The text running down the side of the exhibition title wall reads like a group crit word bank à la 90s graphic design star David Carson. Prefixes dis-, re-, and up- are followed by their corresponding suffixes. A clutch of monosyllabic verbs all start with the letter s. And a grab bag of process verbs round it all out: Conceal, magnify, meld, fabricate, etc.
What they describe are the motives and methods behind the 2014 Master Metalsmith exhibition at the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The only institution of its kind in the United States, the Metal Museum is responsible not only for exhibiting work, hosting workshops, and providing services to the community and research opportunities to scholars, but also for identifying emerging metal artists, and in the case of the annual Master Metalsmith exhibition, honoring the most influential in the field.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the series, and the work of its honoree, Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, goes back nearly as far: two artist’s books, Fortitude and Book of Tools, date from 1985 and 1986. They offer a take on the book safe; instead of a gun-shaped hollow—or gun—inside this noir prop, knives have burned through the pages. Charred black paper marks their outlines and cuts the codices through. As humankind’s first tool, the knife was also one of the first artifacts subject to the vagaries of style and fashion, as seen on early weaponry and tableware alike. American Colonists proved excellent silversmiths, and their products’ place on the table in early America wasn’t only to dispatch food; silver provided aesthetic satisfaction to the upper class, and long before painting and sculpture. It was all made to match the latest styles from London, often using silver melted down from the previous vogue. Trowel and Hand Mirror both illustrate this pattern: Found silver spoons rest open-faced in a form that looks like it could be used to cast a trowel, or a hand mirror, respectively. The forms are coffin-like, foreshadowing the potential fate of the “silver spoon”—itself an established metaphor for class privilege. Looking at these pieces as fine art in a museum—where we are supposed to suspend awareness of monetary value—completes the through-line to Mimlitsch-Gray’s body of work: From object, to decorative object, to fine art, what is lost and gained in the transfer? What is the use and value of each?
It’s on the surface: In the series titled Magnification: 500x, serving trays fit for giants are further exaggerated with the embellishment of the hammer mark. An imperfection that signaled value at the turn-of-the-century (it meant the piece was hand-wrought, and not stamped out of a machine staffed by trade-union workers), the hammer marks on Oval Server, Four Roses, and Food Plinth are, well, sure, five hundred times their expected size. The pocked-copper look has since been mastered by manufacturers, identifiable in mom-kitsch kitchens across America (alongside cows, pineapple stamps, and country blue), and the faux finish of most of the ornamental filler in a SkyMall magazine. But the tradition of the hammer mark and what it signifies is not commonly known. Mimlitsch-Gray is screaming at us from behind this finish, in all caps, the natural order of things. Oversizing the hammer marks is a tactic to make the works more real than real, exaggerated in order to function. The result is loud and ugly, but the message is clear.
The function of negating function is noted in her Kohler Skillets and Pone Pans series. Culinary molds are considered a form of folk sculpture: Implementing the molds as a tool yields infinite positives, that, depending on the cook, could each also be imbued with artistic attributes. Affixed to a wall, Mimlitsch-Gray’s cast iron molds frame this idea while calling it off. Formally, the Brat Pans are fun mutant biological multiples hung to dry. Eva Hesse comes to mind. But the post-minimalist leanings found here and in many of Mimlitsch-Gray’s sculptures are more a result of material (molten metal) and the processes an artist encounters in the studio than art-historical reference.
These molds are firmly in line with the American craft movement, and there are others: Silver Decanters, Salt Cellars, and Sugar Bowl and Creamer II are forms inspired by the process of metalcraft. A snapshot of the moment when “craftsperson” becomes enamored with the interplay of concept and form, and how objects bear meaning, and how that maker starts to focus–or get distracted by–a goal other than crafting the thing in the least amount of time to yield the most profit (this, if we are to imagine an craft-art scale, is the definition that would be firmly on left, the earliest definition of a craftsperson’s motives.) Mimlitsch-Gray seals this completely, and literally, in Encased Teapot, which “trapped the object as fetish–form closed in on itself completely, access was reduced to just a few sexy holes.”(!)
Humor permeates the exhibition. It seems so natural to see Pair of Cups full, brimming, and spilling over with the same substance they are made of, although this is clearly antithetical to a cup. “Melting” is used in the silver Molten series (Melting Salver, Melting Candelabrum) simply and elegantly, and in the Conflation series to more grotesque effect. In Chafing Dish, we see something metal (copper), typically used for cooking at low temperatures, appearing melted. Because it’s still recognizable as a chafing dish, it works like a successful knock-knock joke: The chafing dish is funny because you’re not used to a chafing dish being funny.
But function isn’t blocked altogether. There’s the jewelry, which, in matters of art and utility, paradoxically splits the difference: It has a function, but that function is strictly ornamental. A super-enlarged pendant setting without a stone, Four Prong Standard is a caricature of its namesake. (And I’ll be damned if someone told me I couldn’t wear it.) At a glance, it’s an embattled castle tower top, or castellated nut, rather than looking like a thing that lost the thing for which it exists. It’s a class act in subversion. An activation clause exists in Timepiece, a silver pendulum brooch weighted with a faux diamond and backed by glass. To wear it would cause movement, etching the glass, arguably damaging the piece, and definitely diminishing its resale value. Timepiece is as much Dada as it is Art Nouveau.
The lay lines of this show trace art and commerce. Now more than ever, “art” is accused of being nothing more than a luxury item for the 1%. It is personal adornment, just as jewelry has always been acknowledged to be. And indeed, my near carnal desire to own Four Prong Standard is also there for Object/Tray Relationship, a piece that implies a function not unlike a desktop Zen garden, while looking nothing like one at all.
As fine art is viewed with more and more incredulity, creative energy is moving to the applied arts. People want their aesthetic satisfaction to come with a function, and industrial design supplies this in electronic devices. The latest of Mimlitsch-Gray’s work seems to acknowledge this, and suggests a certain “return to the table,” more so than in works prior. Her interest is to “develop new forms without the stylistic antecedents typically associated with tableware.” Pieces such as Chiclet Tray, Clove Oval, Milled Server, and Split Slab “embody utilitarian notions,”  as she puts it. While these pieces most likely did not get any play this holiday season as actual trays, it’s fun to imagine a future in which they would—especially Chiclet Tray, which actually could be used to serve precisely two Chiclets, with hyper-specificity as a cute play on the grape scissors, asparagus tongs, orange spoons, and berry forks of decorative art’s past.
Before we had art in America, we had decorative art in America. In 56 works—with equal representation of silver, copper, and gold, followed by ductile iron and brass, two pieces of tin, one bronze (and the Cordial Cups that have the vermeil)—Mimlitsch-Gray uses the traditions of craft to deliver the state of art today.
This article originally appeared in Art Jewelry Forum, January 14, 2015.
A catalog titled Staging Form accompanies the exhibition.