The intensity of our socio-political climate, marred by divisiveness and disillusionment, has come to a head this election cycle. One positive end-result exists; jewelers have turned lemons into lemonade ala Beyoncé, mining this disenchantment like a seemingly endless supply of creative fossil fuel. Work in the recent exhibition “Politically Speaking: New American Ideals in Contemporary Jewelry” at the Craft in America Center explored the way that jewelry engages with current American politics and events. As a communicative channel, jewelry has long been employed to signify political protest, allegiance or affiliation, and pride. In the case of the exhibition’s fifteen artists, political views are given visionary form through various techniques and material choices. Scaled to the body, the force of their messages is undeniable, direct and immediate.
Thirty-five objects were selected to touch upon a myriad of topical issues that are the cornerstone of the presidential debate in 2016. From economic recovery to racial profiling, gun laws, campaign spectacles, war, oil, human trafficking, privacy rights, and global technology, the issues that are on the table are captured in these objects, ready to spark discussion.
Oil is a naturally occurring element in this show, as would be expected. Sandra Enterline, who can be categorized as the forensic scientist in the group, views materials as specimens that carry their own multilayered stories and histories. Collecting samples of modern existence with the focused precision of an urban archaeologist, Enterline consistently places the industrial in harmony with the organic throughout her work. For her Pretty Crude series, created for a show in 2011 at Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco, she focused on petroleum, the ultimate symbol of wealth, power and fear in our global world. She began the project by siphoning oil off of a historic well just a few miles away from where she was born in Pennsylvania. She transferred the liquid, which she calls a “curiously beautiful substance,” to petite glass ampoules with golden caps. In one piece they dangle in tandem with pieces of blood red coral, an allusion to the massive destruction caused by the BP oil spill in 2010.
Karen Lorene of Facèré Gallery in Seattle has represented many of the artists and sustained jewelry with a strong narrative and political bent. Collector Cheryl Berenson, who was initiated into the art jewelry world by Lorene, has focused on political commentary, building a formidable arsenal of biting and humorous pieces that mirror landmark events in America’s recent history. “I love it because I get a rise out of people,” she says.
Berenson’s collection provided a backbone for the exhibition. Berenson has political activism in her veins, having served as a national advocate for various causes and working in public health primarily with refugee and low-income, at-risk populations in areas of Seattle. She cites these experiences as providing fodder for the fire of her beliefs. In terms of her collection, she is guided by political persuasion and personal experiences, both of which must “fit into the equation” of each piece in order to speak to her. She gravitates to work that says, “the things that need to be said in a way that’s a little sneaky.” It must be no small coincidence that artist Laurie Hall, whose most exceptional Political Theater necklace is showcased in the exhibition, was her daughter’s teacher one year.
Berenson commissioned a humbling, simple tribute by Trudee Hill to honor the memory of Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who was murdered point-blank for providing abortions. Her friend, jeweler Jana Brevick, incorporated rifle targets into a brilliant series of pendants that hang close to the heart and open the dialogue about gun law, another issue that is near and dear to Berenson, who is on the board of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility Foundation in Washington state.
Always willing to tackle the hardest subject matter, Joyce Scott, in her distinct approach to beadwork as social criticism, created a piece dedicated to the Yazidi women who have been enslaved and raped by ISIS since 2014. In June, a UN report estimated that the terrorist group holds about thirty-five hundred slaves. A 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Scott is a true trailblazer who strives to, “use art in a manner that incites people to look, and then carry something home.”
New technologies have transformed how we communicate, who communicates and how much is communicated. The fundamentals of human interaction and dignity are at stake in a world now dominated by social media, which has created an atmosphere of hyper-saturation for information and news. “We expect more from technology and less from each other,” states Nancy Worden upon her Mantle for Textual Assault, which is the closest one might get to armor for the modern woman.
The show ranged from outright declarations to musings on American iconography. Kat Cole works in enamel and decals to depict the smoky haze of oil fields with ghostly steel towers in the Texas landscape. Ohioans Roberta and David Williamson’s quietly subversive pins, formally referencing official military medallions with their striped ribbons, appear as patriotic tributes to our nation’s first couple but clever puns lie not so deep under the surface waiting to be revealed.
Hailing from elsewhere in Ohio, Detroit metalsmith Tiff Massey filters cultural anthropology through the lens of jewelry. She generates work that redefines the “conversation piece.” Provocative and forceful, her installation is a focal point of the show, in which she pairs four oversize neckpieces with multi-texturally adorned mirrors. The wearer is invited to potentially view oneself while bedecked in her work, although each mirror offers a comment rather than a mere reflection. In two cases, the mirror surface pattern mimics chain link fence, in another, the surface is covered in plastic googley eyes and in the fourth, the surface is black and surrounded by rings of black pompoms. Massey delves into racial stereotypes—from the Rastafarian to the street gangster—racial profiling, consumer culture and profoundly, identity. The overblown scale of her neckwear comically emphasizes the superficial traits that become identifiers, inviting us to consider how surface appearances shape perception.
The artistic medium of jewelry is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, particularly in Los Angeles. On the occasion of the Lois Boardman jewelry collection being gifted to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, modern jewelry finds a new home, albeit one of few, in a major American institution. In a city where global fashion and culture originate, art jewelry will carve a niche of its own.
There was ample proof in this body of work that beauty can come from unlikely sources and ugly places. Hope lies in the hands of these artists, who create magnetic and alluring pieces that draw us in and force us to look deeper in an age when so many have felt compelled to tune out and turn away.
The Craft in America Center is located at 8415 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90048. Visit craftinamerica.org for more information on “Politically Speaking,” where you can view the exhibition online, as well as find a Q&A with Laurie Hall and an interview with Tiff Massey.
Emily Zaiden is a craft, decorative arts and design curator who has served as Director of the Craft in America Center since 2010, shortly after the Center opened in Los Angeles. Craft in America is a nonprofit organization that promotes handcrafted work through a variety of platforms, including a PBS documentary series, website and the Center, which organizes exhibitions, public programs and educational outreach for local schools. As a material culture historian by training, Zaiden views the pieces included in the “Politically Speaking: New American Ideals in Contemporary Jewelry,” exhibition as both wearable art objects and documents of recent American history that will have expanded meaning over the course of time.