Lisa Walker’s audacious, anarchic jewellery practice is underpinned by tensions; between the rigour of her early training and her refusal to accept its limitations, between the function of adornment and the lure of the unwearable, and between the preconceptions of wearers and her increasingly challenging expectations of them. Confronting, unconventional and delightful, her internationally renowned works redraw the margins of contemporary jewellery in rewarding and imaginative ways.
Given the deliberate rawness that defines her current practice, Walker’s early training was surprisingly formal. Born in Wellington, she studied Craft and Design under German-born tutor Georg Beer at the Otago Polytechnic from 1988-9 and was also influenced by Swiss-born Kobi Bosshard, who established Dunedin’s ground-breaking contemporary jewellery workshop Fluxus with Steve Mulqueen in 1983. Two of a small number of European-trained jewellers who transformed the art form in New Zealand in the 1960s, Beer and Bosshard advocated a modernist approach based on traditional gold- and silver-smithing processes. As Walker has recalled, “when we needed silver, we had to melt our own granules and make sheet or wire, [there was] lots of forging”. The invaluable grounding in both technique and professional principles Walker received during this period would prove crucial to the practice she later developed, which drew on the conventions of jewellery-making in order to expand and subvert them.
After a year spent traveling in Australia, Asia and the UK, Walker moved to Auckland in 1992. The following year, with Areta Wilkinson, Helen O’Connor and Anna Wallis, she founded the Workshop 6 collective, which would soon grow into a significant presence in the contemporary New Zealand art jewellery scene. When she attended a lecture about Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts, given by two of its then-students, Australian Alex Murray-Leslie (co-founder of the radical art music ensemble ‘Chicks on Speed’) and German jeweller Karl Fritsch (now Walker’s partner) she saw an opportunity to expand her practice within an international context. She decided to relocate to Germany to study at the Academy with Professor Otto Kunzli, one of the most internationally respected figures in contemporary jewellery.
During her first year at the Academy, Walker worked solely in metal, making pieces that were small, and getting smaller by the day – in a 2011 video interview made by Fran Allison, she laughingly recounts Professor Kunzli’s tactful, but repeated suggestion: “Perhaps a little bigger?”. Gradually, though, she began to resist the conclusiveness of worked metal, instead seeking out unexpected materials that oscillated between their original function and the characteristics they might assume when mediated by expectations, memories and desires. Epoxy glue was one of the first of these reclaimed substances to make its presence felt. Viewed with distaste by those who regarded subtle soldering as a hallmark of any proper jeweller, its conversion from a largely invisible joining agent to an overt compositional element was a clear statement of Walker’s intentions. By incorporating objects that connected to origins and functions in the real world beyond the rarefied environment of the studio, her new practice would focus on the future, rather than the past. Enticed by leftover droplets of epoxy drying on a workshop chair, she began to add them to her pieces, at first with a care and precision that elevated them to the status of precious stones and later, when any lingering pretence of politeness ebbed away, as thick, sticky gobs that oozed outwards with a provocative, celebratory unctuousness.
The use of glue opened Walker’s work up to the incorporation of other found materials, signalling a philosophical as well as a material shift. Plundering Munich’s hobbyist and haberdashery supplies, she began to create what New Zealand historian Damian Skinner has described as “baffling and charming” miniature panoramas; parallel, altered universes that obeyed their own compositional logic within brooch and necklace forms. The realities of Walker’s chosen media – which, unlike other art forms, required her to conform (at least loosely) to certain practicalities of scale, volume and attachment, made this decision-making process even more complex; ironically, as her aesthetic became less obviously ‘skilful’, her creative decision-making was intensified. Over time, she began to explore arrangements that were less about unexpected objects on brooches and necklaces than unexpected objects as brooches and necklaces. Their function as adornment was signalled in increasingly minimal ways; a simple pin, a plaited loop. This new conceptual focus put less emphasis on technique and more on Walker’s ability to recognise the curious quality found in some everyday objects she has described as ‘resonance’: “I’m interested in odd forms – very recognisable, but they have to have a twist about them.” Honing her identity as a New Zealander in Germany, she relished how her outsider’s perspective heightened her observational skills, opening her eyes to the potential of ‘ordinary’ objects she might have missed in a more familiar setting.
