Portable art

It’s a great shame that hand-held mobile devices are now known, particularly in North America, as cell phones. There is nothing evocative let alone poetic about cell phone whereas portable, mobile, and hand-held phone manages to capture a sense of ease and novelty. I remember my first one in the mid-1990s which was vastly expensive -thus creating a sense of respect that only fiscal pain can generate- during a period in which some people would routinely acquire dummy devices to give off the appearance of affluence. Mobile phone was almost ironic since the generous dimensions of these early handsets were positively hernia-inducing.

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It must be said that there’s nothing especially attractive about handsets. Unlike bakelite (or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, to give it its decidedly prosaic formal name, though it sounds like a disease or a Romanian brothel madam) telephones of the 1930s, cell phones have never striven to be pretty adornments to our daily lives. Functionality is the end of these apparatuses, which is why there is a whole industry of skins and covers to beautify these singularly unappealing items. Not only that, they’ve become an emblem of the breakdown in normal and healthy social intercourse in society. I have a draconian policy in my classes with respect to cell phones as there’s a time and a place for everything; a classroom is not a cocktail lounge. Most of all, there is the tragedy of cell phones usurping clocks and now computers. We don’t merely communicate using our phones but we also send e-mails, check the weather, check people out, as well as telling the time. We’ve come a long way from my extreme youth when the telephone -now termed the quaintly archaic “landline”- was to be found in the hallway and never, ever in the living room of a house, since conversations were private affairs.

One thing I particularly like about cufflinks, and the same might be said of jewelry in general, is that it is art that can be worn. Many mid-century designers aimed to produce wearable art, a movement discussed by the collector turned dealer Marbeth Schon in her fascinating and detailed study, Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960: The Wearable Art Movement. In an interview talking about collecting, Marbeth sums it up succinctly: ” You can wear it and appreciate it as a work of art. That’s what’s wonderful about jewelry as opposed to maybe a painting—it touches you. That’s what’s unique about it. You can actually wear something that’s unique, beautiful, sculptural, and is a piece of fine art with an interesting history. All of that is in one piece. It’s a wonderful thing to get into”. There is also an accessibility about wearable art since it isn’t necessarily expensive (though, inevitably, in all things touched by our tainted nature’s corruption, profit and greed aren’t excluded from the equation).

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The wearable-art movement attracted some amazingly talented if not eccentric figures. One of the most influential and creative designers was Ruth Roach (1913-1979) pictured above at work in her studio (courtesy of Marbeth Schon’s article on her, here). The chain-smoking artist had a untreatable vision problem which meant she saw two images and would concentrate on one when making her jewelry, which is perhaps one reason for which her work is so striking. Her studio was in the basement of her Iowa home and she would often stay up all night long working on pieces. Like some other mid-century designers, she would produce one-off pieces rather than a line, making each one truly unique and a very special thing to own. Owning a piece of jewelry by Ruth Roach means that you can own -and more importantly, enjoy and show- something that is one of a kind.

 

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I’ve just got back, this very afternoon from an extraordinarily rewarding trip to Chile, paid for using the proceeds of this year’s tax refund. One of the other things I used the refund for was to acquire a pair of cufflinks by Ruth Roach, above, and date to the 1950s. They’re incredibly alluring, crafted out of sterling silver with white-gold-fill backs and incorporating a moss-agate stone. There is an unexpected complementarity between the natural mineral and the crafted silver faces which hold it. I’m a little hesitant to wear something which is essentially invaluable, but one of my personal rules with collecting is that I must wear everything which finds its way to me. Otherwise, there is something masturbatory about the endeavor and sharing raises collecting from being a merely solitary vice.

ImageThe shape of these cufflinks is almost brutalist but there is a gentleness which moderates this impression and which, to my mind, reflects their idiosyncratic creator. I like to think of her working through several nights on this pair which was made for one of her nephews, endowing it with an additionally unique quality. These cufflinks, like a few pairs I own, are museum pieces and I will almost certainly leave them to an institution when I shake off this mortal coil. There is something both humbling and gratifying about being custodians of special, beautiful things which will outlive us and reveling in the reflected glory of an inspired work of art. It might appear to be morbid but we need reminders of our mortality to remind us of our humanity and, more crucially, to forge a sense of perspective into our egotistical spirits. And that, surely, is the ultimate and overriding purpose of art and why we so desperately need it, whether or no we realize this.

