Lisa Walker’s work is intuitive, raw and on the surface can appear uncompromisingly crude. It would seem she makes jewellery fearlessly, daring herself to create, fusions of colour, materials and form. Collectively and en masse her work has the energy of purging, a riotous culmination of form and no offence Lisa, the work often has something of the aesthetics of ‘spew’. However, the unruly edginess of her forms, mostly neckpieces and brooches, can also read as a kind of visual poetry that reflects jewellery’s capacity to be over stated, gaudy, cumbersome, even ugly and … (i.e. if you ‘pick out the good bits’ – to continue the vomit metaphor) somehow beautiful.
Walker’s exhibition Unwearable at Objectspace in New Zealand (of which a selection toured to Australia ) presented jewellery that was bricolage meets home-crafts, meets punk! The pieces ooze, tack, goo, staple and just stuff things together. The palette she works with is broad and includes the humble plastics and fibres of haberdasheries, the crafty bits of DIY centres, with a bit of precious metal, some pearls thrown in alongside the occasional found bone or shell, as well as the scrapings off her workspace floor.
Walker is clever. She has recognised jewellery’s capacity to provoke and to critique notions of the ‘decorative’. In her practice she challenges the fundamental premise of the craft, one that historically has preference for skill, technique, preciousness and glamour. For these reasons I expect those who are more purist in their support of the craft would find Walker’s jewellery not only ‘unwearable’ but also untenable.
There is, however, a paradox I have observed in Walkers work and that is, not only does it polarize the typical conventional/non-conventional jewellery punter, her work also polarizes those who are sympathetic to it. I often have strong reactions to Walkers work. I can be totally enthralled by one piece of her work and equally I can be completely unconvinced by another. But that’s part of its appeal, at the very least hers is a practice that engages and elicits strong reactions and responses.
Unwearable is a catchy title and it gives you a sense of what to expect but I found my viewing experience wasn’t necessarily framed or confined within the wearable/unwearable paradigm, although I did find the body/object relations question convincingly present within its installation.
The practice of exhibiting jewellery, which is as an art form in its self, tends to focus the gaze upon the object. Often the body is treated as if it were the conspicuous other, the part of a relationship you are not supposed to see. If it appears at all it tends to be referenced by its absence, in the holes, gaps, hooks and catches of an object; or substituted by the use of props like mannequins or photographs.
The raison dêtre of jewellery is to relate to the body, a relationship that is imbued with history and rich with symbolism. The codified forms, styles, and materials of jewellery have evolved over time; the symbolic meaning of which is subjective and interpretations are reliant on a relational assessment of the social, cultural and historical context in which the jewellery object was made, consumed and worn.
I often wonder when viewing exhibitions of jewellery if the relationship has been considered, but on viewing Unwearable at Objectspace I was rewarded with an experience that took the relationship of the body and jewellery beyond wearability and positioned it within the realm of the phenomenological: where the realm of the experiential is understood equally in terms of its acknowledgement of the presence of matter and of its potential partner, the human body.
As I have suggested wearability is always subject to context, just making it bigger or uglier is neither here nor there for me, but rather it’s about how scale or the object is understood, what it communicates and what it questions within the codified language of jewellery. For instance, in some social contexts a string of big fat white pearls is accepted as a conventional form of jewellery, despite the fact that I consider them ‘unwearable’.
Unwearable at Objectspace was an opportunity to view Walker’s extensive repertoire (close to two hundred pieces were on show). What made this exhibition doubly exceptional was Walkers mediation of the work within the gallery space. Brightly coloured plinths, mostly supporting a single work, or a small group of works, densely covered the floor in kaleidoscopic constellations. Plinths were clustered together in varying scale and proportion, and there was no obvious clearing, marked-out path or grid to guide you. Instead, you had the sense of walking in and around an unruly Garden of Eden, a Bachelardian forest where body, object, time and space were dynamically in tune and where a sense of confronting ‘what’s around the corner’ was paramount. The effect of fracturing and condensing the viewing plain required you as the viewer, to look and encounter; the installation maintained the work, the viewer and the space in a constant state of tension.
The question I often have running through my mind when viewing Walker’s work is: Does the object work and in what ways does it work for me? I don’t simply imagine putting it on (although I do that too) – I engage with her work on a deeply visceral level as I imagine she does when she makes it. I find myself loving and hating it and the polarity of emotion that it arouses can be that strong and for me a sure sign that something is working.
Walker demonstrates in her work a great love of jewellery paralleled by a deep ambivalence of its conventions which enables her to experiment with material, process and form in a vitally refreshing way.
Walker is quoted in the catalogue essay as saying “I have more demands on how a piece should look now. The strength a finished piece has, the quality it has, its presence, has become more important than before.”
It will be interesting to follow what Walker goes on to make in future, I find myself hoping it won’t be nice!