A jeweller friend remarked to me that if you come across work in a jewellery show and can’t immediately recognise who made it, it is probably by Lisa Walker.
Based on the New Zealand artist’s retrospective at the RMIT Design Hub Gallery, this theory stood to reason. She wants to go to her bedroom but she can’t be bothered ranged wildly across materials, techniques and approaches. Each new object is wholly unexpected: will it be the size of a fingernail or the size of a torso? Crafted from silver or canvas or lumps of glue? Shell, stone, cardboard, fabric, wool? Plastic vegetables? Taxidermy ducklings?
At the heart of Walker’s practice is a refusal to be pinned down. Her work is described in the accompanying text as “a career-length conversation with the question, ‘What is jewellery?’”, a persistent dismantling of the notions commonly associated with the craft: wearability, durability, preciousness and skill. This exhibition spanned a 30-year practice and over 200 objects, from early experiments with wire and metal (Walker had rigorous training in goldsmithery) to the aforementioned ducklings, with everything conceivable in between. Works were often simply titled Necklace, Pendant or Brooch, which sometimes provided helpful clues as to how a thick, metre-long braid of red wool, an embroidered cushion or an assemblage of shoes might be intended.
In a previous iteration of this retrospective at Te Papa in Auckland, the works were formally arranged in glass cases – perhaps a requirement of the museum context. Here, though, the installation had burst joyously free of constraint. Some objects were hung on the wall at four or five metres high, their details obscured; knee-high platforms, some stacked at angles, required viewers to bend down in order to investigate the jewels and scrapings clustered there. The walls themselves were painted with huge irregular triangles in bold colours – yellow, purple, olive, blue – with paint strokes fraying at the edges, deliberately unmasked, in a gesture that declared them a continuation of Walker’s practice rather than simply exhibition design. I thought of these painted shapes as a series of wall-brooches, or disconnected segments of a necklace; they transformed the high-ceilinged exhibition space into a body adorned.
In a continuation of the dialogue inherent in Walker’s practice, curators Kate Rhodes and Nella Themelios programmed ‘All the jewellery’, an impressive series of 13 weekly workshops to accompany the main exhibition. These recorded panels and events – now available online – accumulated as videos in an adjoining gallery space, where the question ‘What is jewellery?’ was probed and turned inside out. A further insight into Walker’s process is articulated within the pages of An unreliable guidebook to jewellery, a book published alongside the show that functions as a text-based expansion of the gallery work. Book, exhibition and public program were all impeccably curated, rigorous and, frankly, joyful.
“It takes seriousness to make humorous work,” Walker says in An unreliable guidebook. This was a serious show with a wonderful sense of humour, fitting Walker’s ongoing commitment to articulating broad ideas through jewellery.
Lisa Walker: She wants to go to her bedroom but she can’t be bothered was shown at RMIT Design Hub Gallery from 29 January – 4 May.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.