INSPIRED by traditional medallic genré, medallic objects are art medal creations without restrictions, other than of course, they must be permanent, capable of being reproduced, usually made of metal and, for most issues, have multiple sides. Other than that, they are as removed from medals, which spawned them, as medals are from coins (which are overburdened with restrictions such as size, weight, denomination, tolerance, height of relief, coinability, vending machine suitability, recognizability, circleness, nationalistic propriety, surface resistivity, shall I go on?). Medallic objects break the rules of coin and medal design, go beyond any limitations, transcend any technical restraint, overcome medallic bias, all the while becoming interesting, aesthetic objects for the eye to behold.
Usually medallic objects are free standing; indeed, they have been called “standing medallic art.” But to stand alone is not even a requirement. They are not small statues, they are not upright or overgrown medallions – medallic objects are a new sculptural entity that is just finding its niche in the art and numismatic world. The painter considers his art in color and shadows. The sculptor considers his art in forms and planes. The medallist considers his art in relief and miniature size. But the creators of medallic objects, while they may be guided by the precepts of these graphic and glyptic arts, are not bound by the restrictions of any formal art.
If medallic objects have sculptural tridimensionality it is only incidental. They are more apt to have relief on two sides, a front and a back – I won’t use the numismatic terms obverse and reverse – for their duodimensionality is often apparent only when shown in photographs (and the field is too new yet to have its own terminology). However, they could have relief designs on more than two sides, or more than two surfaces.
If I had to use one phrase to characterize their form I would say medallic objects are bas-relief unleashed.
New Concepts In Shape and Technique
Medallic objects often have unusual shapes or negative space. They frequently go beyond the edges of a prescribed planchet, called hyperdimensionality. Very often they have adornments, or as the French say, enrichies; they may be enameled, or bejeweled, and some practitioners like French artist Roger Bezombes have added clothing buttons or made a bird of scissors. Salavdor Dali made a medallic object of table spoons.
Artifacts of any kind – found or fashioned – are fair game for embellishing medallic objects. Set free the artist’s imagination. Unleashed is the operative word. Medallic objects are the modern art of the medallic field.
If the object can be diestruck, that’s fine. If it cannot then it must be cast, that’s okay too, by electrogalvanic casting, or flexible molds or lost wax or ceramic mold or any of a dozen methods of casting. If it has to be assembled or fabricated or soldered together, there is nothing wrong with that either. Technique is dealer’s choice.
The most severe restrictions for preparing coin and medal models – low relief with no undercuts and no steep-pitched relief – is negated here. No problem. Eliminate all lettering? That’s permissible. Its all image!
If I had to choose a byword or synonym for medallic objects it would be multi-something. For they always incorporate multi views, multi planes, often include multi techniques, multi finishes, multi adornments, perhaps even multiple textures, color and openwork. We have two-part medals, invented in 1969 by Finish medallist Kauko Rasanen, whose Jonah in the Whale was the first to have the obverse that separates from the reverse to reveal Jonah on the interface surfaces inside the medal. From this pioneering medallic work, Rasanen progressed to create medallic objects in many multiple parts. This form certainly typifies medallic objects and exemplifies the field’s incubation of innovation.
It is best to view medallic objects from every angle. Maybe that nickname should be multi-degree. I got it! How about “medallic polygons”? For you must examine them in all 360 degrees. All around, above and below, often inside and out. Yet they are still medallic, because they have bas-relief on all surfaces.
The new genré encourages new ideas, new concepts, new techniques, new ways of doing something within a 500-year-old glyptic medallic art field, and a 2,600-year-old numismatic coin field. We have proof finish coins today because a proof surface was first tried on medals (Pitt Club Medal, London, 1762). The first hologram in a work of art appeared in a medal, Yaacov Agam’s And There Was Light Medal (Israel, circa 1967). Medallic objects advance the cutting edge of medallic technology, a precursor of new things that can be accomplished, perhaps, for a medal or coin of the future, tried first on a medallic object.
Unleashed Medallic Creations
Medallic objects are issued in editions, usually less than 50 or 100, sometimes more, occasionally in precious metal, more often in bronze. The bronze is seldom intentionally left unfinished; notably something is usually wedded to the surface by way of patina, finish or embellishment – or a combination of these.
Creation of the surface, by modeling, carving or forming modulated relief in any manner, is only part of the inspirational bloom.
It is only the skin. The typical creator is never quite satisfied with naked skin. He or she has an entire paint box of techniques and treatments – texture and colors! – that can clothe the newborn creation.
