February 3, 2011

Q & A with Nora Atkinson, Curator of "Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard" – Part I

Nora Atkinson, Curator at Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, curated the current major exhibition, Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard, at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. She was kind enough to answer some questions over email about the show.

HCCC: The general public may not be familiar with how an exhibition is conceived and organized. Can you explain why you approached Lisa Gralnick, what first drew you to her work and, inevitably, how the exhibition came together?

NA: My first encounter with this body of work was at the SOFA Chicago Convention in 2008. I was transfixed by the piece, Chastity Belt Necklace—first by the object: the beauty of the delicate gold links in harsh contrast with the menace of the hair and barbs, then by its anachronistic caption.  It was among a few pieces from the series that Lisa was showing at the fair, and it pulled me into her booth to investigate further and talk with her about her work.  She was giving a lecture the following morning, so our Artistic Director/Chief Curator, Stefano Catalani, and I took the opportunity to listen to her speak, and it was just after the lecture that we began discussions about the show. 

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part III: Victorian Chastity Belt Necklace.
Recycle gold, hair.23” x 2” x 1”. Photo: Jim Escalante.

It was a very serendipitous meeting, since it seemed like the ideal moment for an exhibition of Lisa’s work.  A well-known jeweler with an impressive body of prior work, she was reaching the end of a monumental conceptual project that had spanned seven years and gone beyond the usual bounds of jewelry to explore something completely unique.  She had always hoped that the pieces would be shown all together. 

We discussed the prospect of the exhibition with Lisa on the spot, and then concreted the plan for the exhibition over the next several months, flying her out for an interview and site visit, locating and arranging the shipment of the pieces, and working on the catalogue with a talented team, which included writers Tacey Rosolowski and Michael J. McClure, and a wonderful photographer, Jim Escalante, who photographed the works for long hours, even as the last few were being completed.  Although Lisa’s prior work is worthy of a mid-career survey, it was a conscious choice to show this body of work as a single, separate exhibition on its own.  The recession had just begun to hit, and I felt that although the artist has dealt with many of the same issues throughout her work, this series, which is at its heart a meditation on value, deserved to take center stage and felt too important and relevant to current events in its own right to be placed in a larger historical context. 

HCCC: This exhibition is framed in three parts.  Obviously, this is partly chronological, but it is also grouped by theme.  Why is it important that the artist is exhibiting this show in three parts?  Why not three different exhibitions?

NA: The question is a good one.  As you can imagine, in working on the same project over the course of seven years, Lisa has displayed parts of the series alone along the way. The simple answer to this question would be that the work was always conceived of by the artist as a single series, to be shown together, but more than that, I think the works are individually stronger for their connection. 

In Part III, for example, the pieces themselves are opulent and full of individual societal commentary, but they don’t go conceptually as far without thinking of them and questioning them in the terms of value that Part I sets up as a framework, or the context of gold as simultaneously being immutable and ever changing—able to maintain its brilliance through the ages and retain the knowledge of human history, while at the same time able to erase the past and leave no trace of its previous incarnations—as set up through Part II.  Similarly, the labels, which are laser inscribed in Part I and gradually slide to typewriter in Part II, and to handwriting in Part III, are a good example of the kind of subtle manipulations Lisa makes over the entire body of work that would be lost without the whole.  Without other labels to compare these to, they seem less deliberate, but this intentional juxtaposition, or others, like the use of vitrines—sparingly in Part I, not at all in Part II, but present in Part III—add a rich subtext to the work.

Lisa Gralnick, The Gold Standard Part I: #11 Tiffany Ring.
Gold and acrylic. 2” x 40” x 16”. Photo: Jim Escalante.

And not only does Lisa use these devices differently, but she addresses many of the same subjects from different angles, as she has often done in her oeuvre, and her larger meditations are always present, even in her very specific investigations.  The huge tiffany ring she presents us in Part I is interesting when played off of The Jeweler’s Revenge in Part III, where the form of the ring appears again, and countless such comparisons arise within the work. 

Although the title of the series refers to The Gold Standard, the exploration is about much more than this face value:  Lisa not only calls into question the essential and assigned qualities of gold (the express purpose of the work), but also all aspects of what we, as a society, place value upon, and how that value is derived. Any single part of the series would be an incomplete mediation on this subject.

Exhibition Information

  • Lisa Gralnick: The Gold Standard
    On view at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
    4848 Main Street. Houston, Texas 77002
    January 22 - May 28

  • To view images of the Opening Reception and
    Lisa Gralnick's Gallery Talk, visit our Facebook Page

  • To read Part II of our interview with Nora Atkinson, click here.

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