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Artful adornments

Tom McCarthy's wearable art, on display in Largo, is a successful marriage of the common and the precious, the strong and the delicate.

LENNIE BENNETT
Published March 18, 2004

LARGO - Metal is tough stuff. So is concrete. Artist Tom McCarthy uses both materials, along with river stones, granite and wisps of hair, in his surpassingly delicate and sophisticated work that is labeled jewelry more for its function than for its form as wearable sculpture.

A selection at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art demonstrates what compatible and unexpected partners can be found in marrying pearls with rubber tubing and steel with a clay bead. McCarthy uses conventional material, too: lots of 14 karat gold and sterling silver, precious stones, jade, even expensive additions such as diamonds and rubies. This jewelry, though, is about as far from bling-bling as you can get.

Much of it is cerebral to the point of being conceptual. Bonita's Necklace is a series of graduated granite beads separated by silver pendants shaped like stylized axes, a reminder that this elegant work began by being wrested from the rough and tumble of a quarry. McCarthy casts smooth concrete, tinted by a vein of oxidized steel, into a rounded silver frame for Rhonda's Pendant. It, too, makes a philosophical point, with the rust a memento mori and a reminder that decay is as much a concomitant of vanity as beauty.

Some of the work is ingeniously crafted to serve multiple roles. A reversible gold necklace of plates interspersed with spikes is plain on one side, set with diamonds on the other, and hung at its center with a pincer-shaped pendant that can be detached and worn as a brooch. A tiny, three-panel silver screen is a decorative piece. Unhinged, the delicate, open-worked components can be worn as pendants or pins.

McCarthy's aesthetic has become increasingly minimal. But even the earlier, more elaborate pieces (such as an exquisite hairpin of silver, nickel and copper), which play with the sinuous lines of art deco or the curves of art nouveau, have an ancient austerity we associate with Greco-Roman artifacts. Untitled (Brush Fibula) is a complex construction of forms that includes a small brush. It looks like a compressed, abstract interpretation of the contents in a toiletries kit and is beautiful. So, too, is Untitled (Fibula), like the former pin crafted so the attaching mechanism is part of the design, not soldered onto the back.

One of the most unconventional pieces is Julia Pendant, a necklace made from slender rubber tubes, dangling at one end with pearls and fitted to a curve of silver that allows them to cascade over one another. It's a play of bright and dark, black and white, common and precious, that would look as good accessorizing an Armani sheath as a Gap turtleneck.

And that is what McCarthy never forgets in this work. It appeals in the display case, but it comes alive only when used and worn. Most of the pieces were commissions; all his work is one-of-a-kind. I know many of the lenders to this show and have seen the jewelry around their necks or on their lapels. And each time, I and others have been compelled to bend and examine them closely. The difference here, now that they're briefly in a museum, is that we can do so without risking rudeness.

* * *

Another exhibition of the metalworker's art, sculptures by Jean-Claude Rigaud, are also at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, lean and clean headlines compared with McCarthy's calligraphic strokes. My first impression of them was that they seemed dated in their references to Alexander Calder and Joan Miro, but they've grown on me. If they're sometimes overly obvious, they are at the same time winningly witty.

Welcoming Image to Guest turns a romantic dinner for two on its side, constructing a table setting vertically in stainless steel, including two rolled "napkins." Rusted metal takes forms suggestive of chair backs shaped like hearts, gathered around and under a large steel circle - the table - framing a china plate and holding knives and forks. It's all topped by what looks like a streamlined presure-cooker, putting a lid on the evening, so to speak.

Other sculptures are not so literal. Composition in Square and Composition in Circle are fugues using those two elemental shapes as a binary vocabulary that reiterates a central theme in multiple ways.

* * *

Both Gulf Coast exhibitions are among a number offered at local museums and galleries in conjunction with the Society of North American Goldsmiths conference that began Wednesday in St. Petersburg. About 600 artists who work in metals are attending lectures and workshops. It is the largest convening of jewelers in the world and the first time it has come to Florida, local organizer Gini Rollins said.

Area artists are rolling out the welcome mat. St. Petersburg's Downtown Art Association is holding a second monthly gallery walk, on Friday, so visitors can get a taste of the local scene, and the public is, as always, invited (participating galleries are listed at left). Special shows of art and craft in metal will be at the Arts Center, Florida Craftsmen Gallery, Shapiro Gallery, Confident Gallery and Red Cloud Gallery. A free trolley service will run between 5:30 and 9 p.m. during the walk.

The Florida International Museum has a student metallurgy show that can be viewed for free in the lobby that evening (the other exhibitions there require paid admission), and the Museum of Fine Arts will display silver and gold objects from the permanent collection (admission required). The Nancy Markoe Gallery on St. Pete Beach, not on the Friday tour, also has a special jewelry show.

-- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

REVIEW

"Tom McCarthy: The Art of Adornment" is at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through April 18. "Jean-Claude Rigaud: Defining Spaces" is on view through Aug. 8. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students, free for children under 12. Free admission Thursday. (727) 518-6833.

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