Behold the Buckle

An exhibition aims to show the possibilities of this overlooked item.

Behold the Buckle

An exhibition aims to show the possibilities of this overlooked item.
Christina Tyler, A Woman in Tuscany I

Christina Tyler, A Woman in Tuscany I, 2015, saltwater etching, chasing, and repoussé 

Courtesy of Christina Tyler

Consider the belt buckle.

Without it, your belt wouldn’t keep your pants up. But as an art object? According to some, only the hopelessly declassé – cowboys, steampunks, old hippies – view them as such.

Not so fast, says metalsmith Bryan Petersen. He and a changing roster of guest jurors have been selecting the best of the genre for the World Champion Belt Buckle competition (WCBBC), which he founded in 2012. Selections from the competitions are on view in the “Quadrennial” exhibition at Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh through August 25.

Mediums and techniques include metalsmithing, of course, but also include 3D printing, lapidary, plastics, fused glass on metal, stingray skin, and even a smartphone code that will take you to a recording of Queen performing “We Are the Champions.” The artists comment on narrative themes: gender issues, politics, technology, religion, mythology, mortality, and more.

As an assistant professor of art at Montana State University in Bozeman, Petersen has long been familiar with the American West tradition of the buckle-as-canvas, as well as what he diplomatically calls the “mixed views” on the format. He draws a parallel: “How many of us makers don’t think twice about brooches? Why is the buckle not the same as the brooch, which is like a small painting worn on the body?”

(Perhaps ironically, he hasn’t seen a huge response so far from practitioners of Western belt buckles, though he would like to see more; Pat Pruitt, a recent second-place winner, emerges from that tradition.)

The first years of the show were essentially online, with some pieces shown at MSU. The show at Contemporary Craft is the first time that selections have been exhibited beyond Montana. When Petersen was a visiting artist in at Contemporary Craft, he mentioned it to exhibition director Kate Lydon, who immediately leapt at the idea of a show, another in the venue’s series of adventurous exhibitions that embrace an expansive, open-minded view of craft.

Petersen is now planning another brick-and-mortar exhibition for summer 2019, this time in partnership with Form & Concept gallery in Santa Fe. He expects to put out a call for entries in early spring. Watch the WCBBC site and its Facebook page for updates.