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Continuing the Cranbrook Vision: “Monomater”

By Davira S. Taragin

 

Iris Eichenberg
Tenement Timelines series, 2007
copper, bakelite, wool
4.8 x 4.2 x .7
photo: Kathryn Barnard
from the collection
of Rita E. Newman

Some things never change: after almost eightyfive years the Cranbrook educational community, whose core buildings constitute the magnum opus in America of the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), is still situated approximately twenty miles northeast of Detroit in what has remained an idyllic suburban setting. A new entrance has altered the orientation of the campus and additional facilities by a Who’s Who of contemporary architects have been constructed. However, Cranbrook Academy of Art, which was formally established in 1932 as part of the complex, is still a place where programs, individuals, and facilities unite to challenge the status quo of the creative process: one only has to look, for example, at its metalsmithing department to see its impact on the larger dialectic about materials that marks art today.

The academy continues to expand upon the vision of Saarinen, who was also its first president, and the ideals of its founder and Saarinen’s patron, George G. Booth (1864–1949). A Detroit newspaperman and advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement, Booth sought in the late 1920s to institute an educational program based upon the master/apprentice system. In 1932, Saarinen modified this approach in favor of making a postgraduate institution with departments in architecture, sculpture, and painting. Today, Cranbrook’s scope has grown to include departments of ceramics, fiber, metalsmithing, two- and three-dimensional design, photography, and print media.

Nonetheless, the underlying premise of both men’s visions still remains intact. Cranbrook Academy of Art’s educational program continues to foster and promote studio practice at the graduate level with no prescribed curriculum, specific requirements, or formal classes.1 Faculty is still expected to incorporate their working studios within their respective departments to serve as paradigms for the students. In fact, the message on a recent poster for the metalsmithing department could have been written anytime during the past eighty years: “The pedagogy of our program is based upon the rhythms of a working artist – the intensity, the rigorous attention to craft and detail, and the commitment to getting things made.”2 At Cranbrook, where the physical plant and setting are meant to be both functional and spiritually uplifting, art and daily life are seen as one.

Younghee Hong
Drawn to the Nature #2, 2011
polymer filament, plastic price
tags, silver
2.2 x 1.2 x 1.2

 
Freedom to collaborate and explore the interdisciplinary relationship among all the arts is critical to the Cranbrook experience. The educational complex that Saarinen designed with members of his family and other faculty set the precedent. Since the 1970s, Cranbrook has renewed its commitment to this philosophy, undertaking extensive restoration of existing buildings and furnishings as well as adding studio space and state-of-the-art collections storage to meet this goal.

The academic year begins with the artists-inresidence presenting to the student body their interpretations of this underlying principle. Student reviews are conducted by the entire faculty. Throughout the year, faculty lectures, reviews, and critiques augmented by a very active visiting artist program guarantee a constant, open, lively exchange of ideas.

 

Edgar Mosa
Untitled, 2010
wood
26 x 34 x 8

Change, however, does occur. The metalsmithing department, a bastion of excellence in craftsmanship of both unique and mass-produced objects, has over the past five years experienced a quiet revolution under the direction of its current artist-in-residence, Iris Eichenberg. Previous Cranbrook faculty working in metals have included Arthur Neville Kirk, Eliel Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Richard Thomas, and, most recently, Gary Griffin. Each had a distinguished career at Cranbrook, establishing legacies of exquisite forms using primarily materials and techniques associated with metalsmithing. Essentially, they all worked within the accepted metalwork genres: ecclesiastical and/or functional wares, flatware, architectural adornment, and jewelry. While many of Cranbrook’s early artists-in-residence were from abroad, from the mid-1930s until 2006 the entire metals faculty except for Kirk trained in the United States, where postwar makers are viewed as having been more interested in technique and craftsmanship than their European counterparts, who stressed concept above all else.

Eichenberg, who trained and subsequently taught at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, brings a thoroughly European sensibility to Cranbrook. Her work has roots in Dutch contemporary jewelry with its concern with the body, materials exploration, and feminism. However, she was born and raised in Germany, and her work has also been considered within the context of post-World War II German art, particularly in relationship to the early work of Joseph Beuys that features personal iconography without a narrative component.3

Like the politically oriented art of many Germans of her generation, Eichenberg’s work represents her quest for identity and understanding of the events in her life. She has created a vocabulary of recognizable imagery to re-examine childhood memories and interpret adult experiences. She often combines multiple textures in one piece and her repertoire of materials is vast. Some pieces – primarily brooches, chatelaines, and neckpieces – like much European New Jewelry realize their full meaning when interacting with the body. Other objects and environmental sculptures included in her definition of metalwork have decorative art/design affinities referencing domesticity and daily existence. This approach, along with her propensity not to reveal the meaning behind her personal imagery, is instilled within her students.

