Earl Pardon: Palette Maestro

Earl Pardon: Palette Maestro


Earl Pardon, Ring, 1974
Collection of Earl Pardon Estate
Photo/Murray Riss.

Racine Art Museum
Racine, Wisconsin
April 13-August 10, 2008

Life has a way of letting you know that you are lucky. One of those ways is the satisfaction of working on something you love. The evidence presented in "Earl Pardon: Palette Maestro" reveals this honored practitioner as a lucky man through a lifelong engagement with the potential of jewelry. Curated by Rosanne Raab and presented in the elegant and spacious entry gallery of the Racine Art Museum, the survey of over 70 objects from four decades of jewelry, hollowware, flatware and tabletop accessories includes a vigorous bloom of work from 1990, a year before his death.

The exhibition, accompanied by an unfortunately thin brochure, provided some context for the work. Pardon studied painting and sculpture at the Memphis Academy of Art as part of the G.I. Bill, granting him the confidence to engage in all media. An attraction to jewelry drew him to the National Silversmiths Conferences in the late 1950s sponsored by Handy & Harman, but he remained largely self-taught. As a professor of art at Skidmore College from 1951 until his retirement in 1988, Pardon taught jewelry, painting and sculpture. During the 1950s he designed for Towle Silversmiths and Old Newbury Crafters; material investigations from this period expanded his practice. In the last decade of his life he focused on jewelry with the prodigious output of a piece a day.

A testament to the joy of making and the experience of using, the exhibition begins with jewelry works from the 50s though the 70s that embody an undeniable physicality. Big Neck, 1969, an intensely wrought affair of interlocking links supporting a silver and amethyst pendant, is immense and aggressive. Other pieces attest to a more refined sense of scale and structure, while embracing a thoughtful economy. A ring from 1974 features a delicate nest of gold wires supporting a bold plug of quartz, while another from the 60s is distinguished by a fringe of pearls poised to brush the skin of one's fingers. A neckpiece from 1973 includes a hovering mass of gold filaments with spheres of semi-precious color. The chain that supports this beautiful mess is ingeniously articulated of bits of gold wire, doing a lot with a little.

Simple elements create the architecture of this work, a lean palette of materials and processes used to create complexity, form and an essential ornamentation. Color is part of the composition, but in the beginning, it's more punctuation than language. The enameled panels from the 50s and 60s, framed into boxes and wall pieces, feel illustrative and contained. But enameled works from the 80s explode with a familiar strategy that allows color to work physically as well as formally.

A bracelet from 1987 is a dazzling convergence of parts. Juicy bits of enameled metal mixed with shell and stone create a tapestry of color and texture, at once richly ornamental and intrinsically structural. Spherical gold rivets provide a counterpoint, piercing the enameled surface while holding it in place. From the side, the piece reveals a substantial corporeality, each curved panel populated like a city block with enameled panes. A brooch and earring set from 1990 is a play on white, relieved from preciousness by an infectious sense of fun. Squares of enamel are painted with targets of red and blue, some with cross-hairs of black. Fitted with stones, panels of richly textured gold and tiny metal spheres, it creates a commotion of form, color and heedless happiness.

Pardon's work in industry, incorporating a range of materials including sterling, wood, enamel, stainless steel and plastic, is highlighted by the exquisite Elan flatware set, 1962, for Old Newbury Crafters. Forged from sterling billets by artisans Bob Lapham and Geoffrey Blake, it has a delicately planished skin, as subtle and active as the surface of water. The pattern evokes a tapering line blossoming into the functional familiarity of the bowl of a spoon, fork tines and a stainless knife blade.

A deep way of knowing emerges from "Earl Pardon: Palette Maestro." Modernist ideas about color and composition live within these works, but so does a rather antimodernist desire to ornament. An older understanding of aesthetics implies knowing things through physical sensation as well as through feeling. In this spirit, the metalwork of this master recalls the pleasures of knowing ordinary objects, collections of buttons or pieces of hardware, collages or the absurd abundance of plant forms, expressed with love and born through making.

"Earl Pardon: Palette Maestro" travels to the Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, November 6-December 19, 2008, and The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey, June 5, 2009-January 6, 2010.