Posted: 26 Dec 2012
Helen Britton collects all manner of things. Small things. She is a jeweller, but her collecting is not limited to bijoux. In its scope it might appear to be indiscriminate, but her strategy of selecting and transforming the flotsam and jetsam of the natural world and the detritus of our urban lives is executed with the skills of an accomplished jeweller, with aesthetic discernment, with wit and, I would say, with love.
Hold your breath and take a quick glance at a garbage dump — it is filled with myriad shapes and textures, colour, light, reflection. Markets are full of both trash and treasure. Low tide reveals a trove of small and fascinating shapes, and, significantly, there are the routine materials of jewellery — silver and gold, diamonds and rubies — and the artisan’s skills of cutting and shaping, joining, setting. These are Britton’s raw materials.
We have satin bower birds in our garden. I observe the disparate items with which the male enhances his bower: the top of a biro, a clothes peg, a milk bottle cap, twisted drink straws, a scrap of paper, a piece of ribbon, another piece of something or other — a kind of random selectivity — anything, as long as it’s blue.
Britton’s selection of the items with which she constructs her brooches, rings and necklaces does not appear to be totally random. Her jewels, though sometimes dissembling as glorious clutter, are too refined in their aesthetic for that. However, she does exercise exceptionally egalitarian preferences for materials: agate, brass, coral, diamonds, electrical wire, glass, gold, glue, nylon, paint, pearls, plaster, plastics, rubies, sapphires, silver, wax, wood, and numerous elements and artefacts from her treasury of found objects.
Bricolage is a term I use specifically — meaning work created from diverse resources, from a variety of available things. The medium of jewellery is ideally suited to bricolage; it is embedded in its genes. Britton’s jewels acknowledge this heritage. However, the particularity with which she selects her components and the artistry with which she crafts her jewels far outrank the rather derogatory term associated with the slapdash approach to makeshift handiwork found in flea markets. Some — brooches in particular — are blatantly sumptuous and joyous tangles of disparate elements. Others operate in a more restrained, elegant, occasionally almost austere mode. Her chosen bits and pieces are arranged with serious intent, with wit and delicacy, and the objects themselves are constructed with the remarkable aptitude for small-scale engineering long associated with jewellery making.
With her brooches, rings and necklaces, Helen Britton celebrates and refashions the historic role of the jewel as an agent of delight for wearer and viewer, and, let us not forget, for the maker — the jeweller herself. It is clear that the magic we discover in her work is conjured from her treasury of components-in-waiting with joyous devotion. In her use of found objects, as well as traditional materials, she dredges the deep history of jewellery, both materially and symbolically, at times creating new jewels from old. The uses of recycling, objets trouvés, and bricolage have a long history in this art form. The earliest jewels are thought to be beads made from shells, probably around 100,000 years ago. Since that time jewellery has been made around the world from almost every known material — gathered, grown, mined, refined, fashioned and refashioned — and has adorned every imaginable part of the human body and type of clothing.
An accomplished colourist, Britton revels in the aesthetic and affective possibilities offered by the full gamut of hues and tones of her materials. “The colours drew me down like lollies. I experience colour as a sensation in the mouth … ”i The anomalous juxtaposition of elements in her conglomerates is sometimes cohered by colour, either carefully selected from her treasury or applied in the form of paint. Some, particularly brooches, are audacious riots of unrelated forms and colours; others display more studied or harmonious forms and colours, are more muted, or more chic in their colouration.
This artist’s work flourishes at the intersection of more than one paradox. At a glance, her jewels evoke a kind of jubilant, baroque splendour; however, they ring, not with the elaborate echoes of baroque counterpoint music, but the multifarious reverberations of post-punk; and closer scrutiny reveals her use of elements arising from our flagrant consumerism. She might despair at our profligacy, but there is nothing desolate about her joyous encrustations. At first glance many of her pieces appear as chaotic clusters of incongruous elements, yet they are stringently controlled — massed together and balanced in an architecture of very particular forms. With both delight and grave observance, she acknowledges the vapid inundation of our lives with ‘stuff’ and counters this by providing in her work a wholesome integrity. And somehow, in spite of its ostensible flamboyance and decorative demeanour, her work escapes comparison with the florid and saccharine flummery of rococo art, rescued by its edginess, its dissonance, by its almost-ugliness, by the artist’s sure aesthetic and her urbane sense of present time and place.
Helen Britton’s jewels both reflect and reflect upon a range of environments and concerns, from evocations of night-time and daytime to variations on the formal elements of her structures, from pearly light on the ocean to the stark and destitute angularity of industrial sites, from the burgeoning world of the garden to the drape of a garment, from the dispassionate nature of matter to the minutiae of human behaviour.
Her meticulous and passionate scrutiny of the world around her and her joy in the materials offered by that world lead her to celebrate what might pass unnoticed, or might be considered unworthy of consideration: a cluster of snails, bits and pieces washed up by the high tide, a corner of scaffolding, miniature glass animals, a discarded plastic something or other. Inspired by her encounters with these environments and working from her photographs and her drawings, from her personal mythologies and memories, she builds small worlds for our enchantment — microcosms which celebrate and honour the origins of her materials and the radiant, intricate realm she has inherited as a jeweller.
i Helen Britton, Perth, November 2010
Helen Britton is exhibiting at ANU School of Art Gallery, Canberra, 30 August–9 September 2012.
Images from top:
Helen Britton, Cornucopia, Brooch, 2012, silver, plastics. Photograph Helen Britton.
Helen Britton, Crash, Ring, 2009, silver, paint, diamonds. Photograph Simon Bielander.
Helen Britton, Boxes and Components, Necklace, 2010, silver, gold plate, plastics, shells. Photograph Simon Bielander.
Helen Britton, Grey with Diamonds, Brooch, 2007, silver, paint, platinum, diamonds. Photograph Simon Bielander.
Helen Britton, Blueorange, Brooch, 2010, silver, paint. Photograph Helen Britton.
Helen Britton, Lonely Boy, Brooch, 2004, silver, fake pearls, glass, diamonds. Photograph Simon Bielander.
Helen Britton, Tumble, Brooch, 2008, silver, paint, plastics, glass, emeralds. Photograph Helen Britton.
Helen Britton, Metropolis, Brooch, 2007, silver, paint, plastic, glass, shell. Photograph Simon Bielander.
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