Metalsmith Magazine

Deborah Aguado
A Perceptualist’s Use of Image and Enigma in Jewelry
by Akiko Busch
Metalsmith,

Stone, metal and space compose the careful balance in Deborah Aguado’s work Her first geometric formalisms constructed in metal were devel­oped in 1973 when she partic­i­pated in a gold­smithing seminar at the Akademie fur Bildende Kunst in Salzburg, Austria. They resulted in a series of two-inch metal squares, called Constructions I, II and/​/​/​. In retro­spect, Aguado sees these as “process pieces.” She real­ized that sketching on paper could not reveal the density, hard­ness, propor­tion and the effect of the third dimen­sion that the metal construc­tion would.

Her concerns evolved into the study of perspec­tive: geom­etry altered by distance, time and space. A perceptualist’s interest in the “moon illu­sion” (when the moon appears to be closer to you when you see the horizon) became a formula for a new series. Railroad tracks are usually used to depict two parallel lines converging and the rail­road tracks became the leit motif on which the “ Night Train series devel­oped.

In 1981, Aguado was asked to develop a program for the American Craft Museum to cele­brate its 25th anniver­sary. As program director of “Craft in Process” and artist in resi­dence in metals that summer, she devel­oped a body of work, primarily the Night Trains. Witnesses in the form of working assis­tants and observing public and a 10-week time frame provided vital rein­force­ment.

Besides refer­ring to place­ment in time and space, the Night Trains can be either a literal rail­road iconog­raphy or they can depict a grill, cowcatcher, refer­ence to a tunnel or dream rail­road yard, where advancing or receding trains have been trans­lated into jewels. A large circular stone suggests a head­light; the mark­ings of an agate refer to a land­scape; the vanishing point is suggested by the grad­u­ated linear design of a silver trape­zoid.

Aguado develops her work on graph paper. This grid system becomes the format for the vanishing-point draw­ings to which the Night Trains relate. These angles made by the converging lines of the drawing deter­mine the size and propor­tion of the piece of jewelry and its poten­tial place­ment on the drawing. The Night Trains are wall pieces when not being worn.

In the Facade series that followed, “a reper­toire of the patterned surface” evolved from the grad­u­ated and geometric linear elements that had formed the Night Train series. And though more abstract and less illu­sion­istic, this series continues to study the effect of surface pattern and plane. While the Night Trains were explicit illus­tra­tions of perspec­tive, what followed are more allu­sive studies of surface.

The severe linear elements that had suggested land­scape in the Night Train series are exploited in the Facade series for their pattern, which when cut apart and repo­si­tioned with added dimen­sion affected a new planal integrity. Planes were deter­mined by the various compo­nents, Aguado explains “in the way one might appre­hend surfaces of the city land­scape as affected by light, move­ment and one’s posi­tion.” The juxta­posed planes and subtle angles are affected by the reflec­tions of light they cast upon one another. They are defined even more, however, by what Aguado calls “viewer posi­tion depen­dency”: Assorted planes attract light as the viewer, or wearer, changes posi­tion.

Facade III is a further reduc­tion of Facade II. Having the same 18-karat gold triangle and silver stripes as in the earlier piece, this study has been made more luxu­riant with the use of gems. Fourteen-karat pink gold, copper, nickel, silver, a pink tour­ma­line and a green citrine compose a piece richer in color, but one simpler, more reduc­tivist in form. A textured square surface gradates into a triangle, and that to a series of smaller squares and stripes. Facade IV is an even more concise conclu­sion in its series of reduced trian­gular planes.

While these inquiries into space, light and distance suggest that these pieces could be models for larger sculp­tures, one is inclined to agree with Aguado that their current scale is satis­fying. She further observes that were these pieces to be trans­lated to a larger scale, a form more appro­priate than sculp­ture would’be archi­tec­ture. Although she has built two- and three-foot sculp­tures, she found their mate­rials — steel cable, plex­i­glass and aluminum — less provoca­tive than the gold, silver and precious mate­rials she had become accus­tomed to. The inti­macy and precious­ness inte­gral to her smaller pieces were lost.