As she began to incorporate a cornucopia of ‘non-art’ materials, from felt and cardboard to animal fur, toys and stickers, Walker soon appreciated the boundless possibilities offered by this new approach: “I knew it was a way of working that would interest me for life.” Gradually, her works began to assume a larger scale, seemingly echoing the creative freedom unleashed by this conceptual shift. It lent them a new toughness; as though they required this increased physical presence to allow them to claim a space in the chaotic, complex world of the everyday to which they were now more tangibly connected.
This transition from the precious to the ordinary reached a watershed in 2004, when Walker cemented her reputation as an iconoclast with a series of brooches made from rubbish that had gathered on her workshop floor. The ultimate accumulations of non-art materials (in the sense that they were made entirely of objects initially discarded by the artist), they were an elegantly provocative extension of the Duchampian premise: that anything can be art if it is made by an artist. Perhaps their most unexpected and striking aspect is their delicacy – like materials sucked together as the result of some invisible elemental force, or hoarded by a diligent bowerbird, they contain a fascinating amalgam of debris. Some fragments – an old nail polish bottle, a scattering of fine metal findings – are recognisable; others are intriguingly enigmatic. Ironically, the obsolescence that connects them has itself expired; they a found new purpose the moment Walker fused them with glue and hung them on a plaited cord. Like glistening palimpsests that not only still time, but distil it, they take on a new gravitas as the physical evidence of hours worked and decisions made. Their spiky ambiguity would become something of a trademark of Walker’s practice, which gains much of its impact from the degree of discomfort it elicits: “I’m always interested in how this tension between oddness and beauty and my interpretation of what beauty is. It’s about creating something that has a tension to it.”
Since her return to New Zealand in 2009, Walker has continued to interrogate the boundaries of contemporary jewellery; carving a little more space into what might be possible with every new work. Trip to Europe 1973 (2011) originated with a mixed lot of travel mementos – tickets, maps, invitation cards – she bought on the online auction site Trademe. There’s something strangely wistful about this bundle of documents, lovingly collected by a New Zealand couple in Europe then sold off decades later as a self-contained cache of memories. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate recipient than Walker, just back from years in Germany and reacclimatising herself to a country with a tradition of regarding ‘culture’ as something that happened a world away.
Resisting what she has described as jewellery’s ‘usual recipes’, Walker’s works are relentless in their reshaping of our expectations. If plastic in its ‘raw’ form can be incorporated, then how about plastic pieces that carry with them their own identities and histories, like ‘boggly’ stick-on eyes, Halloween fingers or Lego figurines? If traditional jewellery can transform gemstones, precious metals or taonga like pounamu into adornments, could this new generation of jewellery be stretched to accommodate the ‘treasures’ of contemporary culture, like trashy magazines, amateur artworks or even a laptop computer?
In Walker’s words: “The physical definition of jewellery is limitless. This is up to the maker to interpret and translate however they wish. You could make a piece that is made up of string embedded into the earth, the earth is the end of the pin and the other end of the string is worn by someone.” In challenging conventions, Walker also challenges audiences; hers is not an art form to be admired from a safe distance, but one to be adhered to a body, part of the identity its wearer presents to the world. There’s a reason Walker’s works are beloved by collectors and critics alike: they carry their insurgency with such nonchalant exuberance that they are both uncompromisingly revolutionary and a joy to wear.
All images: Lisa Walker
Artist: Lisa Walker is an internationally-acclaimed New Zealand artist/jeweller/designer who works primarily in the area of contemporary jewellery. She participates regularly in exhibitions and other projects around the world, and her works have been acquired for significant public and private collections here and overseas. In 2010, Walker received the prestigious Francoise van den Bosch Award, widely regarded as the world’s leading jewellery prize, and in 2015 she was named as a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate.
Writer: Felicity Milburn is a curator at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Most recently, she curated ‘Unseen’ for the reopening programme of the Gallery following its earthquake repairs, and wrote more than 20 essays for the Gallery’s latest Collection book, 101. She is currently working with artists Lisa Walker and Billy Apple on individual projects and preparing an exhibition on the paintings of Doris Lusk.