Adam Shirley
Still Life, 2010
steel
80 x 96 x 58

 
As a teacher and practicing artist, Eichenberg communicates to her Cranbrook students the Rietveld philosophy that concept is paramount; materials and craftsmanship are used only to support it. One of the first jewelers to utilize knitted yarn forms, she encourages students to explore a wide range of materials and techniques. “Our work is not formed by technical skills related to one material but looks to the right materials to address concepts and ideas…. Materials are not taken for granted – they [the students] must question if this is the right material. This investigation gives them insight into their own handwriting – creates more possibilities to be identified and shaped.”4 Eichenberg sees craftsmanship as important but not an end in itself. Her many international contacts who participate in the visiting artist program reinforce this approach. In addition, Eichenberg schedules annual international student trips that usually consist of an intense round of studio visits. Teaching for Eichenberg is a journey with the students whom she calls her “partners in crime.” She works with them to identify current trends in the field that together they then challenge. This exhibition for SOFA CHICAGO is typical of Eichenberg’s pedagogical approach. The show was a departmental project for the students, whether or not their work was to be featured. With Eichenberg, they have handled all organizational responsibilities, including the development of the concept, selection of the artists, and installation design. True to the school’s belief in the interrelationship of the arts, they even discussed how the outfits they will wear while manning the booth at SOFA will reinforce the concept of their exhibition.

 

Gemma Draper
The silence I (brooch), 2006
antler, silver
3.5 x 3 x .8

The special exhibition for SOFA grew out of the realization that much of today’s metalwork focuses on collage. Believing that it is easier to make a cogent statement using a variety of materials rather than just one, Eichenberg and some of her current and former students have opted to produce a body of work from a single material, whether it be steel, silver, plastic, wool, wax, or wood. Inspired by a brooch carved from bone in 2006 by Gemma Draper, a Cranbrook alumna, they seek to “highlight the strict practice of using a single material, the interaction of the artist with that single material, and the transformation that occurs…of a single, malleable material into different states of being.” They can only use more than one material if they exhibit similar sensibilities. The show’s title, Monomater, supports the vision: “mono” signifies single, one, alone; “mater” has a number of meanings, ranging from matter or material to the Latin word for “mother” to referencing the membrane that surrounds the brain. Convinced that “alchemy and transformation is [sic] possible with any substance,”5 the students see this project as a potential catalyst for change within the field.

Believing that they will all significantly impact the field, Eichenberg has carefully selected the Cranbrook students and alumni featured in this show. Suzanne Beautyman, Gemma Draper, Rebekah Frank, Elizabeth Boyd Hartmann, Julia Heineccius, Younghee Hong, Shoko Kozu, Travis Lewis, Katie MacDonald, Edgar Mosa, Seth Papac, Adam Shirley and Amy Weiks are among those participating. While most are known for bodies of work formed by collaging diverse materials, a few, such as Adam Shirley and Younghee Hong, routinely work with a single material.

Having this special exhibition at SOFA CHICAGO is particularly meaningful. It presents visitors with a case study of the methodology of a vibrant educator whose energy and approach have put her institution in the forefront of her field today. In this marketplace environment, where for-profit galleries usually dictate the new talents to watch, it also presents another perspective on future leaders within contemporary metalwork – this time seen through the eyes of one of today’s most internationally respected makers.

Davira S. Taragin was formerly curator at The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Toledo Museum of Art and director of exhibitions and programs at the Racine Art Museum. She is currently serving as a consultant to the Ball State University Museum of Art in Muncie, Indiana, as well as curatorial consultant to the Dennis Gallagher estate.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2011 special exhibition Monomater presented by Cranbook Academy of Art; and the lecture “Three Jewelers on Monomater (single, one, alone: alluding to matter, material)” co-sponsored by Art Jewelry Forum and Cranbrook Academy of Art.

1. For Cranbrook’s history, see Robert Judson Clark et al., Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925- 1950 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983); Roy Slade, “The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Cranbrook Tradition,” in A Neglected History: 20th Century American Craft (New York: American Craft Museum, 1990), pp. 12 – 19.

2. Today in Cranbrook Academy of Art (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 2011).

3. For a discussion of Eichenberg’s work within the context of contemporary art, see Lisa Gralnick, “Start with the Wound: The Work of Iris Eichenberg,” Metalsmith 28, 5 (2008), pp. 34 – 43.

4. Iris Eichenberg, “Cranbrook Academy of Art,” www.artjewelryforum.org/blog, July 26, 2010.

5. Julia Heineccius, email to Anne Meszko, April 13, 2011.

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About SOFA CHICAGO

The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA) Fair in Chicago is the premier gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. On par with Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, SOFA is produced by Urban Expositions.

Critically acclaimed and continuously running since 1994, what distinguishes SOFA from other top art events is its focus on three-dimensional artworks that cross the boundaries of fine art, decorative art and design.  SOFA is noted for its exceptional presentation, with an elite selection of international dealers presenting for sale one-of-a-kind masterworks in handsome, custom-designed gallery exhibits.

SOFA is held annually in the fall at Chicago's major destination, Navy Pier, with an average of 80 dealers and 35,000 people attending.

SOFA CHICAGO / Tickets & Showtimes

Urban Expositions presents SOFA CHICAGO 2015 at Navy Pier's Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611) Nov. 6 - 8, with the Opening Night Preview Thursday, Nov. 5.

Day Date Hours Purchase Tickets
Thursday Nov. 5 7 pm to 9 pm Tickets ($50)
Friday Nov. 6 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Saturday Nov. 7 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Sunday Nov. 8 Noon to 6 pm Tickets ($20)

One general admission ticket of $20 admits visitors to the fair, related lecture series, special exhibits and events. $30 three-day passes and discounted student, senior and group tickets are also available. The public is also invited to the Opening Night Preview, Thursday, Nov. 5, 7 to 9 p.m. Preview tickets are $50.