Nevertheless, the precise sight­lines, viewer posi­tion depen­den­cies and engi­neering feats that some of her forms and angles suggest continue to convey archi­tec­ture. Penzoil l is a refer­ence to Philip Johnson’s Penzoil towers in Houston. These two monu­mental towers stand with a narrow strip of air between them: Depending on the viewer’s posi­tion, they can appear to be connected or to have a column· of air sepa­rating them. Aguado’s piece evokes the same enigma, though more inti­mately. A wall of 18-karat gold fronts a column of oxidized silver. Their connecting line depends upon where you are. Topped by an elegant magenta alexan­drite, the piece is minimal yet opulent and luxu­rious, conveying an exotic contra­dic­tion and balance.

Aguado’s pieces begin with rough sketches which she trans­lates directly into metal. Despite their final preci­sion. there are no precise render­ings or models. “The metal itself is so infor­ma­tive,” she explains “that models rendered in other mate­rials which would forfeit its weight, color and balance would be extra­neous at this stage.” Yet when she feels she is not clearly visu­al­izing the piece, she will make notes about what she feels the final piece should convey. Proportions are easy to sketch; visual illu­sions are not. Through words describing the intended visual effect, supple­mental mate­rials such as gemstones or acrylic are selected to convey the idea. She concludes: “Since heavy mate­rials are used metal and stone primarily — I continue to strive for an effect of visual deli­cacy.”
Aguado creates rings to convey similar visual enigmas. She has constructed a large, man’s ring, for example, as a silver box shaped to fit the finger. Where a stone might be, a mixed-metal plane recedes into the face of the ring. In another, a large, murky pearl has been set simply inside a silver box, as one might place a spec­imen in a labo­ra­tory case. She presents the mineral clin­i­cally, candidly. “If the interest is the rarity of the mineral or spec­imen, I don’t want to intrude.”

Aguado enjoys using rare and unusual stones which are either natu­rally phenom­enal or unique in their cutting. She feels that when a client purchases a piece made by her with a stone cut by Bernd Munsteiner, whom she considers to be one of the best contem­po­rary gemstone cutters, they are in effect investing in the work of two artists.
Aguado balances her own studio work with private classes. She is a member of the faculty of the New School/​Parsons School of Design where she spends two days a week and has recently completed her master’s thesis, “A Survey of the Jewelry Industry and the University Curriculum toward Restructuring the Training of Artist-Jewelers for Career Opportunities within the Jewelry Industry.” “I’m inter­ested in three things,” she explains: “The educa­tion of young jewelers; the quality of the jewelry that is avail­able to the public; and that there is more work for univer­sity grad­u­ates in this field.”

A studio assis­tant and one intern from a univer­sity appren­tice­ship program usually assist Aguado in her studio. “For many reasons” she main­tains, “it’s rein­forcing for gold­smiths to have others around, to share in the agony and the joy…Because the concen­tra­tion of working at such a small scale is so intense, I find it comfort­able and rewarding to some­times have someone else there while working.”

Themes like those found in Night Trains and Facades are not orig­i­nally conceived as belonging to a series. Rather, the series develops from an initial idea or visu­al­iza­tion and continues, depending on what there is to sustain its growth. Currently, she is devel­oping a series of sushi jewelry. A brooch of oxidized silver inset with carnelian and hematite spheres still on her bench, has a glit­tery wetness and fresh­ness which clearly evoke salmon roe.
And there is the most recent piece, with a large 20-karat blue topaz cut by Munsteiner. The stone is held by a tapered baguette that pins it into a long slot cut in a silver wall. The slot is cut and tapered exactly to corre­spond with the cutting of the stone. Another wall of patterned silver topped with an 18-karat gold bar juts out of this silver wall at a 60 degree angle. The piece is a minimal, linear contin­u­a­tion of the planes and under­cut­ting in the stone. Two lines cross each other according to the stone’s config­u­ra­tion and then continue to influ­ence sugges­tions of congruent trian­gles. It resem­bles a monu­mental girder and refers to astute engi­neering skills.

In allowing the piece to emerge from the stone, Aguado demon­strates her recog­ni­tion of mate­rials that define their own terms. It is this contin­uing recog­ni­tion: the famil­iarity with mate­rial that permits the easy coin­ci­dence of economy and luxury; the effect of surface pattern and plane; the choice of mate­rial supple­mental to metal that enable her to achieve the visual enigmas so impor­tant to her work.