Visual Arts

The fresh “Young Jewelers” show keeps the Heard Museum moving forward

Living knee-deep in this postmodern world means a constant flux of meaning and connectivity. What was rigidly defined for previous generations is now a junk drawer of ideas, overlapping and blurring traditional boundaries. Just think of your baby boomer mother's definition of "family" versus your own. She sees family as a network of legal marriages and bloodlines while you enjoy the title of "aunt" or "uncle" to all of your friends' illegitimate children.

Working against this backdrop, I wasn't shocked to find that the artists (ages 25 to 43) in the Heard Museum's "Young Jewelers: Forging a Future" exhibition produced works that springboard from tradition but interpret jewelry in a new way — one that can throw away the crutch of a beautiful woman's neck or wrist if need be. Or the traditional hunks of turquoise embedded in silver. These young artists are pushing the envelope in jewelry design.

The eight featured artists, chosen by Curator of Collections Diana Pardue, all learned the trade through family tradition and formal training, making for a healthy mix of technique. Some pieces are categorically unwearable with radical and exaggerated designs. These promote jewelry as sculpture that can stand on its own. But the show also includes subdued pieces that could easily accessorize a beautiful gown on a night out.

Turns out, each piece was a joy to behold, no matter the category.

The first artist who grabbed my attention was Elizabeth Wallace. The daughter of two jewelers, her traditional background can be seen in the turquoise and silver brooches shaped like butterflies and dragonflies. But with her cicada brooch, Wallace veers off the Native American tradition by employing plique à jour, an enameling technique that looks like tiny stained glass, popular during the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The cicada — made from carved mother of pearl, plique à jour enamel, coral, silver and 14-karat gold — is, by far, the masterpiece of Wallace's displayed pieces. The cicada's round and swollen torso is topped with two beady tomato red eyes. It's an ugly bug, but the delicate wings exploding from its fat little body are so beautiful, I fell in love. The wings' gold, interwoven veins hold translucent enamel alternating between cobalt blue and honey brown. I'm not typically gung ho for brooches, but I would wear this one in a heartbeat.

Keri Ataumbi is another impressive jeweler. Most of her designs are wearable and tame, inspired by geometric shapes mixed with nature. One set of earrings is simple squares with little birds perched inside. Each piece is nice, but her white sapphire and silver ring really stole the show. This ring could be worn — in theory. But it's quite large and spectacular, not a piece for a wallflower. The ring begins as a simple metal band, but another larger circle encases it. The silver hoops are fused together where the underside of the finger would be. The large gap between the two bands is packed tight with tiny silver loops. Wedged within the center loop is a single white sapphire. The whole thing would rise a good inch and a half off the finger. It's debatable whether it's a piece of sculpture or jewelry. Regardless, I wanted to try it on and wear it out because that thing would definitely be the talk of any party.

David Gaussoin's bracelet Controlled Chaos III is downright frightening. The piece is a series of three silver plates, extending vertically from a thick wristband formed from rows of small black glass beads. The silver plates are cut into intricate crescent designs with sharp points — like a fleur de lis on steroids. The artist embraced the bead wire as a part of the design and chose not to trim the excess. He curled the wires decoratively, but their poking tips would surely scratch anyone within close proximity. Even though it looks like a brutal weapon that could only be worn in some wacky battle, the design elements work well to push this piece. The bracelet no longer holds the supporting role of accessory but is an independent entity.

Cody Anderson's My Left Foot abandons any potential for wearability; I'd call it straight-up sculpture. This silver piece looks like a fancy tea infuser. The perfect orb is hinged with a latch and decorated with meticulous circular perforations that catch the light in such a way that I mistakenly thought I saw embedded crystals. From the hinge flows a series of polished links, like any nice silver bracelet one might wear. The other end of the chain is shackled to a tiny leg (about the size of my pinky), cut just below the knee. As I was trying to imagine a way I would wear this, I realized that this jewelry isn't for me or anyone else except that little leg. It may be a ball and chain, but it's also metalwork adorning a body part — jewelry. Even though a shackle would usually make me uncomfortable, the silver is just too gorgeous for the repressive qualities to sway me.

Being a product of my time, I fully embrace anything that will overturn preconceived notions or definitions. And these Young Jewelers did just that.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi