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Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection

Nothing in "Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection" is for sale, but I really wish it was. The show includes approximately 300 works from the 1960s to the present, and while the MFAH owns plenty of things to covet, something about jewelry really brings out those acquisitive instincts. Maybe it's because almost all of us — women at least — wear it. And while it's great to have artwork in your home, there's something particularly intimate and engaging about having an artwork you wear on your person.

People have coveted and flaunted jewelry since ancient times, but these works are desirable for untraditional reasons. Their value is not dependent upon precious metals or extravagant gems — some things in the show are made from corrugated cardboard. The artists in the Drutt collection approach jewelry as an art object, with ideas taking precedence over the intrinsic value of the materials used.

Surreal: Gerd Rothmann's gold cast of Helen Drutt's nose.
Courtesy of MFAH
Surreal: Gerd Rothmann's gold cast of Helen Drutt's nose.

Jewelry started getting avant-garde in the 1960s, when even the likes of Alexander Calder, Lucio Fontana and Salvador Dalí, far better known for their sculptures and paintings, made forays into the realm of jewelry. German artist Gerd Rothmann's work has a slightly surreal bent, in particular his gold casts of Helen Drutt's nose (1994) and index finger (2000). Another piece, a simple, stunning 1998 necklace, is made of 81 tiny fingerprints on discs of gold. Meanwhile, his subversive Kaugummikette (1991) mixes the elegant with the repugnant. What appear to be beads on a long gold chain necklace are actually lumps of cast and gold-plated chewing gum, the teeth marks still evident.

Witty Swiss artist Otto Künzli's 1986 Fragment necklace looks like it was sliced off part of an ornate, gold-leafed oval picture frame. Künzli strung the swatch of frame on a wire to ironically frame the face of the necklace's wearer. The show also includes a handful of his brightly colored 1980 Thumbtack Pin brooches, which is exactly what they are. Hey kids, try this one at home!

Other works have a more minimalist bent. Dutch artist Gijs Bakker's blue Möbius loop bracelet (1967-69) in anodized aluminum is simple and elegant. The Japanese artist Hiramatsu Yasuki's gold-over-aluminum crown is made from one tapering strip of metal, slotted into itself to make a circle. It's similar to the fastening technique used for the crowns they give kids at Burger King, but the effect is gorgeous. It looks like it belongs to some rarified Shinto ceremony. Meanwhile, a 1990 neckpiece by Norwegian artist Tone Vigeland consists entirely of a grid of silver squares with a large open square in the center for the wearer's neck. But rather than shiny and sleek, the silver squares have a worn surface with a marvelous patina. They seem pocked by age, like some artifact of Viking armor.

Some of the work has an edgy, body-oriented focus, with things that are cool sculptural objects but not especially geared for wearablity. British artist Caroline Broadhead's 1983 woven nylon monofilament necklace is otherworldly, extending up to veil the wearer's face. Her 1983 dyed nylon monofilament Sleeve is more doable, running from the shoulder to the wrist of the wearer. A large 1982 pleated plastic collar by the Dutch artist Paul Derrez is well-done, dramatic and space-agey, but would probably be more than a little awkward in practice. It's not entirely dissimilar to the cones they stick on dogs' necks after surgery. Gijs Bakker's Dewdrop neckpiece (1982) consists of a giant photo of a red rose sandwiched in layers of PVC. There is a slit and hole in the middle of the flower so it can slip around the neck of the wearer. I don't think you could hug anybody while wearing it, but if you could pull it off — and you don't want anybody invading your personal space anyway — it would look pretty amazing.

Bakker's work comes up again and again. He's obviously had a long and inventive career. The Möbius loop bracelet is his earliest piece in the show, but he has a host of recent works, like Dewdrop, that use photos coated in PVC. Waterman (1990) is a brooch with a photograph of a naked man pouring water down his back. Bakker added a cascade of diamonds to the stream of water, mixing the cheap and disposable with the valuable and ­indestructible.

Most of the work with a narrative focus is pretty disappointing. One of the exceptions is the beaded work of American Joyce Scott. There's a lot of stuff going on in her necklaces packed with quirky beaded figures, but they're over-the-top enough to work. Too many of the narrative pieces in the show seem to have everything but the kitchen sink, but ultimately don't jell.

One piece I just don't get at all is the German Claus Bury's 1973 Construction. It's a wall-mounted box containing a brooch as well as its component parts, along with drawings and information about the piece. It was highly touted at the press preview, and apparently he does architectural sculptures as well, but the gold object in the box is really uninteresting. And having a lot of information about an uninteresting object doesn't make it any better. There are other pieces in the show that are disappointing, among them some "earthy" '70s and gimmicky geometric '80s work that just feels dated.

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