Suite on David Watkins

Published: 26.01.2006
Mònica Gaspar Mallol Mònica Gaspar Mallol
Mònica Gaspar
Edited by:
Sd edicions
Edited at:
Edited on:
David Watkins. Body Piece: Interlocking Bodypiece 2, 1976. Steel. Photo by Michael Hallson. David Watkins
Body Piece: Interlocking Bodypiece 2, 1976
Photo by Michael Hallson
© By the author. Read Copyright.

In his work he rehearses every possible variation, uniting chance and calculation, intuition and method, all as if it were musical improvisation.

Foreword catalogue "David Watkins: Encounters".
Texts by Barbara Cartlidge, Mònica Gaspar, David Watkins. Barcelona: Sd edicions, Hipòtesi joies , 2004.

Versión en Español - Spanish version      View / hide description

Je n’ai jamais encore enregistré un disque dont je sois pleinement satisfait mais, bien plus, je n’ai encore jamais joué exactement comme je désirerais le faire.
/ Thelonious Monk, interview in Jazz Magazine, 1963

Nothing can be further from such a discouraging statement: that constant challenge to create. The search for perfect composition and a grand passion for music were actually the greatest motivations for Thelonious Monk, pianist and composer. Rejuvenating jazz in the ‘50’s, he became famous for his own personal improvisational style, which was both sober and sensual, with daring dissonances and an innovating use of silence.

In the same way that silence is one more element in Monk’s particular and sonorous architecture, so is extreme formal purification a way of aspiring to the essential in David Watkins’ jewellery. Since the 1970’s, Watkins has consolidated himself as one of the most important reformers of jewellery. Through his three-way activities of artist; head of the goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalwork and jewellery department at London’s Royal College of Art; and author of books and texts on contemporary jewellery, he has become a key player in that international trend which conceives the ornament as a stimulating field for both plastic and conceptual investigation. Watkins declares himself to be a disatisfied enthusiast, just as does Monk, one of his preferred composers. So in his work he rehearses every possible variation, uniting chance and calculation, intuition and method, all as if it were musical improvisation.

The greater part of Watkins’ work turns, almost literally, on the geometrical shape of the circle. His unmistakable pieces to wear round the neck, which have characterised his work since the beginning of the 1980’s, celebrate this mythical and perfect shape in numerous combinations, sometimes circling the neck as if in orbit, trailing through space.Despite their rigid nature, these pieces rest harmoniously on the shoulders. With a solemn and ceremonial air they evoke for us those rounded breast-plates decorated with glass beads of the Masai, or those antique gorgets that were so typical of 16th century European apparel. While these sculptural objects merely insinuate their potential to become ornaments, we also observe that the artist specifially avoids using the word ‘necklace’ in order to indicate their independence. These artefacts affirm their autonomy defiantly, through the absence of any fastenings either within themselves or to the body. At the same time they seduce us by the immediacy with which we are able to appropriate them once passed over our heads. We are invited then to make the last choice when Watkins reveals the secret life of pieces which are ambivalent by nature.

The Torus series, with its archaic resonance, presents haughty ornaments for the neck: metallic or acrylic discs whose radical simplicity evoke the cold beauty of a machine. Nevertheless, some of them do exhibit on their overall surface a pattern inspired by nature - whether from leaves or drops of water - that bestows a unusual decorative quality. The use of pattern could apparently seem against Watkins’ principles, given his close alliance to the Minimalist tradition. However, such a dilemma is resolved by resorting to webs and fretworks, which are at once decorative and yet inherent to the very structure of the pieces. We see a will to incorporate some kind of warmth. An emotion which softens their otherwise formal austerity. Needless to say, Watkins’ basic concept is that of understanding ornamentation as symbol rather than decoration. The leaves or waterdrops are therefore abstractions of nature, iconic elements which configure the inherently symbolic language of jewellery. We then discover that these works go beyond the materialisation of formal concerns, by way of a technological aesthetic based on geometry.

This unadorned style, with its technical rigour and the challenge to be expressed in the strictest formal simplicity, all leads towards a highly intellectualized kind of jewellery, which is at once both romantic and idealistic, aspiring to intemporality and universality.

Again, the circle, inexhaustable leitmotiv, sets the rythmn in the Wheel Pin series, in a whole show of Watkins’ fertile artistic personality. The circle as a disc symbolises the sun, the heavens and the cosmos in general, complete with connotations of immobility and plenitude. The circle as a wheel suggests dynamism, the sun’s celestial chariot, the passage of time... Both of these images interact and fuse as one, in order to provide the starting point for his recent work, which mainly comprises of brooches. The brooches differ from the bracelets, which go over one’s arm, or the neckpieces that go over the head, in that the brooch possesses an impenetrable frontality, a distance which wraps it, in relation to the body, in a sacred aureole. A theme evolves around the serene, radial structure of these pieces - a vibrant combination of cut-out silhouettes, waves, lines, even the human figure. Whether from the Leaf Pins or the Encounters, from each new variation emanates simplicity’s magnificence, as in the rose-windows found in a cathedral. These booches fulfill a role similar to those hypnotic and artful oriental drawings which invite contemplation and meditation by way of an aesthetic pleasure, just as a delicate mandala of the finest gold structure might do. Sometimes the pieces have a specific title such as “The Heart of it” or “The Entertainers” which alters and intrigues our perception, perhaps even suggesting some background music, as in the brooch “Königin der Nacht”, where a character in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is evoked. The association between titles and abstract composition is somewhat enigmatic, as if to suggest sounds through images. In order to make sure that his music was appreciated in a more authentic, spontaneous way, stripped bare of prejudice, Erik Satie inserted unusual comments into his scores so that the interpreter’s ego would be thrown off course : “ like a nightingale with toothache”, “lost”, “ while one washes one hand “...We can therefore appreciate a certain irony, a combination of musical, literary and visual references, as well as a highly stimulating eclecticism which Watkins has also applied in his trajectory as musician, sculptor and goldsmith.

Parallel to the investigations made in the Wheel Pin series, new works have appeared which break the static harmony of the brooches, releasing the latent movement lodged there. The series of neckpieces called ‘Orbits’ map the path of gestural outlines, along with other elements, which in turn expand and become superimposed in perfect rotation. It’s not difficult to imagine a voyage to the sun or movements made by the planets as references, when wearing such portable microcosms round one’s neck. Further to this, it’s also inevitable, given Watkins’ love of music, to find a poetic conception of the universe evoked, such as in the philosophy of past Pythagorans. According to Pythagoras’ theories, the existence of a “harmony between the spheres” was affirmed, whereby a sublime sound, quite imperceptible to the human ear, was provoked by movements within the planets. The Orbits series of neckpieces seem to capture that cosmic beauty which arises from numeric harmony. The will for precision, together with that already mentioned enthusiastic disatisfaction, drive Watkins beyond mere contentment at his own magisterial deployment of the goldsmith’s craft. By incorporating digital and other new technologies into the design and making process, he continues to be a pioneer, always showing himself to be eager to combine tradition and technical innovation. In Paul Valery’s “Eupalinos ou l’architecte”, one of the characters declares that the greatest freedom is born of maximum rigour. This wise affirmation is constantly exemplified by Watkins. Eupalinos classifies buildings into three categories: first, the mute, that is those totally lacking in interest; second, those that speak, possessing a ‘plastic’ eloquence and showing a reciprocation between form and function. The final category is for those that sing, and is the most elevated. These possess the gift of grace. If Watkins were an architect, his buildings would undoubtedly sing, so let us therefore enjoy his music.

© Mònica Gaspar Mallol, Barcelona, September 2003.