“Sensual” is the word that best describes Bruce Metcalf’s jewelry. Huge, riotously colored, and smoothly sanded, abstract wooden forms cluster together with repurposed objects to suggest both flora and human body parts. A prolific writer and theorist on crafts, Metcalf’s jewelry is represented in many museums, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Museum of Contemporary Art, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, NL.
Jewelry, sex, and sensuality have been conjoined since the dawn of civilization. The oldest recorded human jewelry is more than 110,000 years old. It’s drilled nassarius shells, some of them colored with red ochre. Those shells are similar to the cowrie, which is still used for ornament on several continents. Both the nassarius and the cowrie have a slot-like opening in an oval shell, resembling nothing so much as female genitalia. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that this very early jewelry was about fecundity and all the manifestations of human sexual desire.
Things haven’t changed much in 100 millennia. Jewelry is still about sex and desire. Engagement rings and wedding rings speak of sexual exclusivity, after all. Even male jewelry like military medals and ribbons speak of manliness and virility. But these images are coded and abstracted, so nobody has to face the facts directly. Jewelry lets us raise the subject of sex without mentioning it.
As for sensuality, what could be more sensual than the glow of gold and the sparkle of diamonds? While contemporary jewelers might reject the symbolism of preciousness, the seductive appeal of classic jewelry materials is undeniable.
What I propose is that those two ancient subjects, sex and sensuality, can be repurposed for the 21st century. The imagery must be familiar, but it can’t be traditional. And it must be coded, just like it always was. To depict plain phalluses and breasts would be too much like pornography: blunt and unpoetic.
There needs to be a certain amount of displacement. A distance, but not too much. So I offer clefts and blossoms, navels and seeds, antlers and leaves. These images may seem innocuous at first. But upon consideration, it will become obvious that some of them are reproductive in nature, like flowers and fruits. Others are abstractions of genitalia, like clefts and seeds. My imagery, indirect and suggestive, creates a potent tension with the veiled subject.
My goal is to make jewelry that is beautiful, sexy, and sometimes a little disturbing. Like a dark, handsome man in a beautiful suit and long, black hair. Or a voluptuous woman, with parted lips and half-closed eyes, gazing at you from across a smoky room.
Bruce Metcalf: American Craft Council Award
"The Decorative Impulse"
James Renwick Alliance Panel Discussion:
Moderated by Bruce Metcalf
Handmade Portraits: Bruce Metcalf
Articulate With Jim Cotter: TV Interview With Bruce Metcalf