On April 9, the renowned Massachusetts jewelry and design gallery Sienna Patti Contemporary will debut a solo exhibition by celebrated metalsmith and jewelry artist Lola Brooks.
“Story of the Eye: A Subculture of Ornamental Oddities” is composed of pieces fabricated from stainless steel chain wrapped around plaster cores. Hundreds of tiny, individual pieces of 14k gold solder were flowed between every link of the chain, essentially freezing it to itself.
From there, Brooks fashioned facial features on the pieces with studio detritus that she’s collected over the years, including glossy, realistic antique doll eyes. The finished pieces—textured metal hearts with humanoid features (and accessories including hair bows!)—could be construed as chilling or humorous, depending on your perspective.
We caught up with the Georgia-based artist, whose work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Arts and Design, both in New York, to talk about the exhibit’s fascinating pieces and her career thus far:
JCK: You’ve been working with Sienna Patti for two decades—why do you love showing there?
Lola Brooks: When I was a little baby jeweler fresh out of school, she had an emerging artist awards and I won it the first year. She’s an incredible person to work with, she has incredible energy, and we’ve become really great friends. The type of work we’re talking about, contemporary art jewelry, is so specific. And she’s the person to go to.
How did you initially come to jewelry?
I started out studying fashion at Pratt, but I quickly figured out fashion was not for me—the attitude and the gerbil wheel of production. I’m not a high-production person. Jewelry was in the sculpture department and I took my first jewelry class there.
How do you balance the innovative artistic work you do with your more commercial work for retailers such as Los Angeles’ August?
I have no balance. I zero in on one thing and completely drop the ball on the others. Then I drop that one and zero in on the other. For 16 years I was also teaching, so that was a whole other thing. It was really one of the great joys of my career. I imagine I’m pretty frustrating to work with—I’m one person, I have one assistant. I have no desire to be a big company and manage a bunch of people.
Talk to me about what inspired the new pieces in this exhibition.
I don’t even know where those pieces came from! Often I will find a material and I’ll think, This will never end up in my work. Over a decade ago, I found antique contact lenses, which were really weird. Then I found these prosthetic eyes, and then antique doll eyes. I started accumulating them.
Last year, Sienna approached me about doing a show of smaller pieces, since the bigger ones are so intensive for me. One piece can take six weeks. Eyes have been trending [in jewelry], and I don’t think it’s a mistake that people are far more interested in eyes than they have been in the past. Talismans, good luck charms, protective pieces—these are all really popular now.
These times are surreal and illogical and absurd.… These pieces I think of as a wayward subculture within my body of work. The works that came before them are larger, more poetic, and are asking people to reexamine the depth of cliches [pertaining to] love and romance and other things.
These new pieces feel faster and more immediate and a little bit naughty. They’re more direct and more anxious. And I think I was really anxious about them at first. The eye gazes hold you. The accountability of that gaze—what does it ask? We’re living in a time when entire canons of art are being turned inside out. What does it mean to look someone in the eye and hold them accountable? I think the pieces [touch on] on those ideas in a way that’s disconcerting, but also ridiculous.
Have you been consumed with current events this past year, and is that reflected in the pieces?
I had been consumed with current events for a few years—I have an autoimmune disease, and have had [periods] where I’m not working. When we went into lockdown…you could read all day and still not get at the truth. There’s definitely a level of paranoia in these pieces.
Are they wearable or exclusively art pieces?
They are all wearable, which is very important to me. These all fit in your hand. I love jewelry because of its reliance on and relationship to the body. It’s incredibly rich territory.
Top: A piece in Lola Brooks’ latest exhibition (all photos courtesy of Sienna Patti Contemporary)
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