Profiles of Late Style: Bruce Metcalf

Bruce Metcalf is a prolific artist, writer, and thinker. You can see the evolution of his art and jewelry at: (Photos by Erin Rufledt)
“The thing about experimentation is that sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to have the courage to fail. And that actually becomes harder to do when you have a reputation.”

Bruce Metcalf is equal parts intellectual and artist. His jewelry is tactile and sensual and merges feminist themes with elements from the natural world.

Well versed on the ideas surrounding late style, Metcalf takes issue with the idea of rupture as a hallmark of late style in the visual arts. He explains that clearly there have been cycles of disruption and invention throughout modern art history, but eventually, you reach a point where there is nothing left to disrupt.

For Metcalf, late style is less about disruption and more about a deeply rooted sense of one’s self and one’s work. It is “a creativity that is in some sense, mature.”

Participating in the Discourse

Metcalf sees mature art as being rooted in the larger conversation. He explains, “In my view, every field is in essence a discourse…. A mature artist comes to an awareness of two things: a clear idea of what their subject is and where it fits into the larger discourse. Both of those ideas happen simultaneously so the artist knows what they are saying and where those statements fit…And any good artists knows where they fit in the context.”

But there can be many pivots and changing expressions within that context. Metcalf himself has had many iterations of his creative style. “I used to do narrative figurative jewelry and about 15 years ago I stopped. My current work now has no narrative and there is no figure. What is common is my way of representing things. Now, I’m just about to give up on that idea and my new idea revolves around the idea of the ‘dark feminine’.”

Through all the evolutions of his work, Metcalf is clear about where it fits. “In my field I’m thinking about different subjects. I’m thinking about sexuality and its intersection with jewelry. That is where I enter the discourse in jewelry. But that is not a popular subject right now. I’m not fashionable….but I don’t care.”

The Art of Staying Awake

When asked about what keeps Metcalf coming back to his studio through the ever-changing tides of fashion, he is quick to answer: there are still more questions to answer.

There is a deep dissatisfaction that fuels his artistic questioning. “I think it is absolutely essential for an artist to be dissatisfied. If you are satisfied, that means you think everything you do is greatand then you fall asleep. To me, a true artist is always awake and alive to the possibilities of what he or she does. Dissatisfaction has to be a permanent condition of being an artist. If you do what you already know… you become kind of a cartoon of yourself.”

Risk and Courage

Remaining true to oneself is not an easy path. Metcalf explains there is a tremendous risk of failure involved, because much of the buying public does not actually want artists to innovate; the market is designed to promote what works and what has already been well received.

“For any artist that has developed a late style that is fundamentally different than what has come before — they have taken a huge risk. But you will also find artists who have taken a chance and it bombed. Sometimes they get a chance to recover and sometimes they don’t.”

Metcalf is frank about facing his own fears, especially when experimenting with or developing a new style. “It is hard to look failure in the face. Any late style artist has to contemplate failure. They have to find the courage somewhere because the risks escalate as an established artist. A mature artist has everything to lose. The price of failure gets higher every year.”

So how does a mature artist work through that fear? Metcalf draws inspiration from the lives of the great artists. “When you talk about risk you have to talk about courage. I think all the great older artists are really courageous. When Matisse sat down and cut that first piece of paper, that was an act of extraordinary courage. Because he knew when he picked up those scissors no one would be able to wrap their mind around it. Cut outs? Paper? That was not art at the time. And Matisse only made it art by insisting that it was. And he was lucky that as an older artist he had an enormous body of prestige that he brought with him. But to do that the first time…that was an act of incredible courage.”

A Curious Contrarian

At the end of the day, a key to Metcalf’s creative process is curiosity. It is about “letting new information into your brain. As you get older that becomes harder and harder to do. You can become very satisfied and smug, but if you know all the answers you don’t have any curiosity anymore.”

Coupled with a natural bent towards questioning the status quo, Metcalf find plenty of things to keep him curious. “I think I’ve always been a contrarian. As a kid I was a little nerd. Popularity wasn’t in my skill set. I was always on the outside. So I just try to keep that contrarian spirit within me and I think that gives me courage.”

The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.