• Nancy Cook

Beyond the Gallery: "Master Metalsmith: Lisa Gralnick" - "The Gold Standard"


In 2003 Lisa began a series of sculptures that explores several issues through the lens of one material: gold. The Gold Standard consists of three parts. The first part of the series, Commodification and Sensible Economy, includes plaster castings made from rubber molds of recognizable objects, such as a bowl of fruit or book.


The Gold Standard Part I: #2 (Book). Plaster, 18K gold, acrylic. Image courtesy of the Metal Museum.

The monetary value of the object molded was translated into a quantity in gold based on the market price of gold on the day Lisa began the piece. Lisa then fabricated a part of the plaster casting using that precise amount of gold. In this way, the value of gold is compared to the object cast in plaster. The labels for this part of the series have laser-cut lettering, meant to resemble plaques one might see on the side of an historic building or monument. The labels include the amount paid for the object cast in plaster, the date, and the weight and monetary value of the amount of gold used in the final sculpture.

The second part, Phenomenology and Substantialism, explores the life of a gold object. Gold is easily recycled, and, in fact, most of the gold seen today was once part of a different gold object and was likely not made from gold newly mined from the ground. Each sculpture in this part of the series is a plaster casting of gold objects from one individual or family, which Lisa purchased from friends, colleagues, and strangers who saw her ads in the local newspaper.


(left): The Gold Standard Part II: 1/15/2006. Plaster, acrylic, gold fragment, parchment paper. Image courtesy of the Metal Museum. (right): The Gold Standard Part II: 11/20/2005. Plaster, acrylic, gold fragment, parchment paper. Image courtesy of the Metal Museum.

What you see is the ghost of gold objects, cast in plaster as a record of their existence. Recognizing that each object had value beyond monetary value for the owner, Lisa wanted to memorialize each object before melting it down for use her in other work. Each sculpture includes a label that, again, meticulously documents the weight and monetary value of the gold objects, the date Lisa began the piece, a small fragment of the original gold object(s), and a small blurb about the objects and what they meant to their owners. The labels were created using an old typewriter, and Lisa stated that she wanted the viewer to recall the type of labels one might have seen many years ago in the Natural History Museum in New York. Each of the gold objects cast in plaster for this part of the series was eventually melted down for use in the third part of the series.

The third part of The Gold Standard is called Transubstantiation and the Historicized Object and focuses on the history of gold and its use in literature and myth. Lisa used the recycled gold from the second part of the series to create new gold objects with invented histories. These objects challenge our ideas of known history and offer a dialogue about authenticity and truth. Each sculpture in this part of the series has a handwritten label describing the object’s invented provenance or purpose.


The Gold Standard Part III: Fourteen Unusually Small Rings. Recycled gold, gemstones (tanzanite, amethyst, aquamarine, citrine, emerald, moissanite, morganite, peridot, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline), pearls, enamel, acrylic. Image courtesy of the Metal Museum. (below): The Gold Standard Part III: Fourteen Unusually Small Rings (detail). Image courtesy of Jim Escalante.


In the piece Fourteen Unusually Small Rings, Lisa has written in the label that the fourteen rings are attributed to a French jeweler named René Cardillac. In reality, Lisa made the rings herself, but the piece references one of her favorite novels. The jeweler Cardillac is a fictional character from a French crime novella called “Mademoiselle de Scudéri” by E.T.A. Hoffman, published in 1819. In the story, French police investigate a series of jewelry heists and murders, believing the culprits are a gang of well-known jewelry thieves. In the end, it is discovered that the murderer is actually a jeweler named René Cardillac, who has taken to murdering his wealthy clients and reclaiming the jewelry he made.

In a nod to this beloved story, the rings in this piece are too small for any person to wear and, therefore, would never be purchased and taken from their creator: “Cardillac.”

Lisa’s newest body of work is also influenced by her love of mysteries. As with many of her series, life events prompted a change in direction and resulted in Scene of the Crime. After the death of her mother, she and her siblings went through the common and painful process of dividing her belongings. One of the most visceral experiences for Lisa was going through her mother’s jewelry. The weight of the emotion experienced inspired Lisa to create jewelry on a huge scale, all of which fits inside an enormous pink jewelry box.


Scene of the Crime. Wood, pink naugahyde, velvet, glass, brass, nickel, glazed ceramic with luster, gold luster, gold leaf, opal, pearls, enamel, silver, beads. Image courtesy of the Metal Museum.

Lisa’s love of old detective stories by authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie was also a prominent influence. In these stories, jewelry is often used as a clue or a “Macguffin” -- a device to move the plot along. The large, sculptural jewelry spills out of the box as one might see in a crime scene photograph. Lisa began this series after a residency at the European Ceramic Workcentre (EKWC) in Oisterwijk, Netherlands. Many of the large jewelry pieces, including the pearl necklace, are created from ceramic. Despite the large scale and materials used in this newest series, it remains closely related to the history of jewelry and specifically to its use as a display of status or wealth, which reflects Lisa’s view that we are living through a time in history where very wealthy and corrupt individuals run the government.

Master Metalsmith: Lisa Gralnick the Metal Museum will close on January 13. However, you can see The Gold Standard and Scene of the Crime in the Museum's Gasparrini Galleries through January 20.

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