Edge of the Sublime: Enamels by Jamie Bennett book review

Posted by on Jun 6, 2012 in media diagnostic | No Comments
Edge of the Sublime: Enamels by Jamie Bennett book review

As a self-taught metal worker and lover of books, I suspect my library acquisition has followed a trajectory familiar to many:

  1. Start with general instructional texts, the simpler the better. My first was Getting Started Making Metal Jewelry by Mark Lareau and I doubt I could have chosen better. It’s simple, clear, and unintimidating, even for someone who had never fired up a torch.
  2. Pick up a few project books: The Jeweler’s Studio Handbook by Brandon Holschuh, Jewelry Making Techniques Book by Elizabeth Olver, Making Metal Jewelry by Joanna Gollberg all found their way onto my shelves. Project books are terrific for honing your technical skills while helping you understand how all those dry techniques combine to form a finished piece. They’re quickly outgrown, though, and tend to be the sorts of books you don’t turn to again and again.
  3. Move to increasingly more technical, but still essentially instructional, texts. My first big-girl metals book was The Complete Metalsmith by Tim McCreight, a classic must-have for every metalsmith’s library. My most recent is The Theory & Practice of Goldsmithing by Erhard Brepohl, the sort of deep and elaborate book that gives you shivers just looking at it.
  4. Start delving into more specific, but still instructional, texts. The Art of Enameling by Linda Darty was one of my first. Others were Foldforming by Charles Lewton-Brain, Creative Stonesetting by John Cogswell, and my most recent, Form Emphasis for Metalsmiths by Heikki Seppä. Highly recommended all.
  5. Take some weird divergences that turn out to be dead ends. Hemp Masters and Kumihimo, anyone?
  6. Start tracking down the weird and esoteric: Art of Coppersmithing from 1893 but still in print, Electroforming and Electroplating for Artists and Craftsmen from 1979 but not.
  7. Break out of the instructional and into the theoretical and abstract. Pay big money to look at pictures of other people’s work. Which brings us to today’s review:

edge of the sublime book cover 225x225 Edge of the Sublime: Enamels by Jamie Bennett book review

Actually, that’s not fair, because Edge of the Sublime, Enamels by Jamie Bennett has been in print since 2008 and can be had, brand new, for dirt cheap. For this reason alone, if you have any interest whatsoever in American jewelry artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, enamels, enamelists, color in jewelry, academics in jewelry, electroforming, or pretty pictures, you should buy this book. As of today, there are sellers on Amazon who are practically giving it away. (And if they run out, and you want to support a worthy cause, the Racine Art Museum, which hosted the exhibition, has copies too.)

This is not a coffee table book (it’s substantial, but at 10.5″ square the book isn’t that big), although if you leave it laying around you still stand a decent chance of impressing someone with your erudition and good taste. More likely, though, you’ll just suck some unsuspecting visitor into the depths of Bennett’s work, because his work can do that to a person. One of the cool things about this artist is that, for an academic, his work is very accessible and largely of the sort that your average untrained eye would find esthetically pleasing. Or, to use a word much-disparaged among certain of the art-crowd intelligentsia: beautiful.

Of course, before you get to the work you have to get through the text. Contrasted with another enamelist retrospective I got at the same time (Grete Prytz Kittelsen: The Art of Enamel Design) the Bennett book places all the text at the beginning, and almost all the images follow. This arrangement is well suited to this book. It leaves the images unfettered by too much type and gives the reader/looker the option of skipping the text altogether.

I would recommend not doing that in the case of the first chapter, by Jeannine Falino. The text portion of the book is divided into three parts by three different authors, and hers is the most straightforward. It is essentially a short professional biography of Bennett, which I found engaging and which gave me a better understanding of the man behind the work. Bennett is an academic who still teaches at one of the leading metals programs, at the SUNY New Paltz, where he has been for over 20 years. I was particularly interested in learning about the influence of classical Islamic culture on his sense of pattern and color.

As for chapter two, by Patricia C. Phillips, it’s an exercise in arty bollocks. Incoherence does not profundity make, and the problem with over-inflated language is it blows up in everybody’s face. Too bad, too, because some of what she’s trying (however tediously) to communicate, especially about Bennett’s use of ornament in an academic culture hostile to ornament, could be interesting. Alas, to quote George Orwell: “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.” It’s like Orwell read Phillips on Bennett way back in 1946. Phillips’ credentials are certainly good, but she reads as one poisoned by the worst excesses of her profession. Obviously the artcrit world is overdue for an Alan Sokal of its own.

The third chapter, by Karl Emil Willers, primarily suffers the unfortunate fate of following after chapter two. Luckily, it’s very short, and while it delves into similar theoretical territory it largely avoids the bad writing that mars the chapter before it. Willers chooses to examine Bennett’s sketchbooks, and comments on Bennett’s process through that device, often quoting from the artist at some length. This reliance on the source grounds and validates Willers’ observations in a way that Phillips’ are not. Which is not to say this chapter isn’t completely bollocks-free, e.g.: The format of the sketchbook lends itself to an exploration of the simultaneously relational and disjunctive. The spiral-bound book of drawing paper holds together pages displaying both patterned variations and disparate notations, in sum compiling an encyclopedic compendium of visual ideas. (p. 41). There’s no point in me gleefully shredding this shit and flinging it against the wall, just go ahead and read Politics and the English Language, which is past copyright and available online for free. (and if that wasn’t enough fun, go here)

In any case, you’re not going to buy this book to read, you’re going to buy this book to look, to dive into the visuals, and here it does not disappoint. Edge of the Sublime was designed as an accompaniment to a retrospective of the artist’s work that was sponsored by the Fuller Craft Museum of Brokton, MA, and as such covers the range of the artist’s work from his early jewelry, through his later jewelry, and on into his wall pieces, both 2- and 3-D. Some sketches are included as well, which provide a look into the artist’s inner workings.

The emphasis, though, is on the enamel jewelry. The photo credits indicate that the majority were shot by one of two people, but there seems to be more variance than that — some greater consistency in backgrounds and lighting might have been nice, but is the most minor of quibbles. Mostly I found myself wishing the photos were bigger (or that I could be smaller and somehow climb into and all over them), and I would have loved to have seen more close shots (as in plate 48, for example). Bennett’s exacting work seems to cry out for microscopic examination, and begs to be poured over in minute detail. Thanks to the quality of the printing and paper, and the abundance of photographs, one is able to spend hours doing just that.

This is a book review. It’s not my purpose to comment on the work itself. Whether you experience appreciation, understanding, transcendence, befuddlement — whatever psychological phenomena mediate any given person’s relationship to another’s work — it’s ultimately pretty simple: art gives rise to experiences you’ll have to sort through yourself. The trick is to engage with whatever worthy efforts make their way into the world as thoroughly as you know how. If you can’t engage with the work directly, then look at a book. This is a book worth looking at and living with and I recommend it enthusiastically.

 143 pages   Hudson Hills Press