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PENDANT of sterling silver, turquoise and ivory by Jack Boyd. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

San Diego’s Craft Revolution

california design


California is a state with an ambiguous identity: languid, without clear boundaries. Perhaps the best categorization the rest of the country has for California is that of the lazy surfer; the fact that most of the state is without that stereotype simply shows the straws at which people must grasp to create a personality for the Golden State. For both good and ill, this makes the West Coast broad but not precise; if one were to ask a Californian to define it, a clear answer would not be in the offing.

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NECKLACE of wood and leather by Barney Reid.

In the absence of a definition, the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time, a research project focused on postwar art in Los Angeles, has birthed a year of introspection into California’s identity through craft and art. At its location in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Mingei International Museum’s new exhibition, San Diego’s Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern to California Design, is a part of the Getty initiative.

While San Diego is among the state’s largest cities, it has never accrued the cultural notoriety of Los Angeles, or even the caché of a smaller city like San Francisco. The Mingei show puts a face to the artistic ingenuity of San Diegans, depicting a unique, developed and complex aesthetic, derived from aboriginal influences, the roughspun nature of Eastern European art, and organic lines and curves all too familiar to those who live on the border of beach and ocean.

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SILVER PIN by Ruth Radakovich.

San Diego’s Craft Revolution, showing through April 15, 2012, features a fairly comprehensive section of work from its resident jewelers and wearable artists; more than two dozen pieces are included. Barney Reid, Jack Boyd, Ruth and Svetozar Radakovich, Robert Matheny, James Parker, Arline Fisch, Jack Rogers Hopkins, Jim Sundell, and Marcia Lewis—with only ten names representing the totality of San Diego’s jewelry tradition in the exhibit, a personal connection to each artist is easily established. Many of these artists extended their work into other craft fields and disciplines. Enameled wall plaques by Jack Boyd, theatre posters by Barney Reid, and an undulating ivory white door produced by Svetozar Radakovich in conjunction with surfboard shaper Carl Ekstrom, reinforce one’s understanding that these artists had their hands in every facet of San Diego’s burgeoning artistic identity. It also drives home the realization that these artists, in a fundamental way, brought forth something from nothing—there was no San Diego style before these artists collaborated, constructed and created it.

As an attempt to paint a portrait of this aesthetic, it is interesting to compare the use of enamel by both Jack Boyd and Barney Reid, as well as the large pectoral necklaces the artists created. Their wall plaques, essentially paintings using enamel rather than pigment, are dream-like in their abstraction, Reid using modernist imagery that seems to loop back around in its primitivism to ethnic and tribal cultures. In Reid’s pectorals, this is even more clear from the representational human figures ornamenting his necklaces.Boyd, on the other hand, sticks to linear patterns and geometric shapes that in their repetition bear the hallmark of that same primordial tradition.

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HALTER AND DRESS of formed and fabricated silver fastened to printed velvet by Arline Fisch and Jack Lenor Larsen, 1968.

It is this quixotic annealing of cultures, modern and archaic, with a touch of the spiritual and a dash of psychedelia that results in the San Diego style.

The exhibition is not only exciting to those with an attachment to California, but well displayed. As a charming and eye-grabbing method of captioning the jewelry, Craft Revolution uses placards featuring silhouettes of the jewelry, below which is the information itself. Also highly commendable, and a newly emerging practice among California museums, is the use of bilingual display boards in English and Spanish.

Dave Hampton, the exhibition’s guest curator, has had a longtime interest in San Diego craft, starting from a local furniture gallery. He describes his work on the exhibit thus, “Learning about, meeting and documenting interesting and under-appreciated regional artists has been the focus of my life for the last several years. San Diego’s contemporary craftspeople, and members of the Allied Craftsmen group in particular, made unique contributions to enameling, architectural arts, body ornament, and furniture design during the important years of American contemporary crafts in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I think this is truly significant local history that has been largely forgotten and the exhibition and the book that goes with it is a big step toward acknowledging this history.”

A native San Diegan, Hampton was truly able to invest himself in the show. He remarks with pride the reception the exhibit has engendered. “One thing that stands out, after the show has been up and rolling for a couple of months, is how many, many people in San Diego are connected to the material and the people involved—it really touches a nerve and is especially meaningful for people who lived through the period and studied with the artists. It has been so rewarding to see their surprised and happy reactions upon seeing this ‘story’ acknowledged as rich and exciting.”




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