The artist giving birth to a medallic object thus must have knowledge far above that of, say, a hand engraver or a sculptor creating a coin model, or a modeler of a modern medal. Such an artist must posses multiple talents of creative insight and inspiration, plus a wide understanding of spatial relationships, medal manufacturing technology, even metalworking techniques, in addition to a creative concept! Thus these ideas must be translated into a hard-form pattern. For the artist’s ideal three-dimensional image must be reproducible.
Always this artist must rise above that status of creator / technician and produce an object of his hand and mind that excites the viewer. The result often titillates the devotee of this work. “Wow! Look at that!” is often heard at exhibitions of medallic objects.
Testing Ground for Medallists
Appropriately, medallic objects are a testing ground of what can be done in the medallic field, and such experimentation occurs before it is applied to a formal commission. If the technique works, then that’s fine; it can then be incorporated in a future creation, paid or unpaid, commissioned or on speculation.
If the new technique doesn’t work, that’s fine too. It adds to the artist’s total knowledge. The experience fine-tunes the boundaries to which the artist can push the limits of the emerging art. He is advancing toward the cutting edge. We learn by trying. We advance by failure. Medallic objects are welcomed into this arena wherein the field of medallic art will advance in the future.
The next multipart medal, or ball-tip arm, or cartwheel rim, or split collar, or reeded edge, or swivel loop, or proof finish, or impressed artifact, or embedded hologram, or multi-ring planchet, or colorized surface, or any of the thousands of developments – large and small – in the field of coin and medal technology is possible to appear first on a medallic object. And so it should be.
Such innovations come from stretched imaginations. What could be some of these developments of the future? Let your imagination run wild.
- Can you bury a sound chip in a medal and have a talking medal? No need for a leaflet – the chip could provide a history, data about the artist, the makers, and the reason for the medal’s issuance. Or simply tell a story, illustrated, of course, by the bas-relief in which it is housed.
- How about a new way of attaching a medal to a person, as award, honor, or adornment. (How would you replace the pinback, the ribbon drape, the neck ribbon or the body sash?)
- Or a patina with an olfactory release. On one side smell of, say, burnt wood from the forest fire shown on the obverse, while the reverse gives off the fragrance of the regenerated wild flowers where devastation once occurred.
- The inventor of the first medal made from metal fabricated in space will reap a fortune.
The artist’s own imagination and innovation prescribe the limits of medallic creations. Unleash the bas-relief is the operative phrase!
American Forays Into Medallic Objects
In 1965 an experiment was conducted in New York City, perhaps ahead of its time. The art publication Art In America commissioned a curator then at the Whitney Museum, Edward Albert Bryant, to manage a project of reproduced bas-relief. He sought out William Trees Louth and the Medallic Art Company for the intended replications. The two literally had to invent a new art form!
Choosing seven contemporary sculptors, the pair’s instructions to them were explicit: express yourself without restraint in a bas-relief that can be reproduced (sound familiar?). The seven reliefs ranged from a traditional Salome (by Elbert Weinberg) to a recasting and rearranging a newspaper printer’s plate (by the Greek-American artist Chryssa). The others were quite contemporary: James Wines’ Art and the Machine, Harold Tovish’s Meshed Faces, Constantino Nivola’s Classical Gods, Roy Gussow’s Water Over The Edge of a Pool, and Ernest Trova’s Falling Man.
Each work was reproduced in an edition of eight in 12- to 15-inch size (sound familiar?). Tovish and Nivola’s work were also reproduced in smaller, medallic sizes and formats, even gold pins to be worn. To the credit of the craftsmen at Medallic Art Company, they knew which to cast by molds, which to reproduce by electrogalvanic casting, and which to make into dies and strike.
But what was most notable were the finishes. Gussow’s galvano in copper was chromium plated and highly polished. Nivola’s galvano was bronze plated with black oxidized patina. Tovish’s Meshed Faces with three surface levels was given three finishes: the wide border was French antiqued, the faces in the center were reflectively polished, but the background was manually textured. Foreman of Medallic Art’s finishing department, Hugo Greco, could not satisfy a demanding Trovish with sample textures until the craftsman, perhaps in desperation, picked up a beer can opener and etched random pattern of impressed line design in the background copper surface. “That’s it!” shouted Trova.
Two later forays for American artists in the new media were Roy Lichtenstein’s Salute To Airmail and Sidney Simon’s Five Heads Plaquette. These were created in 1968. With perhaps a later exception, Robert Weinman’s Cat and Mouse for The Society of Medallists Issue number 115, American artists innovated little, until shown by the French the extensive possibilities of the fresh media. The French, it can be said to the chagrin of the Americans, beat all world artists, including the Americans, to the patent office to lock up the title of proprietors, if not innovators, of the new invention.