- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

One woman’s bling is another woman’s livelihood. Philadelphian Helen Williams Drutt’s hobby of buying jewelry at craft shows during the 1960s led her to open a gallery and sell the wearable art. She spent the next four decades amassing one of the world’s largest avant-garde jewelry collections, comprising more than 800 pieces by 175 talents from 18 different countries.

Now, 275 pieces of jewelry, drawings and sculptures from her collection, which was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2002, are on view at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. This international survey of quirky, contemporary designs succeeds in celebrating the inventiveness of ornament, which, especially in Western cultures, is too easily dismissed as frivolous and empty.

Luxury is downplayed in this broad spectrum of designs from the 1960s through the early 2000s, many of which seem tailor-made for the current economic downturn. The brooches, necklaces, earrings and bracelets have few extravagant gems to taunt the viewer.

Some are made of lowly materials such as cardboard, pencils, light bulbs and fragments of picture frames. Their allure doesn’t come from their materials but the audacious ways in which they challenge the conventional view of jewelry as precious adornment and symbol of wealth.

Several pieces are so extreme in their shapes and assemblages that it is hard to imagine anyone wearing them. Peter Chang’s colorful acrylic bracelet with its protruding, pointy ornaments and Marjorie Schick’s necklaces of sharp wooden sticks look like they might tear the wearer’s clothing or skin. That doesn’t make them any less interesting to examine.

Aesthetics trump function for most of the show, with pieces clustered in vitrines and framed on walls like rare artifacts. Only in the last gallery are some of the more outlandish necklaces and headpieces placed on mannequins to demonstrate how they are worn.

The relationship between the decorative and fine arts has long been a reciprocal one, with painters and sculptors such as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Salvador Dali making forays into jewelry. The exhibit reminds viewers of that connection by starting with a Dali-esque gold nose molded by German jeweler Gerd Rothmann from Ms. Drutt’s face.

Many of the pieces reflect the ideas pioneered by larger artistic movements. The sinuous metal jewelry made by Albert Paley and his teacher Stanley Lechtzin, whose sculptural brooch started Ms. Drutt’s collection, are reminiscent of art nouveau’s whiplash curves. Geometric brooches by Italians Giampaolo Babetto and Francesco Pavan and austere, bright necklaces and bracelets by Dutch artist Emmy Van Leersum recall minimalist constructions by artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Swedish artist Tore Svenson’s steel and gilt pins resemble paintings of concentric squares by Josef Albers and Frank Stella.

Starting in the 1960s, both artists and craftspeople experimented with body art to express similar concepts related to personal identity and space. The show misses the opportunity to draw the parallel in terms of specific examples, such as comparing Bruce Nauman’s cast-wax sculptures of arms to British artist Caroline Broadhead’s woven nylon “Sleeve,” which similarly extends from the shoulder to the wrist. Her “Necklace,” pulled to veil the wearer’s face, is equally inventive in melding jewelry with clothing.

Another standout talent among the 115 represented artists is Tone Vigeland, a Norwegian responsible for coaxing soft, organic shapes out of stiff metals. “Wall Piece I,” a large grid of steel filaments weighted by lead tips, recalls oversized porcupine quills; a bracelet and a neckpiece made of steel and silver appear to be ornamented with feathers.

Other intriguing pieces pick up on antique themes to counter the more austere geometries dominating the exhibit. Italian Bruno Martinazzi’s nuanced “Energy” brooches of human eyes recall ancient Egyptian statuary. William Harper’s “Barbarian” bracelet is ringed by mysterious pictographs. Miye Matsukata’s pendant necklace incorporates a Mayan bone carving.

Particularly well represented in the show is Dutch artist Gijs Bakker. Over the decades, Ms. Drutt collected 30 of his pieces to acquire the greatest concentration of his work outside of the Netherlands. His playful jewelry, while not the most arresting in the show, is worth a look for its unusual combination of plastic-coated photographs and precious metals and gems. One brooch pictures a naked man pouring a cascade of diamonds down his back, while another shows Olympic medalist Edwin Moses leaping over a gold hurdle.

The least interesting part of the exhibit is a section devoted to “narrative” jewelry. These assemblages of comic book figures, found objects and metal fragments are, for the most part, fussy and forgettable.

An exception is Joyce J. Scott’s dramatic, beaded collar called the “The Sneak.” A tableau related to domestic violence, it packs various figures around a large head with outstretched arms thrown around the wearer’s neck. At the front, a man leers at a woman who lies on the ground. It makes you wonder who did the “sneaking” and why anyone would want to wear this provocative necklace, just one of the many idiosyncratic designs in Ms. Drutt’s jewelry box.

WHAT: “Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry From the Helen Williams Drutt Collection

WHERE: Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through July 6

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: https://americanart.si .edu/renwick

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