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The Restless Recycler: Robert Ebendorf

For years, Robert Ebendorf was regarded as the chameleon of American jewelry. His artistic identity constantly changed: he had a surface embellishment period, a found-object period, a fantasy machine period, a text-and-photo period. You could never tell who the next Bob Ebendorf would be. At first, this was disconcerting to the cozy world of American craft. Most “art jewelers” worked hard to develop a signature style that could be recognized instantly and replicated endlessly. This was a good marketing strategy, since the audience could immediately recognize a specific artist’s work. But Ebendorf refused to settle down with one look, one technique, or one concept. Through the 70’s and 80’s, his work seemed to be characterized, more than anything else, by restlessness.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Ebendorf anticipated the Postmodern ethos. By the mid-80’s, it became pretty clear that identity is not a secure thing. Given that we are all subject to manipulation by mass-media, and that our desires often lead us in unpredictable directions, the idea that a personal identity remains fixed and unchanging began to seem suspect. The American artist Cindy Sherman became the exemplar of this attitude: in her extended series of photographs of herself posing in different roles, it was impossible to tell who the real Cindy Sherman was. Movie star? Victim? Madonna? Whore? But that was exactly the point: Sherman’s identity was mercurial and unstable, as it could be for all of us. As it was for Robert Ebendorf.

In the last decade, Ebendorf seems to have found an artistic method that accommodates his restlessness, and it centers on the found object. It’s not altogether certain who was the first artist to use a found object, but historians generally point to collage elements used by Picasso and Braque around 1913, and Marcel Duchamp’s first “readymade” from the same year. The found object signified at least two things: the merging of art and life; and the gradual devaluation of the artist’s labor. First, if fine art could accommodate the debris thrown up by the real world, and especially fragments of commercial art, the result suggested equality between high and low, art and non-art. Secondly, if an artist can stick a chunk of ordinary stuff on his canvas - or, better yet, simply point to a common object and call it art - then artistic skill is no longer exclusive and special. The artist becomes more of a thinker, and less of a maker. In 1913, these two ideas were revolutionary, and they continue to resonate to this day.

But I don’t think Ebendorf buys into the revolution. He doesn’t suggest that all things are equal, nor does he propose that skill has no value. I think his model is neither Picasso nor Duchamp, but Joseph Cornell, the poet of the found object. It was Cornell’s particular gift to make the modest bits and pieces that he collected into striking, ambiguous stories; in his hands, the found object evolved away from its status as icon of the avant garde. Cornell unburdened the found object - he freed it from its role as red flag of the art revolution, and made it speak to more complex ideas.

These days, lots of artists collect found objects, and use them for both raw material and inspiration. This is not laziness, but an admission that objects that come with their own patina of history can be wonderfully evocative. Found objects can be either abstractions, or symbols, or both. I once knew a sculptor who found a flattened, rusty bucket on the street, took it home, and nailed it to her studio wall. She was entranced by the highly textured surface, the subtle color, and the surprising way the handle’s delicate line contrasted with the bucket’s massive form. To her, the thing was a pleasing and fully resolved composition, quite aside from being a smashed bucket. It was a readymade piece of abstract art.

As for myself, I collect junk, too. I’ll pick up blobs of melted metal, stones with holes in them, twigs, and bits of dead machines. But my eye is not responding so much to form and color, as to meaning and emotion. I recently found the leg of a plastic “action figure” on the street in Philadelphia: it was if an image of masculine virility and power had exploded, leaving body parts strewn about the city. Here was this leg, heavily muscled and wearing a combat boot, but also fragmented, scuffed, and utterly neglected. What was once a icon of strength was now deflated, made pathetic and sad. It was the pathos that I responded to, and that I might find useful someday.

Ebendorf employs both the formal qualities and meanings of found objects. Like my sculptor friend, he responds to the visual appeal of small and forgotten things. He will set a stone or a fragment of pottery on a ring where one might expect a sparkling gem, as if to say that he will provide a visual reward every bit as enjoyable, if only somebody will look closely. And, of course, he’s usually right. These coils of wire, fossils, and hunks of beach glass can be quite wonderful, providing we ignore preconceptions about what is precious and what is not.

