As Beth McLaughlin, chief curator of exhibitions and collections at the Fuller Craft Museum, explained in her foreword to the catalogue for “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment,” the forty-four artists in this remarkable show created wearables that “produce, rather than alleviate, tension.” Whether a spider brooch, a cumbersome collar, or an unsettling rosary, guest curator Suzanne Ramljak selected adornments that reflect what she calls a “no-pain-no-gain beauty ethos.”
The exhibition was divided into four parts: “Victim Fashion,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Natural Aversions,” and “On the Edge.” The work was consistently engaging, surprising—oftentimes provoking—from piece to piece and section to section.
One of the stand-outs in “Victim Fashion” was Protector Against Illness: Black Tamoxifen Bra, 1996. Mimi Smith affixed actual tamoxifen pills to an undergarment of nylon and lace, each pill surrounded by a decorative constellation of painted dots. Curator Ramljak called the piece “more breast cancer talisman than seductive lingerie.”
Daniel Jocz and Anika Smulovitz went the collar route in their exploration of the Victim Fashion theme. Jocz’s outsized shiny black-winged Crash Angel, 2007, from his Ruff series, was made of metals—aluminum, copper and chrome—painted with autobody lacquer. By contrast, Smulovitz repurposed men’s shirt collars to create the uncomfortable-looking White Collar, 2005. Apropos this piece, Ramljak reminds us that in the nineteenth century, starched collars sometimes proved “so unyielding that they actually choked wearers, earning them the nickname Vatermörder or ‘father killer.’ ”
“Flesh and Blood” explored the body as a good source for ornaments. Holland Houdek incorporates medical implants and prostheses into her jewelry. Asymmetrical Mammoplasty Double Breast Implant Necklace, 2005, featured silicone breast implants set within ornate patinaed copper filigree rondos accented with Swarovski crystals. To create her Botanical Fiction series, Heather White cast anatomical fragments, among them, navels, nipples and lips, and composed them into floral ornaments. Seven sets of oxidized silver lips encircled a center of pink pearls inset in eighteen karat gold in White’s Botanical Fiction: Murmuring brooch from 2015.
Phobias came to the fore in the “Natural Aversions” section. A spider brooch by Marta Mattson was part of her 2013 Wear Your Fear series. Less anxiety-inspiring were Mallory Weston’s two snake pieces, Python Hot Pants and Constrictor Choker #1, both 2016, constructed from gold-filled bronze, silver, copper, steel, leather, cotton, and thread. The simulation of serpent skin was stunning.
David Freda’s Study of Snapping Turtles necklace, 2000, made from silver, eighteen karat yellow gold and enamel, also was remarkable in its illusion. Sixteen off-white turtle eggs are arranged in a circle, with baby turtles crawling out from six of them and one snapper fully emerged. While among the most prehistoric-looking creatures, the snapper babies are somehow precious, even with their mouths open. Nonetheless, it’s a necklace, said Ramljak, which “takes gall to wear upon one’s jugular.”
The work in “On the Edge” dealt with political/social issues in a range of forceful ways. Several pieces took on violence. Jim Bassler’s Homeland Security jersey, 2015, overlaid what looks like medieval chain mail over a Boston Marathon singlet. This wool, linen and nylon vest will hardly protect one from bombings.
Child abuse in the Catholic Church was the subject of Angela Gleason’s Sins of Our Fathers necklace, 2006. From her Indulgences series, this five-foot-long “rosary” was made of small identical kneeling and praying children molded from silicone. Anchoring the necklace is a priest, also silicone. Like many pieces in the show, the point of Gleason’s necklace was quite obvious, but the takeaway is not immediate and reverberates as one considers where/why one might wear it.
The exhibition catalogue includes an essay by Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “À la Mode, à la Mort” explored some of the historical precedents for “uneasy” —read torturous—adornments, from corsets to footbinding.
In conjunction with the show, students in the Fashion Design and Jewelry and Metalsmith departments at the Massachusetts College of Art were asked to create “uncomfortable” works. “Discomfort Zone: Fashion and Adornment from MassArt” featured objects that “hinder bodily movement, inflict corporal pain, and provoke emotional distress.” Part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of eight cultural institutions whose goal is to celebrate the Bay State’s fashion culture, the show ran October 13 - November 4, 2018.
Like the artists in “Uneasy Beauty,” the students addressed personal, social and global issues in their work—and turned to a number of unconventional materials to do so: synthetic hair, nail polish, packing peanuts, insulation foam and Iranian Rial coins. “Beauty is not black and white,” writes senior/fourth year student Emma Scott in her statement, a sentiment that might serve as the rallying cry for many of the artists featured at the Fuller.
“Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” showed at the Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, Massachusetts 02301, October 6, 2018 – April 21, 2019. Visit their website at www.fullercraft.org.
RAMLJAK, SUZANNE. Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment. Brockton, MA: Fuller Craft Museum, 2018.
Maine-based writer Carl Little made his second trip to the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, while on assignment for Ornament. Little marveled at the variety of work on display, from the remarkable pieces in “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment,” reviewed in this issue to “Assembly: Recent Acquisitions,” which included one of John Bisbee’s nail sculptures, jewelry by Donna D’Aquino and that of the late Fred Woell. Little contributes reviews and profiles to Art New England and Hyperallergic. He lives and writes on Mount Desert Island. Little’s most recent book is Paintings of Portland, co-authored with his brother David. Look for his next feature in Ornament on San Francisco jeweler and designer Julia Turner.