“Surface and substance” is the title of two simultaneous exhibitions held at the moment in London about International Contemporary Enamel.
They both have been curated by Jessica Turrell and are held at the Electrum Gallery (website) and at CAA (website).
This title refers to Jessica Turell’s practice led research project “Surface and substance: a call for the fusion of skill and ideas in contemporary enamel jewellery” that I have already mentioned in my article about the contemporary enamel paradox (see article).
The exhibition’s flyer mentions: “The title, Surface and Substance, has been chosen to emphasize that while this is clearly an exhibition that focuses on the use of vitreous enamel – the surface – of equal importance is the ‘substance’ that underpins the work on display; the thinking and the research, which along with the obvious material knowledge and skill, is evident in the striking and individual pieces on show”.
While the fusion of skills and ideas clearly appeared in these exhibitions, I came back with an additional story in mind: “Surface and Substance” can also be viewed in the light of the tumultuous relationship between aesthetics and contents and contribute to the controversial debate about the value of beauty in craft.
Jorunn Veiteberg wrote a very thought provoking chapter called “The Problem of Beauty” on the issue in her book “Craft in transition” (Bergen National Academy of the arts, 2005). In this essay, she starts by reviewing the different philosophies about the concept of beauty (Plato, Hume, Kant, Beaudelaire…) and then describes the main taboos of beauty (beauty as empty aesthetics, immoral, sensual, feminine and commercial…). The last paragraph establishes a link between craft and beauty and provides some interesting insights: “Craft addresses the senses and does not assume an antithetical or hierarchical ranking between mind and body, craft and art, visible surface and deeper meaning”, she says, and she quotes the design historian Frederik Wildhagen: “without in-depth knowledge of materials one cannot achieve beauty”. In the world of contemporary art however, the word beautiful is often synonymous with superficial or vacuous: it implies that the work is purely aesthetic and lacks substance, is not really art. “It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art” said Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 manifesto… Jorunn Veiteberg then asks: “Does craft devote too much attention to aesthetics and too little to meaning? Is it a final proof that craft is hopelessly out of touch with other contemporary visual art? Or should we reject this as an artificial antithesis?”
Craft in Transition book cover. Google images
She is clearly in favour of the latter but she broadens the perspective: “We all need and long for something that is beautiful. But exactly what it is, is an open question”, she says, and quoting Roland Barthes “beauty cannot really be explained… it can only say: I am what I am”, she states “beauty is much easier to detect than to define”.
Virginia Postrel in her book “The substance of style”, (Harper Perennial, 2004) seems to share this view and argues that society must accept “that aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of the many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected to sources of value ” and must refrain from holding “those with aesthetic preferences in low regards”.
I am pleased that Jorunn Veiteberg finishes her chapter on beauty with an optimistic outlook: according to her, beauty has a future before it and will benefit from a new theoretical turn. She even gives a possible lead to fill the concept of beauty with new meaning: “beauty is about the rhetorical tools that craft utilises in order to arouse visual joy and desire, heal spiritual wounds and worn out bodies, and about the aspect that makes a piece irresistible”.
I am convinced that beauty is a theme worth exploring and that we, craft makers, should not be ashamed of mentioning and researching it. “Nor, in craft, has beauty ever been repressed and exiled, except from speech and theory” says Jorunn Veiteberg. Indeed, beauty seems to be at the core of craft practice, and so to a much greater extend than in other visual art practices. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to be able to stand on its own and needs to be associated with a more intellectual side: one can enjoy the “surface” but we should not forget to look at the “substance” …
Enamel practices are particularly interesting in that debate as the technique naturally puts great emphasis on the surface and therefore needs a lot of energy to convince that not only the surface, the aspect and the beauty have to be admired, but the substance beneath it as well.
It is with those considerations in mind that I have approached some of the artists’ works shown in those two exhibitions and tried to understand how they cope with this challenging issue of beauty (or surface).
- It seemed that some of them have just accepted they are trying to make beautiful objects:
Photo: Michael Anhalt
“I want to seduce with my jewellery, my work is seduction; and when the seduction is achieved, the seduced can never be without the object of desire” writes Ralph Bakker in the exhibition catalogue.
Having met the artist at the private view, he confirmed he was perfectly comfortable with the idea that he makes beautiful objects of desire: “you get what you see”, he told me.
Photo: Jacqueline Ryan
“I am fascinated by nature’s creativity… most of my pieces are preceded by studies derived from plant life and other small organisms” states Jacqueline Ryan. In her work, the artist abstracts nature and tries to recreate the impressions she has encountered observing infinite combinations offered by the natural world. “Visually stimulating and aesthetically exciting” seems to be at the core of her practice.
- Some of the artists seem to celebrate a revival in ornamentation, sometimes considered as “empty aesthetics”:
Photo: Vera Siemund
“Historic ornament has long been the focus of my interest […] And I love to show the beauty of decoration, stuff that is nowadays regarded as very ugly; for example wall lamps or velvet cushions, old fashioned designs as relict of a lost cosy, bourgeois interior” writes Vera Siedmund.
In her work, the artist tries to associate the qualities of ornamentation in old jewellery with a contemporary feeling like this necklace.
