It was a memorably mind-altering day, some ten years ago, when I first met the elusive, enigmatic artist Daniel Brush, and his wife and muse Olivia, in their vast Manhattan loft apartment. I love to retell the moment Brush emerged from his urban jungle of antique guilloché machines, dressed in his floor-length leather apron, huge leather gauntlets and magnifying goggles on an iron band pushed up over his brow.
Even more memorable is the moment, many visits and many stimulating conversations later, when Brush asked if I’d write a book about his jewels and jewel sculptures. There had, until then, been books on his paintings, on his entire canon, but nothing devoted entirely to his jewels.
It felt like a fantastic opportunity, but also a massive responsibility, to do justice to Brush’s awe-inspiring work as a goldsmith and jeweller, to convey the breadth, depth and complexity of his thinking, the philosophy and idiosyncratic world-view that underpins, informs and shapes his work. It’s best summed up, perhaps, when he says, ‘Jewellery is a vehicle to get closer to the gods, a conduit to allow dreams into our lives, into the maze of it all.’
Daniel Brush is eccentric, obsessive, reclusive and intense, with a mighty intellect and a childlike joy, serious yet playful; a fanatical collector, of objects as varied as medieval scissors, Victorian snuff boxes and 1970s watches, and an avid student of subjects as diverse as Japanese Noh theatre and Beat poets. He’s extraordinary, too, in that, as a goldsmith and jeweller, engraver, diamond-setter, he’s entirely self-taught. And despite the ingenuity of his skills, he believes that if the object ‘speaks with clarity’, the craftsmanship should completely disappear. It is lightness of spirit, not virtuosity, that he seeks.
Brush has a rare ability to move between creative disciplines, to be fine artist, sculptor, goldsmith, metalworker, jeweller, poet and installation artist, all with equal passion and reverence. For this reason, his jewels defy categorisation. He began making jewels as a hobby, as respite from the physical demands of his large-scale paintings and sculptures. He had been captivated by gold since seeing an Etruscan gold bowl in the V&A Museum as a young boy on a visit to London with his mother.
So, in the 1980s, he started his adventure in jewellery by tackling the ancient Etruscan technique of granulation, soldering minute gold grains to a gold surface. Having mastered this near-mystical skill, he moved on to more conceptual, sculptural works using steel, often melding its dark toughness with the illuminating softness of gold. He progressed to working in stainless steel and then aluminium, metals that fascinated him for their strength, history and engineering connotations, which enabled him to debunk what he calls the ‘total construct’ of the intrinsic value of gems.
He taught himself the art of engraving, in his characteristic obsessive way, studying for years, learning the intricacies of banknote engraving, making his own tools, exploring and experimenting. Until out of these industrial, masculine and mundane metals, he was able to coax and conjure up divine light, silky sensuality, organic or graphic line and form and exquisite, thought-provoking jewels and objects. Line, light and depth of meaning run like leitmotifs through the various series of jewels charted in the book. Once Brush finds a concept, a ‘big idea’ that challenges him, he works feverishly, handcrafting hundreds in each series, each jewel or object individual, yet connected in its message.
The book is arranged thematically, each chapter unravelling and reconstructing the meandering thoughts, the mercurial ideas behind each series, charting the journeys into history, into Mughal India or Imperial China, into Brush’s febrile imagination and worlds beyond.
There are the lilting, poetic steel poppies; the charming Loose Threads, made to mimic the squiggles of silk that end up on textile artist Olivia’s clothes at the end of her day; Animal Crackers, his menagerie of charming Bakelite and diamond-studded animals; and Thinking about Monet, where steel brooches summon images of Monet’s haystacks through a bewitchingly mysterious process of engraving that captures colours of sunrise and sunset.
There is also Cuffs, a series of steel bangles with provocative messages, and Necks, an unrequited ode to the neck in the form of an installation of 75 steel chokers, as well as the bead necklaces in Amber Kingdom, which pay homage to the glories of Mughal India, and Necklaces for the Empress Dowager, which are designed only to be worn when seated. And so much more, offering the sense of abundance and unfettered passionate joy that is a vital part of this cerebral body of work, so new, so different, yet so connected to 5,000 years of jewellery history.
I tried to write each chapter as if the stories behind each ‘big idea’ were being told by Brush himself, in his engaging, low-key, colloquial manner, sitting around his wooden table, with Olivia, in the stillness and expanse of the loft. Drawing us all into his world, changing our vision of the jewel. Pure alchemy.
This Wallpaper* article dates from 2020.
Daniel Brush: Jewels Sculpture, $65, by Vivienne Becker, published by Rizzoli Electa, rizzoliusa.com
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