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This wearable art looks like medieval torture

TextAmanda Ng

"Some have told me my work scares them" – Jennifer Crupi

Jennifer Crupi is the unconventional metalsmith who, for the past 25 years, has been exploring the nuances of human gesture and non-verbal behaviour via her arrestingly beautiful works in metal.

Growing up in New Jersey, arts and craft supplies were a firm fixture in Crupi’s household. “My mother gets credit for fostering my creativity,” she says, while her father “gets credit for helping me develop technical skills”, having routinely assisted him on household projects. “I was his assistant on many household projects and ended up sharing his love of tools and working with my hands.” And then there’s her sister, whose large collection of jewellery can be credited with fostering Crupi’s interest in metalwork, so much so that she decided to pursue it as a career.

Honing her skills at The Cooper Union School of Art, followed by a master’s degree at SUNY, The College at New Paltz, Crupi has spent the last two decades transforming everyday metals into exquisite works of wearable art.

Like beautiful weapons of torture, Crupi’s devices distort the human body into surreal gestures – a commentary on the subtleties of non-verbal behaviour which make up 85 percent of our communication. Using the power of body language, Crupi believes “we can read and be read by others more effectively — which makes for better communication.” When worn, her work forces the human body into various unusual gestures that can then be interpreted, understood and translated into various different meanings. Take “Figure One”, from her Ornamental Hands (2010) series, for example. When worn, the metal handpiece fixes the hand in a “perpetually graceful state”, a meditation on the extremes one might go to in order to attain beauty.

Over the course of her career, Crupi’s work has been showcased at over 75 national and international exhibitions, including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., Museum of Arts and Design in New York and DOX Centre of Contemporary Art, Prague. She is currently a Professor of Fine Arts at Kean University. We caught up with her to find out more about her work.

Were you always making things as a child?
Jennifer Crupi: My parents were both teachers, so education and the excitement of learning were always emphasised in our household. My mother never let my sisters and I have colouring books or kits; we were always encouraged to develop our own creations. Many times when I saw something I wanted or liked, my father’s response was simply “we can make that!” And we usually did.

How did you get into metalwork, specifically?
Jennifer Crupi: Originally I thought I wanted to focus on illustration or drawing. However, once I was introduced to the handmade, one-of-a-kind jewellery my sister started collecting, I was intrigued and started experimenting with metal myself. I mainly studied graphic design at The Cooper Union School of Art but I took elective classes in metals at Parsons School of Design. I loved metals so much I went right on to study for my MFA.

Your work focuses on the intricacies of gesture, posture and non-verbal human behaviour, where does that interest come from?
Jennifer Crupi: It was while I was studying for my MFA that I began to think about how I could make my work have a greater connection to the body. Having always been interested in psychology (I considered it casually as a career at one point), I started investigating the theme of movement and became intrigued in the nuances of non-verbal behaviour, posture, and gesture. I have since been fascinated with the field and am always soaking up information by just being more aware of the people around me and how they are communicating with their bodies and reacting to me and my postures.

What is the main message you would like your audience to take away from your art?
Jennifer Crupi: I would like viewers to come away from my work thinking twice about what their bodies and others are saying. Studies show that 85 percent of our communication is non-verbal. With the widespread use of email, social networks, and texting, true one-on-one interpersonal communication is fading and our more honest and authentic feelings are being overlooked. All of my pieces point out various gestures or postures and their associated meanings in the hope viewers will realise the importance of how our bodies speak for us.

What are some of the reactions you have had towards your pieces?
Jennifer Crupi: I strive for my work to have meaning and be thought-provoking. The great thing about art is that it can connect with the viewer and incite a variety of responses depending on what the viewer brings to it. Some have told me my work scares them; others can’t wait to try a piece on and wear it. Many times I am told that seeing my work has made someone more aware of body language and that now he or she can’t help but notice it all the time. By becoming aware of body language, we can read and be read by others more effectively — which makes for better communication.

How do you come to generate ideas for your pieces, such as the Ornamental Hands series?
Jennifer Crupi: The Ornamental Hands series references the elegant hand positions often seen in historic artworks throughout the centuries. I thought back to my art history classes and remembered iconic works like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and other similar paintings and sculptures. No matter what the figures would be doing in the greater context (some being battle or death scenes) the artist could not help but make their hands beautiful. Each work consists of splint-like attachments for the fingers that are suspended by chains and braced on the wrist, positioning the hands marionette style. The resulting works are a play on precious jewellery, but the real decorative ornament is the gesture. Rather than wearing a bracelet to adorn your hand, why not wear a bracelet that positions your hand in a decorative and elegant way? Restricting the use of your hand so that it can be in a perpetually graceful state is also my commentary on the extremes one might go to in order to attain beauty. Initially coming to mind in the conceptualisation of the series were corsets and other restrictive beauty aids. The images of the historic paintings point out how these ideals of beauty have been with us for centuries.

What do you think about the future of beauty and how it will be represented in art?
Jennifer Crupi: Capturing beauty, in its many forms, has long been a goal of many artists and I'm sure it will continue to be an aspiration in the future — whether that message is shared by viewing works in galleries/museums or experiencing them virtually. However, unlike other art forms, jewellery can be worn, carried with us, seen by others and therefore, has a unique relationship to the body. Artists, including myself, are drawn to take advantage of that unique experiential feature.

What are you working on right now?
Jennifer Crupi: I have started a new series titled Contact. I am thinking about what it means to have true physical contact with another person. With so much of our communication with each other being remote and through digital tools, I want to reassess the importance of touch with a series of works for two people that focus on reassuring contact. These wearable works will have a tool-like aesthetic and I am experimenting with rubber plastisol dip (coloured rubber coating traditionally used for the handles of pliers, clamps, etc) which will be used along with the silver.

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