Sometimes, Ebendorf will use the emotional associations called up by found objects, too. After his separation from his second wife, he evidently spent a lot of time walking along roads and beaches. Perhaps he was trying to heal his wounds, perhaps he was indulging in self-pity. Perhaps he was preoccupied with endings, both of relationships and of life. Whatever his internal state, his eye gravitated towards dead animals he saw, and he started collecting squirrel paws, bird feet, and crab claws. These fragments became the starting-point for the series of necklaces seen here. They are potent images of death, of course, but Ebendorf has somehow resurrected them. By combining these fragments of animals with semi-precious stones, pearls, and accents of gold, the objects don’t seem so morbid. Thoughts about death bump up against pleasure and celebration, and I think it’s this strange combination of wildly divergent feelings that give this series of jewelry such strength. ( I must admit to being biased, because I bought one of his squirrel-paw necklaces for my companion. We both enjoy it tremendously. )

Ebendorf doesn’t subscribe to the late-Modern idea that art is primarily an idea, and the artist primarily a thinker. He is, after all, a jeweler. While his workmanship might appear to be fairly relaxed at first - he specializes in oddly crumpled bezels, funky surfaces and truly weird combinations of materials - Ebendorf is actually a very skilled craftsman. Everything is balanced: a darkened silver frame weighs against a bright gold bezel; a dried animal’s paw is placed adjacent to polished stones. The many irregularities in his jewelry are fully intentional. While he is fully capable of making the refined surfaces and precise forms that are usually taken to be signs of accomplished metalsmithing, that kind of finish and perfection would be completely inappropriate to Ebendorf’s jewelry. These objects need to be a little bent: otherwise, they would be lifeless. That Ebendorf can get exactly the right amount of relaxation, combined with exactly the right amount of precision, is testimony to his skill.

That is to say, Ebendorf’s work must be made as much as conceived. How would you describe the idea of one of Ebendorf’s amazing necklaces? “A bunch of crab claws hang from a chain around the neck.” OK, that’s nice, but the idea alone cannot anticipate the actual thing. Ebendorf couldn’t just imagine this necklace, and he couldn’t just draw it. He had to make the necklace to figure out exactly how many crab claws to use, exactly how long and fat that bundle should be, exactly how ornate the chain should be, exactly how to connect the chain to the pendant. The idea had to be given physical form, and it had to acquire all the little nuances and idiosyncrasies that come from having been looked at carefully over a period of time. Anybody who has worked with found objects will insist that you can’t really plan these things in advance: you have to fool around with the material to find out how to make it work. And work it does: In my opinion, the crab claw necklace is one of the most powerful pieces of jewelry made in the last decade. It’s wildly original, it’s unexpectedly beautiful, and it also has a potent sense of mourning and death. This is not just conceptual art: this is an idea made into a vivid object by virtue of Ebendorf’s consummate skill. Without having been made into an object, without having had its colors and forms and emotional connections all balanced through the process of making, the idea would have been nothing more than an intriguing possibility.

As for Ebendorf’s restlessness, I think the found object is an ideal vehicle for him. The stockpile of objects awaiting transformation into art ( or, in Ebendorf’s case, into jewelry ) is nearly unlimited. The range of emotional coloration is huge, and so is the capacity for surprise. Until he attached a squirrel paw to one of his pendants, who would have thought it possible? For Ebendorf, the whole world must be an vast and wonderful shopping mall, waiting for his mood and his fascination of the moment to seize on something new. The possibilities are endless. I look forward to being astonished again.

However, Robert Ebendorf has no pretense to being an avant garde artist, and his use of found objects doesn’t mark him as a revolutionary. He isn’t making anti-art, nor is he about to blur the boundaries between art and the rest of the world. He simply means to distill everything down into objects that are small and intense, unpredictable and wonderful. And this is no small accomplishment. The best of his work stands apart from the world of Coke cans, cars, and computers as clearly as a Chopin waltz stands apart from traffic noise.

Bruce Metcalf is a jeweler and occasional writer who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. His jewelry has been exhibited internationally. His writing on jewelry and conceptual aspects of craft have been published in Metalsmith, American Craft, DESIGN (Korea ), and other magazines.

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