Marjorie Simon, Red Blossfeldt, Necklace, vitrous enamel on copper, sterling silver, 2011. Photo: Ken Yanoviak
“I am enjoying the current resurgence of interest in ornament. I look to travel in Europe and the Middle East for inspiration, whether on William Morris wallpaper or the Topkapi Palace” states Marjorie Simon in the catalogue.
The artist draws her inspiration mainly from the plant world where she finds a constant source of inspiration in forms, colours and functions.
- Some works displayed seem to use the attractiveness of the surface and its beauty as a way of achieving an understanding of the shapes and volumes:
Christine Graf, No return, brooch, copper mesh, gold, silver, enamel, stainless steel, 2011. Photo: Christine Graf
Christine Graff explains: “The surface quality - subtle nuances and texture - emphasizes the fragility and ephemeral qualities of the work. It seems as if the metal body is reduced; covered by the enamel it loses its structural qualities and in turn takes on a new visual and metaphorical identity”
Kaori Juzu, Not me but storyteller 2, brooch, enamel, copper, 14ct gold, silver 2010. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Kaori Juzu says: “By forging and repoussé I feel the material and aim to transform that feeling into a form. By applying multiple layers of enamel I seek to enhance the expression not in order solely to create something different but to deepen form. […] Form and surface melt together”.
Jessica Turrell, Hollow form series, brooches, enamel on copper, oxidised siver, 2010. Photo: Jason Ingram
“I seek to create evocative objects that might stir an emotional connection and thus give pleasure […] I strive to attain a tactile delicacy and a weightiness that positively encourages touch. It is important to me that the pieces I create should reward the wearer’s close attention with an intricate and detailed surface” writes Jessica Turrell.
- Some artists seem to consider that beauty should be difficult to grasp:
Kathleen Browne, Links, necklace, copper, 24ct gold, vitreous enamel, cotton, 2011. Photo: Kathleen Browne
Kathleen Brown explains that: “My current body of work is a response to a beautiful collection of 19th and early 20th century jewellery that was passing on one of the members of my family. […] These jewel images sit on the surfaces of organic “fleshy” forms I have created”…
By photographing the collection of rings and pasting it onto rough and unrefined forms, the artist seems to conceal its natural beauty into something harder to grasp.
Jamie Bennett, 10th matter of appearance, brooch, enamel, copper, silver, 2011. Photo: Jamie Bennett
“How nature is mediated by ornamentation and aestheticized continues to hold my interest. Particularly in jewellery […] interpretations of beauty seem to be intractable. My own interest in this subject has evolved and what I seek to characterize as beauty has shifted from an integrated ornamental condition to a more incidental bodily appearance” says Jamie Bennett.
- Some artists exhibited seems to use enamel to distort, destroy or dirty the beauty of the material used. The alteration of preciousness and beauty is a way of attracting attention to the substance:
Adrean Bloomard, Amphora. Necklace, silver, copper, enamel, 2010.
Photo: Adrean Bloomard
Adrean Bloomard’s work is inspired by archaeological finds. He says: “I apply enamel to the surface of metal so that it appears in encrustations and clots, to give a sense of an object that has been corroded by time”
Patrizia Bonati, A3, ring, 18ct gold, enamel, 2003.
Photo: Patrizia Bonati
In the catalogue, Patrizia Bonati explains: “ I introduce the white enamel to my pieces as a way to “dirty” the surface, although white is a symbol of purity”.
Stephen Bottomley, Matrici, brooch, silver, enamel, plastic, 2011.
Photo: Simone Nolden
“Fascinated by oriental motifs and universal mathematical shapes and symmetries, I am intrigued how pattern alters once transferred to cloth. Lines soften and geometries stretch, not only from fabric’s movement and weave but also on the passage of time” writes Stephen Bottomley.
I was intrigued by this piece where the natural beauty of the patterns has been altered and corroded by the enamel.
Annamaria Zanella, Venere, necklace, silver, gold, enamel, magnets, 2007.
Photo: franco Storti
For Annamaria Zanella : “The most important aspect of the work remains the continued research on materials, the ability to create sculptural forms through oxidations causing physical holes, wounds, burns, colours, creating microsculptures in which neither the preciousness nor the beauty are the value, but the poetry and the underlying process”.
I will conclude this reflection on Surface and Substance with a work that summarises perfectly the complexity of this topic: the Soot ball series of Susie Ganch.
Susie Ganch, Soot ball series, brooches, diamond, silver, gold leaf, enamelled copper, stainless steel, 2011. Photo: Susie Ganch
Those brooches are made of enamelled copper worked in such a way that they take on the appearance of soot balls, some of them covered with gold leaf and some of them topped by a diamond. By coupling those two materials, she is making a comparison between the most prized substance (the diamond) and one of the cheapest one. One is shiny and desirable; the other is dull and unattractive. But both are made with the same material, carbon. Surface or substance? The same question applies to the brooches covered with gold leaves: they will wear away with time. “In the end the wearer will have to decide what is beautiful: what remains or what was taken away. Beneath the skin of gold is a simple ball of soot” writes Susie Ganch.
This is a perfect metaphor for this debate but as this work demonstrates, no one has to choose between surface and substance and the enamel works shown in those exhibitions represent a very interesting panorama on how craft practices deal with what Jorunn Veiteberg calls “the problem of beauty” in craft.