This week presents a last chance to see Hauser & Wirth’s blinder of an artist-jewellery show at its New York outpost. Curated by the former model and London-based jewellery designer Celia Forner, The Portable Art Project is a moveable design feast of ‘wearable objects’ by 15 commissioned artists.
From Phyllida Barlow to Bharti Kher and John Baldessari, the show’s dynamism has much to do with the fact that all are currently practising artists, except Louise Bourgeois. In fact it is the asymmetric pair of silver and gold spiral cuffs Bourgeois created for the project in 2008 that is the pivot of the exhibition. These bold rope-like jewels are also central to the show’s success, being at once sensuous, covetable and wearable.
The notion of jewellery as fine art has long been a cloudy topic. But artist jewellery – pieces created for galleries by named artists – is not quite the same as art jewellery. The latter has emerged from the former as a genre generally dedicated to exploring unusual methods and humble materials, often with a socio-political bent in the Arte Povera mold. The movement gained momentum in the US in the 1950s and 60s and is often relegated to the applied arts category – or craft. As in, not as important as art.
It remains a limbo genre, due in part to the art jewellery community’s tendency to over intellectualise and add meaning. Yet, from Picasso and Ernst to Hirst and Koons, fine artists have long been happily sidetracked from canvas and bronze to the odd spot of jewellery design. This Hauser & Wirth addition to the genre bridges the gap with humour and, despite its own slight tendency towards academic worth – the pieces are billed as existing ‘somewhere between sculpture and bodily adornment’ – reveals artist jewellery as simply great design.
Whether it’s art or craft is surely not the point. And can artist jewellery really be ‘a personal connection’ between artist and wearer? Perhaps the answer is best left to the lucky owners. What this show does highlight is that artists make great jewellery because they seem to grasp that, ultimately, it is design to be worn. Hats off to Forner, whose canny collective so eloquently displays this oft-forgotten factor.