An intriguing exhibition about contemporary enamel is held at the moment and until May 28th at FLOW Gallery, Notting Hill, London. The show, called FUSED, is curated by Melissa Rigby, the Chairman of the British Society of Enamellers, and as described in FLOW Gallery website: “aims to challenge the pre-conceived ideas attached to enamel by questioning technique, process and aesthetic and to explore contemporary artist's voices within this ancient medium. “FUSED” brings together artists who use the traditional enamelling technique in new and exciting ways, creating a fresh visual language for this process. Their application of enamel gives an arresting beauty and unique patina to a diverse group of objects, panels and jewellery”.
I am myself fascinated by enamel and use it in my jewellery. This exhibition is the occasion for me to reflect on this technique and on what I would call: “the contemporary enamel paradox”. Using enamel is generally associated with three main characteristics: the possibility of adding colour to metal, the pursuit of a smooth, vitreous surface and a high level of technical skill. However, looking at the works displayed in the FUSED exhibition, I saw mainly white or colourless pieces, rough or granulated surfaces and an apparent lack of highly skilled techniques. Does it mean that enamel has to abandon its intrinsic characteristics to be labelled “contemporary”?
Out of 14 artists exhibited, 10 are using white enamel: some of them exclusively, some of them in the majority of their pieces. One artist is using silver and gold leaf and one is using over-firing brownish tones. The colour is predominant in only two artists’ work. Why should artists using a medium supposed to enhance colour not take advantage of this defining property?
A first clue to this contradiction can be found in the use of new alternative materials in contemporary jewellery. Enamel, coral and gemstones were produced and developed for the sake of colour, but today you can achieve coloured pieces with plastic, resin, powder coating or every kind of material available. Therefore, making a statement about colour is no longer a good enough reason to use enamel nowadays.
Another possible explanation might be the cultural and social value of colour itself. In his book “Chromophobia” (Reaktion Books Ltd, 2000), David Batchelor writes: ”chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity”. He sees two main reasons to this trend: “in one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both”. He then goes one step further: “to this day, there remains a belief, often unspoken perhaps but equally often unquestioned, that seriousness in art and culture is a black-and-white issue, that depth is measured only in shades of grey”. As enamel is suffering from an “out of fashion” and what I usually call a “Faberge Egg” syndrome (I have noticed that enamel is commonly associated with those objects), contemporary practices may have been contaminated by this “chromophobia” and are maybe willing to step away from colours in order to gain seriousness and to clearly distance themselves from more traditional enamel works, which are usually very colourful.
Here are some pictures of the white works exhibited in FUSED:
Carole Bauer. Photo FLOW. Courtesy of the gallery.
Lydia feast. Photo FLOW. Courtesy of the gallery.
A similar comment can be made about surfaces and textures, and I was struck by the fact that very few works displayed featured the smooth, vitreous and shiny aspect that we usually associate with enamel works. Again, artists seem to refuse the diktat of the good practices of enamel (the ones you find in books, websites or the ones you learn during workshops) to use this technique in a more experimental way.
Stacey Bentley is inspired by urban scenery and she explores the new possibilities of industrial liquid enamel. Her pieces are textured and grainy:
Stacey Bentley. Photo FLOW. Courtesy of the gallery.
Evangeline Long is inspired by corrugated metal structures and she over-fires enamel to achieve some aspects of erosion:
Evangeline Long. Photo FLOW. Courtesy of the gallery.
Kirsty Brown explores the deterioration of once treasured objects and applies enamel in layers over fabrics:
Kirsty Brown. Photo Isabelle Busnel.
Monochrome works, highly textured and rough pieces: this exhibition requires to be open-minded and to put aside pre-conceived ideas about enamel.
