The light-bulb moment for Liz Swig’s latest project came as she viewed the photographs of American artist Catherine Opie at Thomas Dane Gallery in London at the end of 2017. ‘I had always known Cathy’s work to have an old-master quality,’ says Swig. ‘But I distinctly remember standing in front of her oversized oval photographs, thinking how cameo-like they were.’

Swig, who founded Lizworks in 2014 as a platform for creative collaboration with contemporary artists, approached Opie to ask whether she would be interested in working together to reimagine her portraits in another form. Opie was impressed by Swig’s 2016 project Charmed (W*215), a charm bracelet encompassing works by seven leading female artists, and agreed immediately. ‘Charmed was an incredibly beautiful piece and after an initial conversation with Liz, I was sure she would take care of my ideas,’ says Opie. ‘I had been making these portraits that I always felt were a conversation with cameos anyway, especially when I started making the ovals with the black background. I really wanted to make something contemporary in relationship to the cameo, to bring the cameo back.’

Swig has always loved the idea of making the traditional contemporary. It was the guiding principle of Charmed, and with Cameo, as the new project is called, she reinterprets one of the oldest forms of portraiture, dating back to the ancient Mycenaean civilisation, when the profiles of the Gods of Olympus were carved in agate. ‘I set about asking people where to find a carver who could realise the project,’ Swig says. ‘I visited Torre del Greco in Naples, where shell cameos have been produced for centuries, but it wasn’t easy to find someone to produce original designs. In the end I discovered Gino Di Luca, a third-generation cameo maker from one of the oldest family firms.’

Lizworks Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman’s Spa, 2017, sardonyx shell cameo brooch set in 18ct light pink gold with white, pink and grey pearls, edition of 15. Photography: Alessandro Sorci

As the project progressed, it occurred to Swig to invite Cindy Sherman to collaborate. ‘Cindy is always in my mind,’ she says. ‘She designed one of the pieces for Charmed and I felt much of her work could translate as a cameo.’ Swig was particularly keen on Sherman’s Instagram account. The wildly distorted mock self-portraits, created specifically for the social media platform, have sent the art world into a spin. ‘I love their cartoonish wackiness,’ says Swig.

Luckily, Sherman also likes cameos. ‘Especially the idea of dark, strange ones,’ she says. ‘I also like the idea of tiny objects being art.’ She felt the Lizworks project would be a good use for her Instagram images since the files are not large enough to blow up to a bigger scale. ‘It will be fun to wear one as a piece of art,’ says Sherman.

The Lizworks Cameo collection comprises limited-editions of a pendant (above) and two rings by Sherman; and a set of cufflinks, a brooch, a ring, plus a standalone piece by Opie (top), which can be worn as a pendant if the buyer is so inclined. The pieces are carved in sardonyx shell and set in 18ct pink gold, some bejewelled with precious stones and pearls.

‘I think cameos are not only portraits, but allegories,’ says Opie. ‘I really liked the fact that the carver was going to interpret my work with his hands, and, especially with the piece Self Portrait / Nursing, he was creating a new way to read my body because he was creating something three-dimensional.’

Swig is most excited by the tactile nature of the final pieces and the stories they tell. ‘As with all my projects, I have a sudden feeling that this is right for now,’ she says. ‘I am often asked whether I consider myself to be making jewellery. The truth is I don’t. I am working with celebrated contemporary artists to make limited-edition art pieces that reflect the moment. But I cannot find a true distinction. As long as they sparkle and shine, I know I am doing something right.’ §

As originally featured in the June 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*243)