 

 

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The beholder’s eye

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder is a modern variation of de gustibus non disputandum est, less elegant (yet not uncharming) versions of which are horses for courses and whatever floats your boat. These snippets of wisdom appear to suggest that beauty is a subjective thing. Yet is it? Defining beauty might seem the object of philosophers, fashionista, or art theorists, yet it is a concept that infringes on us all in substantial ways. What we choose to wear, to live in, to eat, what music to listen to, what to read, and with whom to spend out lives are all dependent on how we understand beauty to one way or another. I don’t want to dwell here on the various theories of beauty because there is such a diversity of opinions – that’s academic-speak for major conflicts. There are some wildly different theories of beauty and the only element that they all have in common is that the beautiful is best seen in terms of its effects. When we find something beautiful it captivates us, it captures our attention, but, more than that and perhaps more importantly, it provokes us. This provocation can, in the right circumstances and with the proviso that we allow it to, be inspiring. So far, so good. Except that there is a snag here: something that we find ugly could result in all of those reactions in us as well.

Now and again, we hear of new studies that try to explain what type of person is the universally most attractive. Many recent ones conclude that symmetrically aligned features are appreciated by the most number of people, a finding that I’m openly agnostic about. For me, at least, the presence of some imperfection can be incredibly attractive, a visible flaw, perhaps because it accentuates what is not blemished in the way that truth relies on error to define its very essence. In any case, the laws of human attraction, if they exist, are evidently extremely complex because physical and sexual attraction are not always synonymous.

Then there is the contradiction of whether beauty can be common or not. Does something beautiful have to be unique or rare? Most of my cufflinks are made out of silver because I find it a very beautiful metal. I’ve never understood the attraction of gold and I have long suspected that it is rarity that has created this gaudy metal’s legend. I find silver, platinum, and even copper to be far more enticing. Silver, for example, ages in the most interesting ways. Oxidization can enhance a piece of jewellery and it can be wildly different depending on the grade of silver. 970 silver, that is to say 97% pure silver, a purer grade than the 92.5% sterling formula, can possess a yellowish hue when it ages, though few silversmiths work with it because it’s less rigid than sterling. The verdant patina of copper can produce some admirable effects and, best of all, silver oxidization and copper patina can be easily removed if so desired.

The exuberant decoration of baroque churches can be awe-inspiring. And so, too, can be gothic architecture. I remember going into Chartres Cathedral when I was 18 years old after having walked there on pilgrimage from Paris and seeing the sun shine through the stained-glass windows with their different hues of blue and feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach, so utterly breathtaking was the moment. A completely, almost paradoxically different style of beauty is to be found in Nový Dvůr Abbey in the Czech Republic, built a decade ago and designed by John Pawson.

The chapel is bare but light and is surprisingly awe-inspiring. Is it the lack of decoration and the lines and light that make it beautiful, or is it the simplicity that is not simple, a noble simplicity when all said and done?

For me, it is the combination of contemporary and historical that is a winning one. It is profoundly modern in many ways, yet deeply rooted in the Cistercian monastic tradition on the other hand.

Today’s pair of cufflinks are the ones I find to be, unequivocally and flatly, my most beautiful. I coveted them when I first saw a photograph of them a long time ago, and I waited patiently for a pair to come onto the market, even having a failed attempt to buy them from a German dealer who refuses to answer any messages or allow anyone to buy her jewellery in what is most likely a money-laundering operation.

They are in sterling silver and designed by the Finnish silversmith Matti Hyvärinen, being made in 1973. They use crumple casting, a technique perfected by the Finns (notably at Lapponia jewellers) but Hyvärinen is truly the master of it. The faces are large (2.2 x 2.2 cm) and this begs the question of why I find them so beautiful. They are blatantly and almost defiantly oversized and the organic form doesn’t seem to evoke anything precise. This doesn’t call to mind conventional beauty. Sometimes I see bed sheets, on occasion I see crests of waves on an unruly sea, and, on rare days,  I swear I can make out molten chocolate. Baudelaire dealt with the same problem of beauty in his hauntingly dark poem “Hymne à la Beauté”, concluding that, no matter where it comes from and what it is, we should exult in the beautiful for it is what makes us human to do so. Last time I wore these cufflinks, a young man was exiting a coffeeshop as I was arriving, and he had a tray of lattes in his hand, most likely for his co-workers. He had a good view of my cufflinks as I held open the door for him since he was struggling, latte-laden as he was. This ruggedly handsome fellow had probably never given another man a compliment in his life yet felt empowered to shout back to me “Serious cufflinks, dude!”. Beauty can elicit such unexpected reactions, and it’s delicious, affirming, and, above all, what makes our quest for the beautiful all the more worthwhile.