Wednesday, October 19, 2011
We had been looking at hundreds of photographs and it was time to pick one. When asked to think about options for the cover for our book, "San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern To California Design," I had only one photo in mind. But it was a little while before we discussed the cover shot again and I gave the matter some thought.
We were working on an exhibition for Mingei International Museum about how contemporary craft developed and changed in San Diego from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. The museum had agreed to publish an extensive catalogue, really a stand-alone volume, and the cover was critical. It needed to convey the essence of the exhibition.
There were some beautiful studio photos of craft objects that Steve Oliver had taken at the museum. A couple of my favorites were local potter David Stewart's "Camel Pot" from 1962 and a turned-wood salad bowl by the late sculptor and furniture maker John Dirks. It had five feet in a contrasting wood that went through the bottom of the bowl, making a pattern on the inside. We had also acquired tremendous historical material, including period photographs and ephemera, from the San Diego History Center and San Diego State University. Artists had surprised me with some fantastic old photos of themselves and their work from back in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which were black-and-white images that really conveyed the period. Everybody was smoking in the group shots of people at local gallery openings.
Then there were my two trips to the Oakland Museum in order to select images of San Diego artists' work that were part of their California Design Archive. The archive contains slides, prints and transparencies of jewelry, furniture, ceramics, doors, windows and all kinds of objects by San Diego artists that had been photographed for catalogues of the historic series of California Design exhibitions held at the Pasadena Art Museum and at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. These catalogue photos have a unique spirit and span the period from 1962 to 1976. Something of the ferment of those years comes through in the pictures, which, for museum catalogue photography, were approached in an unconventional way. Many of the shots showed objects in the landscape: a chair in sand dunes by the beach, a pair of colorful doors alone in the desert, a hand carved cradle in a mossy grove of redwood trees, a stoneware bottle on a patch of snow-covered ground. By hauling large and heavy tables, chairs, and doors way out to distinctive parts of the California landscape, and shooting the work there, the California Design catalogues connect the objects with the places where they were made.
Another element of the California Design photos has to do with people. In the 1960s and 1970s artists such as Arline Fisch were working with large scale jewelry objects made to be worn on the body. Although conventionally-scaled jewelry—rings, bracelets and necklaces—were often photographed as isolated objects or in groups for the California Design catalogues, larger body ornaments were worn by models. It was not a look that most people could pull off.
While these images are absolutely tame by current art standards, at most "racy" or "risqué," they do contain an element of sexuality. This forthright sensuality is a basic part of the jewelry that emerged in the 1960s era of social tumult as an important part of American contemporary craft. But sex is just part of what comes through in the images.
The unusually large scale of the jewelry and the women's faces, their body language, hair and makeup, provide the work with a context much like the landscape of California does for some of the other objects. To me, the photos capture a story of people who boldly engaged the changing times with exuberant creative spirit.
Arline Fisch, who has lived in San Diego since 1961, is an acclaimed craft artist and educator who developed an internationally recognized jewelry and metalworking program at San Diego State University. Thanks to Fisch and her countless students, jewelry was one of the few craft disciplines where San Diego truly distinguished itself during the 1960s and 1970s. Her influence in the field was pervasive and her unabashedly sensual body ornaments are a unique contribution to contemporary craft. They are part of major museum collections and have been exhibited all over the world.
It was a photo connected to Arline Fisch and her legacy in San Diego that kept coming to my mind for the cover. One of the Oakland Museum photos, taken for the 1971 California Design catalogue, shows a model wearing a body ornament made by one of Arline Fisch's San Diego State students, Mona Trunkfield.
For me, this photo really captures the spirit that I associate with our show, "San Diego's Craft Revolution." The jewelry is basically a collar of clear acrylic baubles with a flash of silver contained in each. From this support, strands of shining plastic discs drape down the wearer's front and back. The use of an industrial material such as clear acrylic sheet is part of what makes the piece so unique and modern. And its size. It's also not really practical for day-to-day use. Instead, it's designed for something closer to performance or ceremony. The woman wearing the neck-piece has a vintage Elizabeth Taylor-ish look. It's a sexy picture, but she is mostly covered by a blue garment with open sides. There's some skin—the curve of her hips, her legs, and her arms are visible, but that's about it. There is something in the combination of her appearance and body language with the bubbly neck-piece and its cascade of shining plastic that evokes the defiant youthful energy of the late 1960s. It is a celebration of artistic experimentation and a sexy self-confidence that asserts itself as an independent image and also as a representation of San Diego's special distinction as a center for contemporary jewelry during a period of transformative social change and unparalleled development in American craft.
The "provocatively" posed model raised some eyebrows, and some pulse rates, as the potential cover shot was discussed. Although I did not have the final say, I became almost crazed with certainty that the Trunkfield neck-piece photo was the right choice. It clearly had the power to generate discussions that went right to the heart of the exhibition. In the end, after many such conversations, that's what wound up on our cover. There is just something irrepressible about Ted Kessell's photograph of Mona Trunkfield's work.