Visual Art

The Razor Sharp Protective Ornament at Tacoma Art Museum

Catch the modern look at artistic armor and weaponry before it's gone.

By Seth Sommerfeld January 13, 2015

Debra Baxter, Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles (mosh safely), 2013, quartz crystals, sterling silver, 5 x 4.5 x 3 in.

It doesn’t take a deep perusal of pop culture to see that there’s an aesthetic appeal to violence. It offers up plots for prime time drama, box office fodder, and countless hours of video gaming. Protective Ornament: Contemporary Amulets to Armor at Tacoma Art Museum examines various aspects about how we defend ourselves from the violent world via fresh artistic takes on armor and weaponry. It’s not simply about how we shield ourselves physically, but also how we shield ourselves from ideas (for better or for worse).

The exhibit opens with two Parker Brown helmets that are played for sharp satire. The artist takes a shot at immigration injustices with This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Your Land, a steel morion (Conquistador-style helmet) baring the official seal of U.S. Customs and Boarder Patrol. It is paired with In Defense of Ignorance, a hounskull (knight’s helmet with pointed beak) that lacks eye and air holes and is inscribed with the words “Against logic there is no armor like ignorance.” The ironic tone cares over to the exhibit’s exploration of amulets and the idea that they play on a wearer’s faith to repel danger. Fallen Warriors by Robert Ebendorf makes luck feel like a byproduct brutality, as the single silver necklace features 16 traditional animal charms like squirrel paws and a chicken’s foot. While not played with a hint of comedy like the rest, Boris Bally’s Brave 3: Necklace looks beautiful from afar but chilling upon closer examination as it becomes clear the intricate piece was crafted from 100 gun triggers.

There’s a mildly unnerving elegance to many of Protective Ornament’s pieces. The brass knuckles collection reimagines violence as something rough, natural, and beautiful via Debra Baxter’s Devil Horn Crystal Brass Knuckles (mosh safely) and as a byproduct of love with two wedding ring creations: Kat Bauman Mess’s Til Death Do Us Part and Wedding Anniversary Ring by Kenneth MacBain. Alexandra Chaney’s ball-worthy neckpiece of draping pink syringe tips Repel: Aprilophobia draws strength from making the object of fear (aprilophobia is the fear of needles) into tool for defense and works on a second level with the idea of medicine and vaccinations being a form of protection.

Protective Ornament additionally explores the inequality that arises from the detrimental ways society sometimes attempts to safeguard women. Flora Book comments on female objectification with Armor for Joan of Arc. The thin, slinky, knitted silver chainmail, essentially offers no defense and looks something that’d be more at home in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue than on a battlefield. The restrictions of women’s sexuality is touched upon via Paulette Myers’s lavish silver and copper Chastity Belt which twists the female form into some sort of detached treasure, and “The Injector” Anti-Rape Device by Ira D. Sherman is a nightmarish curving contraption crafted from steel, brass, glass, and garnets that seems pulled out of a science fiction horror. On a more positive, optimistic feminist front, Nancy Worden’s Literal Defense transforms aluminum cookware (cookie sheets, pots, etc.) into a breastplate inscribed with quotes from great thinkers defending the arts.

The strength of the Protective Ornament lies in the way that each piece assumes its own identity. They’re rich in layers of meaning and address a variety of issues while still fitting the general thematic push. It’s fortified art for an assailable time.

Protective Ornament: Contemporary Amulets to Armor
Thru Feb 1, Tacoma Art Museum, $14

Parker Brown, The Defense of Ignorance (helmet), 2009, steel brass, bronze, leather, cotton, wood, 16 x 16 x 18 in.

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