Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque
June 2 – October 14, 2018
It is thought that prehistoric humans adorned their bodies with simple jewelry pieces before they ever began constructing the semblance of clothing. Such early wearables are represented in American Jewelry in New Mexico, folding us into the very long history this craft has in our region. A simple shell couched in braided yucca, a turquoise stone strung on plant fiber, a bracelet carved from bone; sourced from areas like Chaco Canyon—and the Southwest more broadly—they exemplify the long history of exchange and movement throughout the region, dating as far back as 400 BCE. Just by being what it is, the jewelry conjures stories: that people thousands of years ago wore these around their necks, that they were, like us, compelled toward beauty. The work herein humanizes not just the ancient but the whole lot—more than three hundred distinct pieces.
As we move through time periods, the show maps the evolution of jewelry making in New Mexico and summons the landscape of the body. American Jewelry in New Mexico is organized by time period and, to an extent, cultural affiliation, though the true aim of this convention is to illustrate the mingling styles of different groups—arriving at pieces uniquely New Mexican in their inspiration, materials, and execution. Included in the organization are the traditions established among Diné, Zuni, and other Native people, the introduction of silver and gold craftsmanship from Mexico, and the reclamation of craft in the ’50s, ’60s, and beyond. The cultural life of jewelry, and of this place, is culled from gems, metals, leather, and each hammered link.
From the earliest pieces presented to the most cutting-edge, each is as distinct as any wearer could be. With that comes something animistic: an unshakeable belief that gemstones and jewels worn close to the skin somehow embody their owner. The exhibition is punctuated by images of Millicent Rogers, for example, wearing audacious items from her collection, or Jim Morrison sporting a concha belt. While not offering much interpretation on appropriation or how fashion can underscore ethics, the exhibition does certainly highlight the reach of New Mexican style. Jewelry is inherently valuable by virtue of its materiality, but when a ring or a bangle becomes a talisman, its preciousness transcends the market and lives in the human psyche.
This translates to the concepts grappled with in the modern jewelry on display: the internal and the external, the defense of the body, the gendered body. Kristin Diener’s New Orleans and Alabama/Mississippi Gulf Coast Love Story: Loss and Lament: Fertility Reliquary II is meant to hang from the neck, though the bulk of it extends hip-to-hip. Sculpted in silver, brass, and everything else—moonstone, old photographs, cabochons, and candy wrappers—the piece is like a chastity belt but is, in reality, a wildly sensuous adornment, imploring the viewer to imagine its origins and the artist’s intentions when the title is overlaid with the material. Meanwhile, Motoko Furuhashi’s New Mexico creates a literal roadmap of the state, region by region, with the stones each is known for, and transposes that to a necklace to be hung around the neck—grand landscapes pulled near, made personal. A direct path is cut between the body and the place itself.
Most arresting are the pieces that project New Mexican jewelry design into the future. Pat Pruitt’s CSST V3.0 and Ema Tanigaki’s Gold Eagle Necklace seem pulled from a sci-fi movie set. With tentacle-like woven gold creeping from collarbone to chin (in Tanigaki’s piece) or in sharp, mechanized points (Pruitt’s), each seems culled from a futuristic otherworld. It’s a galvanizing note to end on and challenges some of the prevailing notions of what New Mexican jewelry is and can be. Looking on, it’s not hard to imagine the sharpness of CSST V3.0, how it might wear on my own body. The body is always figured in, in some way. That’s the point isn’t it? But the work at its best transcends the material—not just metal but something with soul.