The last characteristic I would like to mention is the generally high level of skill demanded by enamel techniques. In FUSED, no specific manual dexterity was obvious, no technique was breath taking. But it doesn’t mean that those works didn’t require high skills. The artist Jessica Turrell has recently completed a three-year research fellowship entitled “Innovation in Vitreous Enamel Surfaces for Jewellery”. The project was hosted by the Enamel Research Unit at the University of the West of England, Bristol and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Project Website). The initial stage of her project involved a comprehensive and wide-ranging visual and literature survey that reviewed the work of 175 jewellers from all around the world, and for whom enamel forms a significant element of their practice. Work was then allocated to one of three main categories:
- “Skilled (fine)
Her survey findings give a very interesting panorama of contemporary enamel today: “There appears to be a divide between enamel work that is produced with high levels of skill but that essentially makes no reference to contemporary preoccupations, and enamel work that strives to be innovative in and of itself but which operates from an impoverished skill base and therefore often fails to exploit the expressive potential of the material”. And she adds that: “only a small number of British jewellers were identified whose enamel work fitted within the innovative criteria”.
I personally think that the artists featured in the exhibition FUSED belong to the innovative categories. And maybe the paradox I was seeing, where enamel has to abandon its intrinsic characteristics (colours, vitreous and smooth surfaces and apparent high level of skill) to be labelled contemporary is not a paradox but only a logical evolution of a technique that aims to make reference to contemporary practices.
For example, instead of considering white as a non-colour, we can see it as an aesthetic experience. White is a fascinating colour (and I personally share this point of view. See my posts on White) and the vitreous aspect of enamel makes it particularly versatile and interesting. In his article “In the midst of colour. Reflection on colour’s inescapable presence” (published in Metalsmith Vol 29,No 4), Jamie Bennett says: “Once a coloured material is no longer a given property of jewellery or metal, and now results from a conscious decision, we must understand the impact of that choice”. He then says: “Colour both expresses an idea and stands as an embodied idea […] and it remains an opportunity beyond framed language and social conditions”. In that case, using white enamel is part of the artist’s statement and is used to convey ideas, messages or aesthetic considerations.
Astrid Keller in her plates and vessels reproduces the traces left by the way people handle objects. She applies fine lines on the white surface to give the impression of an old object:
Astrid Keller. Photo Isabelle Busnel.
Helen Carnac is fascinated with mark-making, uses the metal as a “white page” to experiment with lines and draws onto the industrial enamel surfaces using sgrafito techniques:
Helen Carnac. Photo Isabelle Busnel.
Kye-Yeon Son explores positive and negative spaces through her branch structures. White enamel allows her to play with shadows and emphasizes the positive/negative game:
Kye-Yeon Son. Photo FLOW. Courtesy of the Gallery.
Same arguments can be used regarding surfaces and textures: until recently, enamel’s surfaces were exclusively smooth and shiny but contemporary artists have discovered the endless potentialities of this technique and they use enamel to explore contemporary aesthetics:
Kirsten Haydon has found a new process to create reflective surfaces by mixing vitreous enamel and road marking beads. The beads are fired into the surface of the enamel at high temperatures:
Kirsten Haydon. Photo FLOW. Courtesy of the Gallery.
Helen Carnac bowls are obtained by firing the enamel only once, then areas of the panels are ground and abraded to a matt finish in places, allowing the steel substrate to oxidise naturally, creating new relationships with the enamel:
Helen Carnac. Photo Isabelle Busnel.
Even if chance, surprise and randomness can play a role in the process of making, all those artists demonstrate a high knowledge and understanding of the material. The work sometimes looks simple and effortless but it generally requires a high level of skills.
Although there might be an apparent paradox in contemporary enamel, where artists consciously or unconsciously reject characteristics associated with traditional enamel (colours, surfaces and skills) to exist as contemporary artists, I believe it is not mainly that motivation that drives the enamellers featured in the exhibition FUSED: works clearly belong to Jessica Turrell’s categories of “innovative”, where understanding of the material and desire to use enamel to explore contemporary aesthetics and concerns are the main originality of those artists.