In the second-floor gallery of the National Ornamental Metal Museum, light glints off the wearable art arranged in a series of long, low cases. RINGS! 1968 – 2021, conceived by curator Helen Drutt, features 169 pieces created by international artists. Visitors be warned: passing glances while quickly circling the cases does not do justice to the art. This exhibition is all about exploring the details.
Drutt, a well-known patron in the contemporary craft movement, is a prolific collector who forges relationships with artists. After noticing that museums were not collecting pieces from this movement, she stepped in to fill the gap. Her goal has been to create collections, such as the one on display, that preserve this historic art movement for the future.
Instead of cluttering the cases with labels, the museum provides handouts at the door with basic identifications. Since the rings are not in the cases in numerical order, visitors who want to learn the name or artist of a piece must pause to find the number in their gallery guide. This arrangement only becomes an issue if you are trying to locate a specific ring, like the one Exhibitions Coordinator Maureen Smith inadvertently sent me on a mission to find.
While discussing the show, she mentioned that the museum staff has been keeping a list of their favorite pieces. Smith’s favorite, and the one I dedicated time to finding, is Kadri Mälk’s Crazed Wolf with Colossal Red Eye. This furry ring features an almandine garnet for the eye and is wrapped in moleskine. My choice for the list would be Cardboard by David Bielander. My eyes were convinced that the ring was a piece of corrugated cardboard held together with a staple until a look at the object list revealed that it was made from yellow and white gold.
Smith noticed, “Every single member of staff is totally transfixed by this collection. And it’s the same thing that we saw with the first visitors we had during our member preview, this sense of wonder…every little piece in there is so engaging and really grabs the imagination.”
That echoes the sentiments Drutt expressed at the opening reception, “The power of the ring is boundless…it is a creative beacon that inspires amazing discourse, signals great personal style, or communicates expression.”
The Metal Museum’s collections and exhibits staff augmented the exhibit with a selection of rings from their permanent collection in a companion exhibit located in the gallery across the hall. The museum actively collects contemporary American metalwork, and like most museums, they have more objects in storage than can be permanently displayed. RINGS! provided a prime opportunity to bring some of those pieces back into the galleries.
Similar to the main exhibit, the rings in the museum’s display were made by artists involved in ring experimentation in the contemporary jewelry movement. According to Smith, after World War II, many people went to art school on the GI Bill and began experimenting with new materials and ideas, which in turn led to increased opportunities and further experimentation. The first juried National Ring Show in the late 1970s brought many of these artists together to be judged by their peers. The spirit of breaking from tradition ran through the rings in that show, and through the rings in the Metal Museum’s collection.
One of the displayed artists is Metal Museum founder James “Wally” Wallace. He attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, at a period when many metalsmiths were experimenting with traditional metalworking techniques. One case contains the wedding ring he made for his late wife and the wedding band Phillip Baldwin, who also attended SIU, Carbondale, and is considered an authority on the Japanese process mokume-gane, made for him.
Another represented artist is Elliott Pujol, a native Memphian and a SIU, Carbondale, alumnus. He judged all three National Ring Shows at the University of Georgia and was the Metal Museum’s 2005 Master Metalsmith.
As expected, since the rings in both galleries fit into the same time period, there is consistency between the two exhibits. The Metal Museum showcase highlights the high level of artistry that is represented in the museum’s permanent collection that can be pulled into the museum’s expanded permanent exhibition space after the planned move to Rust Hall.
One takeaway from these exhibitions is that wearable art has the potential to bring contemporary art into everyday life. Exiting the museum takes you past the museum’s gift shop, which is currently stocked with rings for sale by living artists. In keeping with Drutt’s intention, this selection provides visitors the opportunity to help preserve this period of art history and become collectors themselves while simultaneously promoting the work of contemporary artists.
RINGS! 1968-2021 is on display through June 12, 2022.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.