I had 10 deep boxes built, compete with hinged Plexiglass doors and magnetic catches. (My fabricator is a local woodworker named John Staack. He does very good work, and delivered everything on time and on budget.) I then made plaster torsos, which I mounted in the boxes. The boxes expand the scale of the necklaces while simultaneously giving a schematic indication of the body. They’re are handsome enough, and hopefully buyers will want to use them for display in their homes. We’ll see about the last part, though.
I then built 14 small panels to display brooches. Each panel is fitted with a brass mount that holds the brooch one inch off the surface, so it appears to float in space. Four brooches had such neutral colors that they just died in front of the natural birch plywood, so I painted four panels a light lime green. (It took me two days and five attempts to get the right green. What a pain!)
For drama, I asked to have the shorter of Snyderman’s walls painted bright blue. After placing the cases and panels, I spent three days drawing on the walls. (White Conté crayons on the blue wall, and graphite on the white wall.) For the most part, I drew objects from the history of decorative arts that had inspired details of several pieces. Among them were a decorative border from a Kelmscott Press book by William Morris, a Chinese jade disk of a dragon and a phoenix, an Italian heraldic lion, and an acanthus motif. Some drawings were adjacent to the jewelry in question, so an observer could figure out the relationship pretty easily. Other images functioned more as context: a Baroque gold and ruby necklace; an image of Hans Bellmer’s doll. My intention was to place my jewelry in the lineage of both art and ornament, but with a heavy emphasis on the decorative arts.
The drawings also “activated the space” nicely, so they served a formal function. It’s possible that most people won’t understand the relationships of drawings to jewelry, and won’t speculate about their sources in the dec arts. Still, I’m pleased that the information is there, and I know a few observers figured it out right away, Plus, I resisted the temptation to tell people what I mean. I briefly considered extensive hand-lettered text on the walls. But in retrospect that probably wasn’t the best idea, considering that I tend to over-explain.
Considering the vast scale, wide-ranging associations and often crude craftsmanship of contemporary installations, my exhibition display is pretty conservative. At the same time, it’s pretty ambitious for an American jewelry show. Jewelers have to figure how to get out of those damn display cases. European jewelers have been tackling the problem for decades, and Ruudt Peters is probably the most adept at breaking out of the box. But still, I was pleased with the complexity of the Snyderman installation. Maybe next time I’ll try something more courageous.