Karin Jones: Bringing jewellery into the contemporary art discourse

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Throughout the years, Vancouver based multidisciplinary artist Karin Jones found a way to bring the jewellery object one step further into the realm of sculpture, installation, and even performance, thus transcending our most common understanding of jewellery and body adornment. At the dawn of her much anticipated solo exhibtion (body of work), opening on November 1st, 2019, at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, Jones took a moment of her time to discuss her practice, her approach and the way she inscribes herself and her work in the field of contemporary art jewellery, and the broader field of contemporary art. Dealing with the way that historical narratives shape our sense of identity, her work poses a complex set of questions without providing any specific answers. The objects of adornment she proposes are exposing the period of enslavement of African peoples through an unsettling reference to restraint devices, and become a vehicle for exploring her own relationship to this story.

You were originally trained in traditional goldsmithing and worked in the field for several years. How did you become interested in pursuing a concept-driven jewellery practice?

I had actually been interested in concept-driven work since my jewellery studies in the early 1990’s. We had been taught in school that jewellery was also art, and were encouraged to express concepts through our work. However, when I left school, I found that when I did try to do this, the public just wasn’t interested, and only saw jewellery in terms of fashion and aesthetics. Mind you, the concepts I was trying to express at the time weren’t very well developed, but somehow I gave up and decided just to make pretty things instead.

The relationship between the jewellery object and the themes you are exploring is quite direct, as it relates to the body, thus opening the door to a discourse about the objectification and exploitation of bodies of colour. How do you feel about jewellery’s potential to become a strong vehicle for strong and complex messages, in other contexts?

I think any medium can be a vehicle for complex messages, as long as they’re done well. The problem that I’ve always found with jewellery is that it is almost always displayed in a commercial setting. Therefore, it is difficult to convey to the public that it can be more than a fashion object. Even contemporary art jewellery often becomes a means for the buyer to express their individuality and taste, therefore taking it one step further from the artist’s own expression. I think there is huge potential for jewellery to be a conversation starter, but we have to acknowledge that it is different from other art forms because it is always performed by an end user. With this work, I decided to remove an actual wearer from the equation, and leave the wearing of it in the realm of imagination.


Since the beginning of your master’s degree at NSCAD University in 2012, questions of race and identity, as well as notions of perception, both of self and of others, have had an obvious presence in your work. Looking at it now, do you feel like that was an underlying theme in your past work, consciously or unconsciously?

That’s a good question. I think a lot about the fact that often art conveys something very different from what the artist says it is about, and this can often reveal deeper issues and emotions that the artist is often not conscious of. I think of it as a kind of blind spot. Therefore, I can’t see this in my earlier work. I would have to ask others if they think it’s there!

A lot of things can be read in the way that your display the pieces from the series body of work, including a sense of erasure and a reference to anthropological and ethnographic museum installations. Do you consider the display of your pieces as being part of the work, or does it act as a support or complement?

I think it is both. For a long time, I thought that there were ideas that were too big to express through jewellery, which is why I turned to other media like sculpture and installation. But when I decided to take on the challenge of expressing these concepts through jewellery, I knew I would have to address some of the barriers to showing the work in a contemporary art context. Public art galleries and artist run centres are spaces of contemplation, and I think when work is shown in this setting, viewers automatically start to think about the concepts behind the work, in a way that they wouldn’t in a commercial gallery. Since most of these spaces don’t have display cases, I think jewellery can be rejected just for the mere fact that the gallery doesn’t have a capacity to show it. Additionally, the display case and plinth have their own baggage and meaning attached, so I decided to approach the mounting of the pieces as part of the work itself.

The panels on which the pieces are displayed are wood panels sold in art supply stores for painters. I thought it was a bit of a joke on the art world to use these, to say “okay, so you think jewellery isn’t art? I will put it on a painting panel, and maybe you’ll take it seriously!” But on a more serious note, it could also be seen as a reference to the absence of the black body in portraiture and in the history of western art. And indeed, the pieces are a kind of portraiture of people who have remained anonymous throughout history.


How do you feel about exhibiting your work in a gallery like La Centrale, Galerie Powerhouse, whose mandate does not focus on craft or object based practices whatsoever?

It’s very exciting and rewarding, as this is one of the goals I had for this work- to bring it into the realm of contemporary art to be able to discuss it as such. I remember telling a friend at a conference a couple of years ago, “I just want to change the way the art world sees jewellery.” And I remember his response was “Well good luck with that!” While I get that this is a pretty lofty ambition, I think I have taken the first step, and I hope others will continue it.

What kind of potential do you see in reaching such a new public?

I think the potential is huge. I often find it sad that there have been exciting things going on in contemporary jewellery for decades, but if you’re not a jeweller yourself, and don’t follow Metalsmith, or Art Jewelry Forum, you would have no idea of it. While I know there are some serious collectors out there (I have no idea who they are or how to find them!), I think the insularity of the art jewellery community is quite limiting.

As you express it yourself, your work raises a lot of questions, but does not provide specific answers. What kind of reactions do you hope to get from the public?

The work really is about trying to convey the complex relationship I have to my own identity as a descendent of enslaved peoples. I really hope the public will feel some of the emotions I have about this narrative, on a more visceral, non-intellectual level. And maybe they will even start to understand what it is like for visible minorities, to know that certain assumptions are made about you and your history, whenever someone sees the colour of your skin, your facial features, or the texture of your hair.



1- “Yoke”, detail. Steel, dried corn, leather, silver, brass, cord. 2017. Photo credit: Anthony McLean

2- (body of work) installation view. Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax. Photo credit: Katarina Marinic

3- “Pendant”, detail. Leather (re-purposed horse tack), human hair, corn, silver, brass mount on wood panel. 2018. Photo credit: Anthony McLean

4- “Dread”, detail. Steel (hand-forged), human hair, brass, leather (re-purposed horse tack), brass mount on wood panel. 2018. Photo credit: Anthony McLean

Cover image – Photo credit: Eydis Einarsdottir

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