Cracking the Conservation of a Curious Contemporary Construction
In 2004 artist Matthew Picton laid a sheet of plastic over the cracks in the asphalt of a playground. He traced the cracks and painted them with black enamel paint. Then he carefully cut and burned away the plastic surrounding the cracks. What was left was a giant spidery web.
A giant spidery web is not an easy thing to handle by any measure, but especially from a conservator’s perspective. When Cut-Out Drawing #6 arrived at the Fine Arts Museums, it looked like this:
When Nora Velensek arrived at the museum’s paper lab on an advanced conservation internship from the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, she expressed her enthusiasm for the treatment of contemporary art. When she saw Picton’s work in this perplexing condition, Velensek didn’t hesitate, diving right in to the challenging project and providing the piece with just what it needed—some careful attention that would leave the artwork in the best shape for a future exhibition.
When Velensek opened up the mysterious package, she discovered that the artwork was not extensively damaged, but it was definitely not in great shape for long-term preservation, either.
Contemporary art installations often appear spontaneous, but they can require complex installation methods. The main tasks of this conservation project were to figure out how to affix the artwork to the wall, attach its numerous pieces to one another, develop clear instructions for future installation, and construct a sound archival armature that could also serve as an installation support.
In working out installation solutions, conservators generally do not experiment on valuable artworks, opting instead to create mock-ups that allow for the testing of various ideas.
In this case a mock-up was created using similar materials to those used in the artwork itself.
Once the installation tests were conducted on the mock-up, the original artwork was hung in a hallway to further refine installation techniques. The three sections of the artwork were attached to Fome-Cor lattices to support them and keep them from becoming a floppy tangle. Then the segments were placed adjacent to one another on the wall.
Based on instructions Velensek obtained from communication with the artist, the plastic web was suspended from large ball-headed quilting pins.
Picton gave Velensek an important tip: pull the web out to the end of the pins to create a three-dimensional, shadowy effect that made all the difference in the appearance of the artwork.
Finally, previously separate parts of the artwork were joined into one seamless web.
As with a Christmas tree, the take-down is always much faster than the set-up. This was especially true of the Picton cut-out, thanks to the sturdy supports that Velensek constructed, which will double as handling lattices for future installations.
In addition, Velensek created a detailed instruction plan, which will facilitate easy and safe installation of this intriguing artwork when it is next exhibited.