Something about Portable Art: a Project by Celia Forner, an exhibition of artist-designed jewelry currently on view at Hauser & Wirth NY, brings the court of the French monarchy in the eighteenth century to mind. Perhaps it’s the ‘commissioned series of performative photographs’ of actress Rossy de Palma interacting with various pieces that suggests this particular historical reading of luxury goods as doodads for the super-rich, epitomizing the fickle tastes of a decadent society in which a vast income disparity between an aristocracy defined by wealth and--well, pretty much everyone else-- is leading inexorably towards cataclysm. Let's take a closer look.
In Spanish fashion photographer Gorka Postigo’s sleek images, De Palma is the perfect model for pieces designed by a number of A-list artists. These include (shown above) John Baldessari’s startling Crowd Arm: articulated elbow armor, rendered in precious metals and equipped with alarmingly sharp-looking spikes. In another picture, De Palma seems to be channeling Salvador Dali, as the camera zooms in on half of her face, her right ear adorned with a Baldessari-designed single earring in the shape of a full-sized Roman nose (not dissimilar from her own handsome profile).
A third image shows De Palma in Cristina Iglesias’ Arm Piece, Shoulder Piece and Hip Piece. It is difficult to imagine how the last of these would actually stay on the body, if the wearer wanted to, say, sit down, or (God forbid) walk. Like the extravagantly tall wigs of the eighteenth century, which required their wearers to kneel on the floor of a coach to get to a party, or corsets so tight that they caused semi-permanent indigestion, the implication here seems to be that fashion exacts a price but that it is one worth paying. (In this case, the actual dollar cost of one of these works of wearable art is between $15,000 and $120,000.)
A necklace of big colorful blobby discs designed by Mary Heilman (there are seven variations) is beautiful. I did find myself wondering if someone would don such a large and memorable piece more than a few times.
Perhaps-- like haute couture (or, in truth, a shocking number of garments bought on impulse)—buyers only intend to wear such an object once or twice, if at all.
Or maybe such a piece does become part of its owner’s everyday routine. Bharti Kher’s forearm-covering Warrior Bracelet (2016) terminates in a lion’s head that encloses a hidden handle; one grips it to hold the bracelet in place while wearing it.
The artist describes his invention as 'an empowering accessory… a skin the shaman carries… Wear it to work and keep it in your bedroom for when you need to call into being your warrior.’
The Portable Art project began over eight years ago with a commission to Louise Bourgeois by Spanish collector/ super model/ jewelry designer Celia Forner (she and husband Francesco Venturi have been described as “an absurdly glamorous couple”). Bourgeois’ spiraling bracelets are showstoppers: extravagantly lovely (and hopefully hollow-cast, or wearing them would duplicate the experience of spending a few hours in manacles).
An additional, smaller cuff of twisted, ropy strands of gold is shown resting on what appears to be a pink marble phallus. In this case, the buyer seems to get something to wear as well as something to fondle while wearing it.
A total of fifteen artists have been commissioned by Forner: John Baldessari, Phyllida Barlow, Stefan Brüggemann, Subodh Gupta, Mary Heilmann, Andy Hope 1930, Cristina Iglesias, Matthew Day Jackson, Bharti Kher, Nate Lowman, Paul McCarthy, Caro Niederer, Michele Oka Doner, and Pipilotti Rist. Regrettably, only a few of the pieces created can be seen on the Hauser &Wirth site. Some sound tantalizing, including Rist’s "large scale, lucent polycarbonate and computer wire squiggle necklaces," titled Jewellery for Wintertimes (2016). One imagines a big ol’ mess of plastic and wire, challenging to wear but worth the effort. And where are the ‘slyly elegant’ butt plug necklaces designed by Paul McCarthy, available in silver, gold and rose gold?Maybe a photograph isn’t necessary, as they most likely look like a tiny version of the sculpture shown below. In any case, a fully-illustrated catalogue of the show is available for interested buyers.
In setting the stage for this exhibition, the press release also asserts that “Prior to the era of Modernism, boundaries remained firmly fixed between painting and sculpture, classified as ‘fine art’, and jewelry, which belonged strictly to the province of applied arts.” I picture Benvenuto Cellini, celebrated Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor, rolling in his grave at this pronouncement. But no matter. Press releases abound in such hyperbolic statements. This one also invokes the precedent of various Modern Artists who dabbled in wearable art—Lucio Fontana, Georges Braque—as well as the wild inventions of Surrealists Dali, Max Ernst and Man Ray. But the most important inspiration for the project seems to have been an exhibition of Alexander Calder’s jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008, the year that Celia Forner began commissioning works. Calder apparently made some 1800 pieces over the course of his lifetime, out of hammered or twisted wire and bits of pottery or beach glass, many as gifts for family or friends. Some of the words used to describe these earrings, necklaces and brooches are ‘whimsical,’ ‘Bohemian,’ or ‘unconventional.’
As one description put it, 'At a time when diamonds and mink coats were typical displays of wealth, these daring, calligraphic pieces had little in common with contemporary bijoux.’ Calder loved to laugh, as suggested by this outlandish piece (note the sharp shoulders) titled The Jealous Husband.
Reflecting on Calder's lighthearted inventions, I find myself imagining Baldessari, famed for his own trenchant sense of humor, chortling madly over his designs. While the single nose-shaped earring is entertaining, the weaponized arm cuffs are at least as savage as they are funny. Then there’s his little enameled bluebird with diamond eyes, perched on a curved ‘shoulder stand’ of suede-covered metal-- Mr. Blue Bird on my Shoulder (2013). Best of all, though, is the artist’s Picture Frame for the Face Necklace (2011), modeled here in one last irresistible picture of De Palma.
In this vaguely disturbing image, the empty frame hanging around De Palma's neck simultaneously evokes a nightmarishly Trumpian version of eviscerated press credentials and the oversized gold pendants popular in hiphop circles known as pimp jewelry. Combined with her blank expression, the frame’s absence of content brings to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the emperor’s nonexistent new clothes, even as it suggests the (current) presidential dictum that substance is far less important than a dazzling, golden setting.
Post scriptum: mentioning Salvador Dali as a muse is a bit foolhardy in the age of the internet. It is much too easy to come up with images like these.