Paige Barbee's Mixed-Media Art Uses Contemporary Techniques to Evoke the Past

DECORATIVE ART: In her larger works, like “Tulles of the Trade” (above), jewelry artist Paige Barbee echoes the intricate details of her smaller pieces.

DECORATIVE ART: In her larger works, like “Tulles of the Trade” (above), jewelry artist Paige Barbee echoes the intricate details of her smaller pieces.

Paige Barbee, from Clarksville, Tenn., is a 2009 graduate of the metals program at SCAD and the third Betsy Worden Memorial Artist-in-Residence at the Arts and Culture Alliance’s Emporium Center. Barbee specializes in conceptual jewelry, and is creating work very much in the tradition of Worden, a beloved local artist who exhibited nationally until her untimely death in 2006. Worden mastered diverse media, including watercolor, oil, printmaking, and weaving, fluidly traversing the elusive boundary between art and craft. Worden embodied an eclectic, open sensibility and an interest in creative exploration and ideas, new materials and experimental methods. It’s fitting, then, that two women artists experimenting with multiple media—Crystal Wagner and now Barbee—have occupied the studio space honoring Betsy Worden.

Barbee’s signature motif is the mirror or picture frame, an ellipse with wide edges, highly stylized in ways similar to the “gingerbread”—elaborate, curvilinear scrollwork—that once adorned Victorian homes. Inspired by Victorian ornament, Barbee’s mixed-media work emphasizes feminism and the feminine, decorative embellishment, and the minutiae of personal adornment and domestic items. Her current show’s title, Everyday Adorned, is meant by the artist to be an ironic statement about a domestic sphere wherein women were, and might still be, considered mere household accessories. Interestingly, much contemporary art is created with a Victorian sensibility. Such work is decorative, political, and often includes the use of many small precious things, evoking the extensive personal collections of treasures brought from around the globe by explorers and travelers during the Victorian era. Displayed in cabinets of wonder, these collections were a touchstone of an expanding world.

Barbee’s initial goal is that her jewelry interact with the body—that it is wearable art. She then expands outward, creating canvases, wall installations, and sculptures echoing the same motifs. While she believes that she creates in the tradition of “craft,” the work itself suggests that the boundary between art and craft is at least permeable, if not altogether imaginary. Barbee’s “Frame Collection,” made up of jewelry and other larger works, indicates the degree to which careful craft is one aspect of fine art, and shows how she expresses related themes in different media. The small pendants, laser-cut layers of acrylic adorned with metal, are echoed in larger works like “Tulles of the Trade,” a series of embossed plates decorated with medallions and other trinkets reminiscent of her jewelry.

By using recycled and found materials like wooden scraps from old dollhouses, traditional metals as well as newer materials like acrylic, Barbee adds a contemporary dimension to work that evokes a past era. She says that whatever materials she selects are nonetheless “in harmony with metal”—the new echoes the old. She also combines traditional processes with contemporary ones—computers and computer-aided design programs, and lasers for cutting the acrylic. Throughout, her resulting work is in the Victorian spirit; it has a decorative and intricate appearance, and it is also a creative amalgamation of the traditional and new. In Barbee’s vibrantly full studio, finished work is laid out along with myriad computer design patterns, trinkets and raw materials, as well as unfinished works. The space itself is a cabinet of wonders. One expects that her installation will be as compelling.

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