The in­spi­ra­tion for Aus­tralian artist He­len Brit­ton’s jew­ellery is en­hanced by her bower­bird ten­den­cies, writes Vic­to­ria Laurie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - He­len Brit­ton: In­ter­stices

Can jew­ellery be wear­able, beau­ti­ful and provoca­tive all at once? A lit­tle gold ob­ject sug­gests as much in He­len Brit­ton’s ret­ro­spec­tive show In­ter­stices at Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery in Perth. Brit­ton’s beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted work has an in­cen­di­ary qual­ity tucked some­where in those in­ter­stices — the small in­ter­ven­ing spa­ces — be­tween an or­nate pink bow and a crusted sliver of glass, all mounted on a mod­ern steel brooch.

Brit­ton her­self is “in be­tween”, says Ted Snell, who runs the gallery and who was also her su­per­vi­sor at Curtin Uni­ver­sity in the 1980s be­fore she left for Europe.

“Her his­tory is rooted in both Aus­tralia and Ger­many,” Snell says. “He­len’s work is a med­i­ta­tion on her own his­tory as she en­gages with arte­facts and en­vi­ron­ments that act as pow­er­ful trig­gers.”

The lit­tle gold ob­ject was in­spired by the same “trig­ger” that led artists, car­toon­ists and jour­nal­ists around the world to com­ment on the US elec­tion and Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory. In Brit­ton’s case, she chose to fo­cus on Trump’s op­po­nent, Hil­lary Clin­ton. “I can show you a piece that I made for Hil­lary,” says the artist, glid­ing across the floor of the gallery to­wards a dis­play cab­i­net. In­side are sev­eral small good­luck charms, the kind that hang from bracelets.

“I thought, ‘Oh Hil­lary, if only you had had this,’ ” says Brit­ton, grin­ning and point­ing. The lit­tle ob­ject is a tiny, per­fectly formed gold pe­nis with tes­ti­cles, de­signed to hang from wher­ever the wearer chooses to put it.

“It was for me a bit of a cheeky re­ac­tion to the sym­bols of luck, power and fear,” Brit­ton says. “I have to say since I’ve made this piece it’s got more at­ten­tion than any­thing else — even in the cat­a­logue, peo­ple stop at that page.”

Brit­ton’s sen­tence struc­ture has a faintly Ger­manic feel to it. It comes from hav­ing spent more than 15 years liv­ing in Mu­nich, shar­ing house and stu­dio with her jew­eller-artist hus­band, David Bielander, who co­in­ci­den­tally is hold­ing his own 25-year ret­ro­spec­tive show in his Swiss home town, Lau­sanne. The pair have an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for their re­spec­tive jew­ellery, draw­ings and in­stal­la­tions, and a ded­i­cated fol­low­ing from col­lec­tors of their art.

“Con­tem­po­rary jew­ellery is not as ev­i­dent in daily life here as it is in Europe, Amer­ica and Ja­pan,” Snell says. “It is re­garded very se­ri­ously over there in spe­cial­ist gal­leries.”

Brit­ton’s metic­u­lous pieces are made from met­als, glass, pre­cious stones and sourced com­po­nents. They can be found in col­lec­tions of the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York, the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, the Pi­nakothek der Moderne in Mu­nich, St­edelijk Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam and Art Gallery of West­ern Aus­tralia, to name a few.

“A lot of peo­ple who feel dis­tanced or over­whelmed by the fine arts,” Brit­ton says, “feel there is ac­ces­si­bil­ity to what we might once have called the crafts or the ap­plied arts, what­ever it might be … There is some­thing here very hu­man.”

The lit­tle pe­nis should not im­ply flip­pancy. Brit­ton is se­ri­ous about each piece and its prove­nance. Each one is as po­tently mem­o­rable as Ja­panese net­suke, lin­ger­ing in the mind and senses of who­ever the piece adorns.

“There’s a cheek­i­ness and a chal­lenge to the sta­tus quo but not an overt po­lit­i­cal state­ment,” Snell says. “He­len’s jew­ellery is not quiet. It has a voice and de­mands com­ment.”

Brit­ton has given a lot of thought to what con­sti­tutes jew­ellery: “I’m in­ter­ested in the very hu­man, very an­cient pa­ram­e­ters of what jew­ellery is, al­though within those pa­ram­e­ters there’s a fan­tas­ti­cally in­ter­est­ing field of pos­si­bil­i­ties,” she says. “You see con­tem­po­rary jew­ellery that is no longer wear­able — some­times it’s in­ter­est­ing in that it chal­lenges the idea of jew­ellery …” her voice trails off, sug­gest­ing this is not a path she chooses to go down.

“When I make jew­ellery pieces, they must be wear­able and con­form to a set of pa­ram­e­ters that means it func­tions as jew­ellery. But I di­vide my work up into dif­fer­ent ar­eas of in­ter­est.”

The breadth of her in­ter­ests ex­tends to an elab­o­rate minia­ture ghost train, com­plete with sound­scape, as­sem­bled on an el­e­vated track in the ex­hi­bi­tion space. The train of­fers “an el­e­ment of sur­prise, a re­la­tion­ship to my own child­hood mem­o­ries of the ghost train ride at the Royal Show”.

“I’m fas­ci­nated in the un­heim­lich, the un­canny,” she ex­plains. “What is the at­trac­tion about the un­know­able? Why do we want to ex­pe­ri­ence fear and fun? I wanted to find a way to im­merse my public in an ex­pe­ri­ence and an en­vi­ron­ment that is strange but has a pop­u­lar cul­tural ref­er­ence.”

