Thursday, January 3, 2013

Building on Ornamental History

Showcasing three solo exhibitions, Bridge 12 features the saw-pierced recycled objects of Australian metal smith, Melissa Cameron; Jacquard tapestries by New York textile artist, Betty Vera; and ceramic vessels patterned with quirky, figurative drawings by Kevin Snipes. These concurrent exhibitions reflect the high level of craftsmanship being produced by contemporary artists in the U.S. and abroad today.  The exhibition is open and free to the public November 9, 2012  through March 30, 2013.

Participating artist Melissa Cameron will visit SCC to teach Building Jewelry from Found Objects on Saturday & Sunday, March 2, 3 from 9 am—4:30 pm. In this two-day workshop, offered in partnership with Construction Junction and Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, she will guide students in the adaptive reuse of repurposed objects for the creation of wearable jewelry. Students will learn the skills of drilling and saw piercing to re-create the shapes and designs of their chosen found objects in their own uniquely fabricated, wearable artwork. 

The following essay was written by Marilyn Zapf on the work of Melissa Cameron for the Bridge 12 exhibition at SCC. 

‘ I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘‘pure,’’ compromising rather than ‘‘clean,’’ distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,’’...’ —Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966

     Hybrid, compromising, distorted, ambiguous: the patterns and elements Melissa Cameron creates for her Recycled Series flirt comfortably with a weighty lineage of ornamental history. Often drawing from archetypal decorative imagery, the artist nimbly transforms her designs from two to three dimensions.The finished pairs of objects are at once sculptural, aesthetic, functional, and structural, and result in a graphically striking and critically poignant contribution to a long-standing debate on the nature of ornament.
Tobacco Tin Set (Pin and Void Box, 2009
Painted recycled metal, mild steel, silver
     Writer and architect Robert Venturi theorized a particular type of relationship between decoration and a building’s façade. The play between various elements of an edifice, he suggested, should point to or imply unity. This preoccupation with a ‘whole’ formed through a network of parts is present throughout Cameron’s work on display at the Society for Contemporary Craft. 
     Architectural theory is useful when considering Recycled Series not only because of its overlap with ornamental theory, but also because the artist originally trained in the field. Her objects similarly reflect such programmatic techniques of making and interest in structuring space. 
Bamboo Plate Set (Pendant and Altered Platter), 2009
Recycled bamboo, stainless steel cable, silver
     Using found objects Cameron engineers self-supporting systems of pattern by piercing delicate, blueprint-like designs out of tin boxes, compact cases, and bamboo plates. The intricate fragments are then reconstructed into new forms that can be worn on a lapel or around the neck. Finally the objects are displayed side by side as diptychs or triptychs. The connection between the new structure, the Cigarette Case Neckpiece for example, and the Cigarette Case Void Pendant are still perceptible, even though both have undergone significant transformation. 
Cigarette Case (Neckpiece and Void Pendant), 2009
Recycled silver, stainless steel cable, silk thread
     The patterns crafted by Cameron are equally as important as the forms they create. Often the ornament is developed through derivative mutations of a single element—in many cases a rotated, elongated, translated, mirrored, or bifurcated quatrefoil. With its four symmetrically intersecting circles, the quatrefoil was a common architectural motif throughout the Renaissance and has provided a fruitful source of inspiration for the artist. The shape can be found in both Islamic and Christian designs, such as the Florence Baptistery Doors, and demonstrates how patterns change in meaning over time, reflecting shifts in cultural values and power. By employing such charged imagery, Cameron knowingly situates her work within such a historical narrative.
Red Tin Set (Pin and Void Brooch), 2009
Painted recycled metal, mild steel, stainless steel, silver
     Venturi would appreciate the ornamental lineage referenced in Cameron’s work through the use of quatrefoils, scrolling acanthus leaves, and Greek crosses. He was a proponent of pillaging the dress-up box of history to create new decorative compositions for his buildings; combining different parts of artistic genres to create a new ‘whole’.
     The relationship, however, between part and whole, fragment and original, are not always straightforward in Cameron’s work. Frequently both the found object and the structure created from piercing into it have been manipulated into what are arguably new entities. Take the Red Tin Set for example—the first pair created in this series. Not only is the spacious, red, radial structure wearable, but the remaining container becomes a brooch as well. So although viewers are confronted with two fragments of the original tin, they are simultaneously beholding two completely new objects. 

Cold Handle (Brooch, Altered Container), 2012
Recycled mild steel, stainless steel, vitreous enamel, silver
     ‘Difficult whole’ was the term Vernturi used to theorize the interplay between parts of a façade and the perceived unity of a building. Cameron’s work could also be described as such. Her jewelry is difficultly and technically constructed, involving significant amounts of skill to achieve. Her structural patterns are difficult to fit within previously held conceptions of ornament as purely decorative. But ultimately the finished pieces exemplify ‘difficult wholes’ because they successfully stage an exchange between objects and decorative imagery recycled from the collection of history.

Marilyn Zapf is a freelance writer and historian of craft and design. Former Editor-In-Chief of the blog, Unmaking Things, and recent member of the collective, Fig. 9, her work has also appeared in publications, such as Crafts magazine.


  1. Fantastic article. I love Melissa's work and I'm so glad to see she's going to be working with you.

  2. We love her too! She has been in several of our recent shows, including Transformation 8: Contemporary Works in Small Metals, and Badges & Buttons, Waistcoats & Vests - Curated by Bob Ebendorf and Elizabeth Turrell. I can't wait to meet her in March!