Interchange: Bilk in Bangkok

Exhibition  /  31 Mar 2016  -  14 May 2016
Published: 25.03.2016

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In 2015 Bilk Gallery hosted a wonderful exhibition of Contemporary Thai jewellers from ATTA Gallery, Thailand’s only contemporary jewellery gallery. In 2016 we are delight be reciprocating and travelling to Atta Gallery an exhibition of selected Australian jewellers from Bilk’s impressive stable of artists. This collaborative interchange has not only an exciting opportunity for cultural exchange but also a way of opening up a broader discussion of approaches to making, materials and concepts.

Artist list

Helen Aitken-Kuhnen, Melissa Cameron, Simon Cottrell, Marian Hosking, Kath Inglis, Johannes Kuhnen, Mio Kuhnen, Carlier Makigawa, Laurah Nott, Sean O'Connell, Mark Vaarwerk
I have been looking at contemporary Australian jewellery for nearly 35 years. You might say it was love at first sight, but I have never been disappointed since: the field is even more rich, diverse and inventive than it was three decades ago.
It was the early 1980s. At that time, after more than 25 years of constant work, teaching and exchanging of ideas in several Australian cities, a small community of practitioners and enthusiasts had grown into a flourishing contemporary jewellery scene. The great developments occurred after World War II, when European immigrant artists and craftspeople carried modernist sensibilities and matching technical knowledge to this country. Soon the modern emphasis on inventiveness and conceptual clarity was passed to Australian students and colleagues, and a new and energetic community of jewellers was born.

This exhibition by eleven contemporary Australian jewelers, gathered together by Bilk Gallery in Canberra, encapsulates something of this Australian history in miniature; it presents both senior artists, and jewellers from the next generations, testifying to the broad range of philosophies of making, diverse interests, and great variety of methods and materials found in Australian jewellery today. More than that, Interchange suggests something of the open fluid exchanges that are the life-blood of contemporary art, not only within each community and culture, but also across seas and cultures. This exhibition reciprocates the exhibition presented at Bilk Gallery in Canberra in March 2015, titled Anew Negotiation, and continues an important and rewarding cultural exchange between Thai and Australian jewellers. 

Of the jewellers participating in the exhibition, many work in Canberra, the nation’s capital, with its lively art community. Johannes Kuhnen has lived there for decades, working in his studio and teaching generations of jewellers at the Australian National University. But he trained in his native Germany, and brought with him to Australia the rigour and technical mastery that distinguishes German making, especially skills in working metal and precious stones. After more than 30 years, Kuhnen is rooted in the Australian landscape, and Painting in Stone’, a new series’ using found local materials, harnesses natural stone as the key element in a refined and abstracted artistic vocabulary that took its initial inspiration from grand post-war American painting. The tiny flashes of brilliantly coloured titanium are distinctive to Kuhnen’s love of mixing of different metals: he often combines silver with colour. 

Senior artist Marian Hosking, based in Melbourne but showing regularly at Bilk, is similarly embedded in Australia’s natural environment. She makes attentive evocations of the continent’s extraordinary plant forms in silver, which is often oxidized, suggesting blackened brittle forms left behind after a dry hot summer, or perhaps bushfire. Hosking is an ardent researcher, haunting both wild forests and botanical gardens, and her brooches and necklaces show the remarkable variety of indigenous plants: pointed eucalyptus leaves, opened seed pods both large and small, bell-like wild blossoms. Hosking’s work is an affirmation of nature: to use her own words, this is a gift, ‘even if it is to one’s self’.

Carlier Makigawa, a senior and influential jeweller also living in Melbourne, makes works that summon natural structures. Unlike Hosking’s, her rings, brooches, earrings and neckpieces do not resemble actual elements from nature, but instead suggest structures, including the architecture of the human body and patterns of growth. Consider the three golden rings that Makigawa is showing here: they are perfectly and rigorously conceptual, rather like drawings in space, about the idea of what a ring might be. The ‘unplanned growth’ of their construction is strangely optimistic, though: I think of them as little viewfinders into the future. (I’d like to keep one of these close: perhaps it might help find ideas?) 

The fourth senior jeweller, Helen Aitken-Kuhnen makes both jewellery and glass sculpture. Her work with enamel over metal is exquisite, and prizing enamel’s translucent intensity, she also often uses glass for her jewellery.  Aitken-Kuhnen allows her love of colour to drive her making, looking around her in the landscape wherever she lives, or travels, for fresh inspiration. The ‘Beach’ brooches in this exhibition suggest the southeast coastline of the Australian continent, only two hours drive from Canberra and a landscape well-known to the artist. The limpid aquas, greens and golden oranges that she uses summon up shallow water in sunlight, playing at the edge of the vibrant land. 

Adelaide-based Kath Inglis is equally renowned for brilliant translucent colour. She has abandoned metal, however, working exclusively in her signature material of poly vinyl chloride, a flexible industrial plastic used for refrigeration screening and packaging, amongst many other purposes. Inglis has been indefatigable in her playful exploration of jewellery forms, including necklaces, earrings and bangles, in many dazzling shades and surface treatments. Her beautifully judged work is eminently wearable, and relatively inexpensive; what Inglis and her enthusiasts prize, then, is not the intrinsic value or prestige of this material, but its beauty and susceptibility to invention.

