Ring-a-Ding-Bling!

Lois Boardman’s unusual jewelry collection forms an unusual show at LACMA.

 

It’s very unusual for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to feature a jewelry collection, but this is no usual collection. As the exhibition title suggests, Beyond Bling: Jewelry from the Lois Boardman Collection (through Feb. 5, 2017) takes us into another dimension of jewelry: it’s still wearable body decoration — you can put it on your finger or around your neck — but the 50 pieces here veer into the realms of sculpture and conceptual art, and are testament to the continuing ingenuity of artists. They are part of a gift of 300 pieces of studio jewelry to the museum by Lois Boardman, a longtime resident of South Pasadena and a dedicated patron of the arts in SoCal. 

Three years ago Boardman contacted LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design Department, saying she was interested in donating her collection. Rosie Chambers Mills and Bobbye Tigerman, associate curators in the department, came to visit her. “We were sitting in her kitchen, and she brought out 20 or 30 pieces,” Tigerman recalls. “We were blown away. These were large and bold and not what you think about when you think about jewelry. They often have a personal or political message through the use of the material.”

Boardman and her husband, Bob, have lived in an old Spanish-style house in a quiet residential neighborhood for over half a century. It’s a house full of art — much of it colorful and whimsical. There are pieces of American folk art and contemporary ceramics by such well-known artists as Ralph Bacerra, Peter Shire and John Mason. During night classes at Chouinard Art Institute (long since merged into CalArts), Boardman studied ceramics under the charismatic Bacerra and even had her own studio behind the house. She also served as a member of LACMA’s Decorative Arts Council (now the Decorative Arts and Design Council).

Boardman says her jewelry habit was sparked by her friendship with gallerist Helen Drutt. In the early 1980s, they were both part of the National Task Force in the Crafts, a project initiated by the late Eudorah Moore (a longtime curator of the Pasadena Arts Museum — now the Norton Simon) on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts. Boardman and Drutt, owner of an eponymous crafts and jewelry gallery in Philadelphia, traveled together on fact-finding trips for the task force. “She kept wearing all this stuff, all this jewelry,” Boardman recalls, sitting at the kitchen table. Her pieces were one-of-a-kind, and Boardman became so intrigued she began buying pieces from the Helen Drutt Gallery (since closed) and meeting the artists who made them. “I just thought it was fun,” says Boardman offhandedly. “I got into it, this was studio jewelry. Helen guided me for a long period of time.”

“Studio jewelry” is the term coined to describe original jewelry handcrafted by an artist in his/her workshop. According to Mills and Tigerman, writing in the exhibition catalog, contemporary studio jewelry emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, in several locations — mainly the U. S., the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, all represented in the show. The exhibition title uses the catchy term “bling,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “ostentatious jewellery.” The selection is certainly eye-catching.

Beyond Bling, in a gallery off the upper entrance to the Ahmanson Building, has proved unexpectedly popular with audiences of all ages. The rings and brooches are, of course, on the small side and must be examined at close range. Other pieces are large and bold and in your face — the very definition of “bling.” Many seem to carry a larger message than decoration — social, cultural and political transgression being one of the hallmarks of contemporary art. Take Nancy Worden’s Gilding the Past: it’s a necklace made up of gilded bone shapes (based on a chicken bone, says Tigerman) and looks rather like a necklace for a witch doctor. Closer examination, however, reveals medallions of the peace sign and the smiley face — carved from Kennedy half-dollar coins — interspersed between the bones. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Worden was active in antiwar protests during the Vietnam era. The piece questions wars (the bones being a stark reminder of death) and the “gilded” sheen we put on them.

Other unexpected materials in these display cases include plastics, textiles and feathers. One highlight is a necklace made with Lego pieces — emiko oye’s Maharajah’s 6th is white, black and acid green — a series of white Lego bricks with black end pieces and a large multicolored medallion that drapes in the front. “When people look at it, it reminds them of outer space, the future,” says Tigerman, “but in reality, she was trying to replicate this 1928 piece made by Boucheron for a maharaja.” Quite a few children come into this exhibition and hover around this piece, probably wondering what they could do with their own Lego sets — if they are lucky enough to have one.  

A tour de force of craftsmanship is Gesine Hackenberg’s Delft Blue ‘Plooischotel’, made from a blue-and-white Royal Delft platter. (Fear not, it’s not antique — it was made in 1943.) Round pieces of varying sizes have been meticulously cut out of the rim and the base, and then strung together to make a necklace. The necklace is shown with the platter, illustrating how the pieces could fit back in. Boardman admits she didn’t set out with an agenda or checklist when she started collecting, but rather relied on her own taste. “The idea of it was terrific,” she replies, as to why she bought the Hackenberg piece.   

One piece breaks the rules on the body part it adorns: Die Goldene Nase Nosepiece by Gerd Rothmann was commissioned by Boardman in 1988. It is taken from a mold of her own nose and is worn atop the nose, like a prosthesis. The piece is also a bit of a visual pun, a play on the German phrase “to earn a golden nose,” which means “to make a fortune.” Did she ever actually wear it in public?  “I did, a few times,” says Boardman with a chuckle. “Though it’s interesting, a lot of people would avert their eyes when they saw me. You know, they thought I might be missing a real nose or something.”  


Beyond Bling: The Lois Boardman Collection runs through Feb. 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Museum admission costs $15, $10 for seniors and students; free for members and youth 17 and under. Visit lacma.org.