Back in Bacne

Artist Lauren Kalman's surprising jewelry raises questions about who gets to decide what makes a body beautiful

Sara on October 18, 2019

Even after years of working at the museum, I never tire of wandering through the permanent collection on the second floor of the Renwick Gallery, taking in the artworks just like any other visitor. The other day, I stole a few moments at lunchtime to visit some of my favorites—Judith Schaechter’s divinely detailed The Birth of Eve, Kathryn Clark’s familiar map of Capitol Hill stitched into the Washington, D.C. Foreclosure Quilt, Debra Baxter’s cheeky crystal and brass knuckle devil horns—when I noticed an unusual jewelry piece that I had never seen before, and that ended up completely taking me by surprise.

Media - 2013.63A-B - SAAM-2013.63A-B_1 - 137325

Lauren Kalman, Blooms, Efflorescence, and Other Dermatological Embellishments (Cystic Acne, Back)2009, gold-plated silver acupuncture needles embellished with semi-precious stones and freshwater pearls, imitation leather, stainless steel tweezers and inkjet print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Rotasa Foundation, 2013.63A-B, © 2009, Lauren Kalman

In the case before me, a constellation of pearls and precious stones were displayed in a tray. At first glance, I took them to be earrings. On the wall above the case I noticed a photograph of a woman’s shoulders and upper back, from behind, where the same jewels were worn on the body as a kind of glittering cape, embedded into the flesh. Only then I read the title, Blooms, Efflorescence, and Other Dermatological Embellishments (Cystic Acne, Back), and laughed out loud with surprise. Was I really looking at bejeweled back acne, a.k.a. the dreaded “bacne?” Every teen magazine story about pubescent dermatological nightmares was suddenly revived in my memory. 

Could Lauren Kalman really be doing what she seemed to be doing: reclaiming skin conditions that people are taught to be embarrassed by their whole lives, from adolescence? It struck me as wonderfully feminist and irreverent to think of skin eruptions as “embellishment.” After I returned to my office, I could not stop thinking about Kalman’s piece, so I opened the 40 Under 40: Craft Futures catalogue (2012) that featured her work. The first sentence of her profile reads, “Jewelry crossed a conceptual rubicon the moment Lauren Kalman gilded her tongue.” If that line were from a novel, I would not be able to stop reading. It does make me want to see more of her work, and explore, in the curator’s words, “how Kalman investigates the role of precious metals and stones as tools for beautification, upending their standard function through temporary transgressions of the body.” 

I wonder, if women had solely been the ones who determined jewelry’s traditional forms, what other unorthodox features of the body might we have seen celebrated and embellished over time? Until I spent time with Kalman’s work, it had never occurred to me to consider the bumps or scars across the body as a set of “blooms,” a showy testament to the process of maturation, but now I wonder if I will ever be able to see them any other way.

Blooms, Efflorescence, and Other Dermatological Embellishments (Cystic Acne, Back), 2009 is currently on view in SAAM's Renwick Gallery.