Similarly, Mark Vaarwerk explores plastic for making jewellery, though he repurposes industrial waste, making it beautiful in the process and giving a ‘second life’. In recent works he has used discarded plastics that were previously used for purposes as various as lunchboxes and computer keys, now manifesting as brooches, necklaces and beads. As Vaarwerk says, these materials hold ‘little unwritten histories of their own’ but when worn start ‘a new and less likely chapter’. HIs brooches composed of little cubes remind me of tumbling dice, and the unlikely chance that brought these particular plastics into the studio.

Now back to metal, an ancient and  fundamental jewellery material used for unexpected subjects, and in unconventional ways, by contemporary jewelers. Simon Cottrell, trained in Melbourne but now living and teaching in Canberra, has a sophisticated take on Modernism; he explores the conundrum of applying basic geometric forms, in rigid metal, to the surface of the human body. Always playful and thoughtful, Simon alludes to this linkage between body and jewellery when he asks ‘Aren’t connections the most fundamental part of jewellery?’ Clearly, this is much more than a merely physical question: it goes to broader matters of personal and social affiliation. 

Sean O’Connell also deploys prodigious skills in manipulating materials, making simple forms that nevertheless have enormous implications. O’Connell circles the body with sinuous chains, impressive bracelets and bangles and beautifully crafted and discreet rings. They all have secrets: the chains for the necklaces and bracelets are hand-made, and their uni-joint links are as supple as snakes, yet they owe most of their inspiration to the elegant movements of machines and motors; rings conceal small ball-bearings, that will move with their wearers. Most importantly, O’Connell prizes the intimacy of his making processes: one might say these things are made with love.

The last three artists in the group surprise with unexpected subject matter. Melissa Cameron, now living in the United States, has transformed the celebrated (and early) use of metal as weaponry into something lyrical. Reflecting on metal’s capacity to be made into either swords or ploughshares (as the old English saying goes), she makes what is almost a meditation in metal. When you look at the three pieces that comprise HEAT Array, you can plainly see that each element is co-dependent on the action of the other, worked under stress; there is strange beauty in this conceptual coherence.
Larah Nott, still an emerging artist, has built, in miniature, a series of Music Halls of the World. Each perfectly constructed brooch, in vibrant anondised aluminium, recapitulates the basic structure of a well-loved concert venue, like Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or Sydney’s Opera House: love of music connects with a passion for refined and abstract structure.
Finally, Mio Kuhnen, trained as a marine geologist, marries insights garnered from science with her love of making. Her recent series of brooches, ‘the chaos before the abyss’, evokes a physical location of great significance: the Murray Canyons, located five kilometres below the Southern Ocean off Australia, lead to a great plain in an abyss. It is impossible to know what lies there, but Mio’s brooches chart what we know of these magnificent canyons, paying tribute in miniature to their mystery. In the sheer diversity of the issues tackled by this group of of Australian makers, one glimpses future possibilities that will continue to expand the horizons of contemporary jewellery.

Importantly, this group of jewelers from Bilk coheres around its small but beautiful gallery space, providing a focus for the on-going sustenance of an artist’s community. After 15 years, Bilk is much more than a gallery: it offers a place to exchange ideas and inspire innovation, as well as a valued retail outlet for collectors. Similarly, ATTA Gallery is a hub of activity and ideas for jewellers in Thailand: I saw my first pieces of Thai contemporary jewellery in Canberra in March 2015, and was privileged to hear Thai jewellers speak about their work and their lives in Bangkok. Speaking for myself, but I think for many others, I look forward to many future decades of success for contemporary jewellers, both in Australia and Thailand, and to taking enormous pleasure in their achievements.

Julie Ewington
Contemporary Australian Art Writer and Curator


Opening 31 March at 18.30h

Gallery Hours
Tuesdays - Saturdays 13 -19.30h
Sundays 13.30-18h
Or By appointment
Closed Mondays and every 3rd Sunday of the month.
Johannes Kuhnen. Pendant: painting in stone, 2016. Basalt quartz, anodised titanium.. Johannes Kuhnen
Pendant: painting in stone, 2016
Basalt quartz, anodised titanium.
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Marian Hosking. Necklace: Black gum caps, 2016. 925 silver.. Marian Hosking
Necklace: Black gum caps, 2016
925 silver.
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Helen Aitken-Kuhnen. Brooch: Beach, 2016. Champlevé enamel, 925 silver, stainlesss steel pins.. Helen Aitken-Kuhnen
Brooch: Beach, 2016
Champlevé enamel, 925 silver, stainlesss steel pins.
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Larah Nott. Brooch: Walt Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles United States of America, 2016. Titanium, stainless steel.. Larah Nott
Brooch: Walt Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles United States of America, 2016
Titanium, stainless steel.
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Mark Vaarwerk. Brooch: Black/white hexagon ring, 2016. Expanded polystyrene food boxes, ABS, computer keys, sterling silver, stainless steel.. Mark Vaarwerk
Brooch: Black/white hexagon ring, 2016
Expanded polystyrene food boxes, ABS, computer keys, sterling silver, stainless steel.
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Sean O’Connell. Ring: Double balltrack, 2016. Brushed stainless, silicone nitride balls.. Sean O’Connell
Ring: Double balltrack, 2016
Brushed stainless, silicone nitride balls.
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