Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Frames of Memory

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Until August 14, the Art Alliance hosts Memoria Aperta, the first solo show in the United States of work by multi-talented jeweler, goldsmith, and glass artist Barbara Paganin. Paganin hails from Venice, and the rich and layered references in her work speak to the eternal mysteries of La Serenissima, a magical city filled with glass and mosaic, memory and history. The works of Memoria Aperta consist of elaborately crafted brooches and neckpieces. While the brooches were shown in 2014 at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, the neckpieces are being shown for the first time at the Art Alliance. These monumental yet intimate works are a tour-de-force of the jeweler’s craft. Building on the fragments of memory evoked by the smaller-scale brooches, these neckpieces function like frames waiting to be animated by the bodies and memories of wearers and viewers.

Paganin’s titles for these neckpieces make the parallel to picture frames clear–indeed, one is even entitled “Cornice” (“Frame”). Likewise, allusions to memory are clear in titles like “Nontiscordardime” (“Forget-me-not”) and “Contenitori” (“Containers”). The neckpieces are composed to discrete units–delicately perforated oxidized silver compartments filled with a range of miniature objects–connected by small metal circles that look almost like the links in chain mail. Protective and talismanic, these neckpieces evoke their absent wearers, as well as the absent owners of the eccentric fragments that fill each compartment. Is this the absence brought about by death, or simply the absence of missing or lost items–a kind of lost-and-found in the form of jewelry? Paganin leaves these questions open, although the muted palette of soft purple, gray, and off-white evokes mourning and a Proustian nostalgia for times past.


One of my favorite pieces in the show is the playfully named “Sotto il cavolo” (“Under the Cabbage”). This neckpiece never fails to provoke a response in visitors. It consists of alternating fragments of romanesco broccoli preserved in dental acrylic, and coffin-shaped oxidized silver compartments filled with miniature porcelain babies, complete with articulated limbs posed in eerily lifelike ways. Seeing the coffin-like compartments and uncanny paleness of the dolls’ porcelain skin, many viewers conclude that this neckpiece alludes to the death and loss of a child. Upon closer examination, however, clear allusions to birth and regeneration emerge alongside these references to death and decay.

The title alludes to the old wives’ tale that babies are born under cabbage leaves, while the shape and coloration of the romanesco broccoli evokes the shape of the female breast, complete with nipples. The repetition of these elements, which alternate along the entire circuit of the neckpiece, inspire an almost rosary-like engagement with the wearer, ritual touching accompanied by prayer to the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the imagery is meant to protect a mother, or perhaps it is meant to be a charm for a would-be mother, inviting the blessing of hoped-for children. The body of the female wearer also has the potential to transform the meaning of the piece, depending on her age and fertility.

These multiple layers of meaning are folded into both the making and wearing of the piece, and speak to Paganin’s skill as a jeweler and a storyteller. The ambitious scale of her neckpieces expand the vision of the brooches in Memoria Aperta, creating embodied memoryscapes that speak to each of us in different ways.

Text by Flora Ward

Barbara Paganin: Memoria Aperta is on through August 14, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday–Sunday, noon–6 pm. Suggested donation: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors.

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