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Did Maria’s Dog Eat Her Homework?

It’s always awkward to read one’s own reviews. An artist usually has firm opinions about his/her work, and can get oversensitive about readings that do not concur with those opinions. At the same time, every viewer is entitled to her own responses. There’s a conflict.

At any rate, I was annoyed by Maria Porges’s review of my exhibit “The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf” in the Feb/March 2009 issue of American Craft. Porges is an artist and writer with relatively little experience writing about jewelry. Her review opened this way: “There is something deeply unsatisfying about the way fashion is exhibited in museums. Though mannequins in cases demonstrate how garments hand or cling, their frozen poses never show how a piece of clothing moves through the world on its wearer. The same is true of the display of jewelry.” She continues to say that the exhibition lacks “the one thing that would bring [the jewelry] to life: being pinned to a dress or a coat and thereby developing personal relationships with wearers and admirers.”

Porges identifies jewelry primarily with its use. I assume she would draw the same conclusion about any craft form. Her suggestion is that a pot is always better when it’s full of soup, or a vase is better when holding flowers, or a chair is better when somebody sits on it. Thus, to merely look at a piece of craft is to relegate it to an unsatisfying half-life. Of course, this criticism would never be applied to painting or sculpture or performance: such forms can never be tainted with some real-world function.

Porges played up the "deeply unsatisfying" nature of exhibiting jewelry. She could say the same about the car & the helicopter in MoMA's design collection. She could even say the same about posters, if she wanted to push the point. In the end, she denied my work the possibility of having a satisfying presence in a gallery. Or, for that matter, on display in a home.

What Porges overlooks is that crafts have been involved with symbolic display for millennia. Craft that is made to be used is always bifurcated; it always has a double life as a thing to be used and a thing to be regarded. This is NOT news. My jewelry is made to be regarded and meditated upon just as much as it is made to be worn. In effect, Porges denied that fact.

Most studio jewelers I know work very hard to see that their jewelry is satisfying even if it’s not on the body. Given that jewelry spends most of its life unworn, it would be foolish not to. If the thing looses all its interest and vitality when removed from the body, it asks to be stashed in a drawer. We’re all vain enough to think that our work should be looked at, not hidden away. In my case, I made stages and frames for many of my brooches. Others I made so they could stand up by themselves. Either way, it was obvious that I designed my jewelry to have a strong off-the-body presence. Porges, in pressing her point about jewelry being better when worn, cleverly overlooks the obvious.

Furthermore, a cursory look through the “Miniature Worlds” checklist would have proven that a substantial number of the pieces in the show come from private collections, and she could assume that plenty of those brooches are unleashed "on the unsuspecting world outside the walls of a museum." She undercut my work for being on display in the first place, and then further undercut it because she doesn't think it gets worn! Lose-lose. Great.

In her review, Porges went on to respond to the content of the work, and I have to admit she was sympathetic. She picked up on the relationship between drawing & object (although that was obvious, given the installation and the presence of the notebooks) and that she noted that restrictions are sometimes liberating.

But if the social use of jewelry was really her issue, Porges could have taken the next step. She could have anticipated what it's like to wear my jewelry and to witness it work being worn. She could have wondered about the way jewelry is experienced in social space. In fact, imaginative projection of that sort is one of the great pleasures of looking at contemporary jewelry.

Jewelry has to present a quick, easily-digested impression in order to work properly in social space. It's hard to look closely at jewelry on somebody's body - it can be a bit embarrassing for everybody concerned. What to do when you want to stare at a woman’s chest? So… what of jewelry that supports a more sustained look? Hmm. Maybe it’s best if seen off the body?

Or she could have speculated about my work as art. Is that a valid claim, given the dominant paradigms in the artworld today? What of the miniature, the modest, the carefully made? Does it subvert the spectacular? Does it say anything about the post-studio, post-conceptual practice that is so widely accepted as the default position for art-making today? I would have found that interesting, you know? Especially since my work has always been intended as a rejoinder and a critique of contemporary artworld virtues. I would have though that, as an artist, Porges would have been sensitive to all that.

Oh, well. I did like the layout of the article, and some ink in AmCraftMag is better than none. But the Porges review illustrates the difficulty of asking writers to look at craft without prior knowledge of the field. They tend to reinvent the wheel every fucking time. Writers who have never thought about jewelry before tend to get distracted by issues the field resolved decades ago. They are shocked that jewelry doesn’t have to be worn! They are amazed by expanded scale! The connection between the wearing of jewelry and the theatrical is a revelation!

Well, duh. If they had spend a few hours looking into the history of recent jewelry, such issues would have become obvious to them, and they could have turned their attention to more important matters.

But in my experience, “outside” writers don’t want to be bothered with doing homework. If they were called upon to review a Richard Serra exhibit, they wouldn’t even think of writing without first securing a detailed knowledge of Minimalism, site-specific sculpture, and Serra’s thinking about the intersection of geometry and lived experience. Never. But review a craft exhibit… well, anything goes. Research? Hey, it’s only craft! What’s there to know?

In fact, there’s a lot to know. It frustrates me that otherwise intelligent writers continue to delude themselves that they have a decent working knowledge of craft without ever cracking a book. If any of you are reading this, pay attention: Next time, do your homework!

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