Other fair­ground para­pher­na­lia has in­spired a se­ries of jew­ellery pieces dis­played nearby. Hang­ing in a frozen cas­cade are chil­dren’s rings from trin­ket ma­chines, cheap jew­ellery she re­mem­bers from child­hood.

“Girls that had gone with boys al­ways got one of these rings. Some­times their fingers were full of them — it was so sym­bolic of who you were and what you’d done, and it re­ally stuck with me. It ties in with the dark side, the un­heim­lich.”

It’s strik­ing that Brit­ton is re­spect­ful of ma­te­ri­als of all kinds, not merely pre­cious ones. Her in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion rests partly on her quest to in­cor­po­rate items from the past into con­tem­po­rary set­tings. She hunts down fac­tory com­po­nents of mass-pro­duced jew­ellery or dis­carded cos­tume jew­ellery items in re­gional towns. She “re-purposes” tiny items, such as a mass-pro­duced snake em­blem or crossed­gun mo­tifs, by mount­ing them in state-of-theart industrial mounts. The ma­te­ri­als, whether plas­tic or pre­cious gems, seem to speak to each other.

“She takes in­spi­ra­tion from ev­ery­where,” Snell says. “She’s al­ways find­ing things like buck­et­loads of but­tons in an old fac­tory in Amer­ica or huge num­bers of small plas­tic horses that were used in 1950s cos­tume jew­ellery. “In Ger­many they still have mit­tel­stand,” he says, “small in­dus­tries that are still vi­able and … em­ploy a lot of peo­ple. They make one thing very, very well … He­len takes them back to the stu­dio and thinks about how one thing re­lates to an­other.” “Value is a funny thing, isn’t it?” muses Brit­ton, as we ex­am­ine a brooch of branches and lightning-bolt de­sign set with rose-cut di­a­monds. “If you stand out­side Tif­fany’s win­dow you see a tiny di­a­mond and a weeny bit of yel­low gold, and be­cause it says Tif­fany’s you’ll be pay­ing $35,000. Di­a­monds aren’t in­trin­si­cally valu­able — it’s a con­struct that we’ve made valu­able. Trees are valu­able but we don’t see that.” It doesn’t mean she isn’t fas­ci­nated by the prop­er­ties of her ma­te­ri­als. “Gold is fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause it has a very spe­cific and unique prop­erty, as does sil­ver or di­a­monds, or sty­ro­foam.” Brit­ton started out at Syd­ney Col­lege of the Arts, then left to drive around the coast in 1987 to Perth. She en­rolled in Curtin Uni­ver­sity, where Snell su­per­vised her master’s the­sis in fine arts, and in her spare time she re­con­di­tioned cars from the wrecker. “It gives me an un­der­stand­ing of mak­ing and build­ing.” She was sur­rounded by the work of other tal- ented West Aus­tralian jew­ellery artists — Dorothy Erickson, David Walker, Eric and Rin­sky Carr, Car­lier Maki­gawa and Bron­wyn Goss, to name a few. “I had some very good teachers … I went out teach­ing to an out­reach pro­gram in Kal­go­or­lie. It was for­ma­tive.”

She left Perth to travel to Ger­many for post­grad­u­ate study with Otto Kun­zli at the Academy of Fine Art in Mu­nich be­fore set­ting up her own stu­dio 15 years ago.

“He­len’s is a lovely story of a home­town girl made good,” Snell says. “But she’s al­ways try­ing to make that con­nec­tion with home.”

Brit­ton re­turns each year to Aus­tralia to walk along the beach and gather seashells and in­spi­ra­tion. And some­where be­tween the two hemi­spheres — those in­ter­stices again — she cre­ates. Her love for Aus­tralia’s raw nat­u­ral places is re­flected in del­i­cate strings of shells and fish spines she has re­assem­bled into jew­ellery af­ter catch­ing and eat­ing the fish’s flesh.

Equally, she plumbs the depths of hu­man foibles in Euro­pean folk­lore, such as why we at­tribute luck to cer­tain things. Her gold pe­nis trin­ket sits along­side other tal­is­manic ob­jects shaped like black cats and witches. “It’s a fem­i­nist state­ment of sorts,” she says. “Cat, witches, women … Dur­ing the witch hunts, cats were also killed, which is why rats and the plague took such hold in Europe.”

“She’s liv­ing in Ger­many look­ing at this very long his­tory where ev­ery­thing has a pre­vi­ous use, a patina of the past,” Snell says. “She comes back and sees all these things freshly.”

As to whether the word jew­ellery closes the minds of peo­ple who don’t con­sider it a se­ri­ous art form, Brit­ton has a view.

“I would re­spond that their minds are lim­ited, but my mind isn’t. I thought we’d been through post­mod­ernism but ap­par­ently it must have been put on hold in some peo­ple’s heads. Why can’t this be as mean­ing­ful as paint­ing some­thing on a piece of can­vas?

“This is jew­ellery, this is real jew­ellery,” Brit­ton says, “but it is mo­ti­vated by a mul­ti­tude of things.”

runs un­til April 15 at the Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery, Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia, Perth.

He­len Brit­ton and some of her cre­ations, in­clud­ing Lucky Dick, top; Bones, Tracks, above; and Mush­room, be­low

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