Art Review: Meddling with metal and more in new jewelry exhibit

Courtney Starrett's silicone rubber-sintered nylon necklace, 'Charm & Convenience'

Courtney Starrett's silicone rubber-sintered nylon necklace, "Charm & Convenience"

"Digital Mettle: Jewelry and Objects of CAD," at the National Ornamental Metal Museum through Sept. 11, is an exhibition as confounding as it is beguiling, as confusing as it is benign but ultimately is a harbinger of the future for arts and crafts.

Curated by Matthew Hollern, professor of jewelry and metals and dean of faculty at The Cleveland Institute of Art, "Digital Mettle" -- a lovely pun -- delves into recent movements that focus on CAD or Computer Assisted Design for creating forms of "jewelry" that are as much statements about how and why they were made than they are bijoux for adornment.

One of the paradoxes expressed by the show's title is that few of the astonishingly varied objects are made from metal or at least entirely from metal. Most incorporate what one of the explanatory panels calls "neoteric material," meaning a medium of "new or recent origin." Hence labels that helpfully inform us that such and such a piece was made from "33% glass-filled polyamide" and that another was fashioned from "SLS nylon" or another from "fused, deposition modeled ABS plastic." For another piece, we're told that "resin" forms part of the composition, but can't resin be made from many materials?

The museum missed an opportunity here to educate visitors unfamiliar with these terms and mediums, and it's with an almost audible sigh of relief that some viewers notice objects made from matter as humble and easily recognizable as cotton thread or gypsum powder or paper. ("Look, hon, paper.")

That caveat aside, "Digital Mettle" represents a gathering of weird and wonderful objects that test the limits of design, form, function and esthetic value. Many kinds of beauty are present here, some of it quite strange and unearthly, while other pieces are, frankly, fairly creepy. Synthetic materials have a way of looking rather fleshlike, and I don't mean the flesh of creatures that inhabit our planet. Colors range from gorgeous to garish, and again some of the hues -- blatant or oddly restful --- seem to have originated in a laboratory on a distant world.

I mean these as statements of praise, not approbation, because "Digital Mettle" pushes boundaries, if not buttons, and I thoroughly enjoyed testing my conceptions of what's wearable and what's not wearable, and does such a concept matter anyway in this brave new world of space-age materials and digital manipulation and order.

A number of these artists take themselves and their efforts very seriously, so it's good that Rebecca Strzelec is included in the exhibition with her red, white and black industrial-strength "necklaces" that chronicle abstractly the events of her 31st birthday or the amount of time she and her boyfriend spent together before they got married compared to the length of time during which they did not know each other. Similarly witty, Phillip Renato's hundreds of colorful "Splatter Pins," spread across a wall, resemble the pushpins stuck into a large map or diagram but lacking either diagram or map, so the softly molded and gently lined heads on the pins make their own reality.

I also like the bizarrely sophisticated brooches -- like Art Deco on Pandora -- called "Pynch" and "Plastron" by Stanley Lechtzin and Daniella Kerner, though I remain baffled by the list of "materials": 3D print, resin, O-ring.

"Digital Mettle" is a large but gracefully displayed exhibition -- one of the best presented that I have seen at the Metal Museum -- that begins in one gallery downstairs and then fills the second-floor galleries. In such an extensive bazaar of exotica and wonderment, it would be difficult to single out just one or two objects for special notice, but do look at Courtney Starrett's "Charm & Convenience," from her "RubberMADE" series, and a little brooch, "Snail Shell Harbor," by Nicole Jacquard that unexplainably just knocked me out for its odd whimsy, eccentricity and allure.

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"Digital Mettle: Jewelry and Objects of CAD"

At the National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive, through Sept. 11. Call (901) 774-6380.

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