Ask a Curator: Framing Contemporary Photography

July 20, 2009

Doug Wichert Asks:

I’m a photographer who trained as a printmaker but for the last twenty-five years I’ve been a freak about framing artwork. The thing bugging me is my observation that “modern” framing emerges just in time for Pop and that means it dies on its feet and we’re left to argue what is next. Memphis was substituting bad taste for new taste. What do you think you see that could be called a contemporary style of framing (or not framing) photography that seems to best exemplify the post-modern sensibility? I’d like to find it before I die. To repeat, do you see a trend in the framing of artwork that seems to present the work in the spirit/sensibility of this time?

Dear Doug,

I share your fascination and ongoing questioning of what constitutes a “neutral” or up-to-date framing style for photography. I think that the style and emphasis shifts over time. In the mid 1990s, you often saw contemporary photographs dry mounted onto to a smooth sheet of aluminum, and then, unframed, held by a cleat onto a gallery wall. To use that technique now seems to directly speak of the production values and the ethos of photographic art practice of over ten years ago. A brushed metal frame speaks of the 1960s, a stained wood, decoratively moulded frame refers to the late 19th century conventions of framing virtuoso photographs. About five years ago, we were seeing a lot of photographs front mounted with Plexi, which responded to this process that is famously used by some of the most high profile photographers such as Andreas Gursky, typically working with large and spectacular print sizes. I am not a great fan of this process because it doesn’t actually protect the photographic print (a piece of Plexi is easily scratched, Plexi isn’t exactly a durable material) and I think it somewhat shouts “I am art” and hides the substance (or lack of) the work under the highly seductive production values of face mounting. Today, well, I like to think that we are in a different place. As the market for photographs exits a boom moment when being big, flashy and colorful meant there was a chance that it would be collected, as our sense of the resonance of the (analog) history of photography shifts in this (digital) age, I think that the possibilities of framing photography are much more diverse. Doug, I think you can safely decide what a photograph or body of work really needs its frame to do—how can it complete the meaning of the work? You can reference an earlier period of photography by your choice of your frame, you can emphasize the organic or inorganic forms of your photographs by your choice of wood over metal frames. I don’t think that there is a particular type of frame that exemplifies the moment, there are so many options open to you and it really depends on what you want the frame to say.

Charlotte Cotton


A Peek into Paper Conservation

July 17, 2009

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For every work of art on paper featured in an upcoming exhibition, our lab in conservation examines it to determine its condition and whether any treatment is needed. So when we received a woodblock print from Yoshitoshi’s Demons, an installation of works from one of Japan’s top print artists of the Meiji era (opening at LACMA tomorrow), we noticed a disfiguring gray patina over some of the image’s red areas. We immediately set to work trying to figure out whether the gray was intentional or a form of degradation.

We know that the red lead used in Japanese prints can react chemically with sulfur in the environment, causing the ink to discolor. Sometimes, this darkening was utilized by the printer intentionally as an artistic tool. But, after comparing our print with copies of the same print in various collections around the world, we knew this wasn’t the case—what we were seeing was discoloration. In addition, traditional representations of this type of scene include a female robed in red and white—not gray and white. After these comparisons and consulting with the curator of the show, we unanimously decided that a conservation treatment was needed.

To convert the blackened pigment back to its original red-orange hue, we treated the discolored media with an oxidizing agent. This changed the lead sulfide to lead sulfate and revealed the print’s original color, as you can see in these before and after pictures.

In the treated print, the folds of the female figure’s costume are clearly visible, as are the details of the muscular structure of the back of the demon in the lower right corner.

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This treatment was an incredibly gratifying experience, as it resulted in a dramatic visual improvement of the print.

(By the way, the Freer & Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition on the Tale of Shuten Doji—the subject of our print).

Erin K. Jue, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, Paper Conservation Center


Family Portrait

July 16, 2009

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I love this photo. It was taken in February 1968 and features forty-five artists gathered on LACMA’s steps—many with artworks in hand—for a “family portrait” of sorts. Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Frank Gehry, Judy Chicago, Billy Al Bengston, Penny Little, Claes Oldenberg, and many others dropped in for the photo op (as full a list as we can come up with is after the jump). The occasion was to document, for posterity, an exhibition of Los Angeles County artists’ works that was to go on view in Sacramento’s capitol building later that summer. The artists come from a variety of fields—painting, sculpture, architecture, fashion, film, graphic design, etc.

I first came across this picture when I flipped through the book LACMA published on the occasion of BCAM’s opening last year. Then I came across it again the other day when some research I was doing brought me to some old press clippings from 1968. From articles in the Los Angeles Times and the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, I gather it was a pretty swell party, with hors d’oeuvres and hard liquor in supply just off camera.

Each of these articles describe what seem to have been the two major stories of the party. First, the mod woman licking her lips and staring straight into the camera like the scene-stealer she knows she is. As the author of the Evening Outlook article described, “I looked her right in the eye and asked her name. ‘Leon Bing,’ she answered, ‘from San Francisco. Aren’t you going to ask my opinion on the war or something?’”

It was her forward attitude and, even more so, that strip of clear plastic running down the center of her “shocking pink” mini-skirt, that had the reporters’ tongues wagging. As it should have, since that’s why she was there. For in fact, she wasn’t an artist but a model, wearing the latest design by Rudi Gernreich (seated next to her in the jacket with the oversized zippers).

The look on Gernreich’s face essentially illustrates the other common theme of the day—the dueling disinterest of all involved vs. their desire to have their fabulousness documented. As noted by the Los Angeles Times’ Art Seidenbaum—who actually appears in the photo, I’m told, though I couldn’t tell you which is him—“On the plaza, a show of mixed emotions. Each artist seemed torn between the desire to be photographed and the need to prove he didn’t want the publicity.” Of the forty-five people in the picture, I count eleven who actually looked toward the camera when the photographer shouted “smile.”

We’ve come up with thirty of the forty-five people on the steps. If you recognize anyone else, let us know! The full list, in alphabetical order, after the jump.

Scott Tennent

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Have You Seen My Mountain?

July 15, 2009

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If you missed Koo Jeong-A’s Mountain Fundamental on the first floor of BCAM, you’re not alone. And, if you did happen to find it, you might wonder why it’s there. Mountain Fundamental is comprised of a tiny landscape of stones that the artist sanded into a fine powder and placed atop a very long-legged table that comes to about nose-height. The spindly table and the diminutive mounds are practically invisible in a huge space that’s swallowed up by Richard Serra’s Band.

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Koo Jeong-A, "Mountain Fundamental," 1997-2009 (detail), stone powder on wooden table, dimensions vary, courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert, Paris

Since Mountain Fundamental is part of Your Bright Future, an exhibition installed one floor up, I presumed the placement was curator Lynn Zelevansky’s decision. I was wrong. It was the artist who determined the location for the artwork, and for all of her works in the show. Rather than having her own gallery space, she often chooses unexpected locations for her works; sometimes this means moving into space where other art is already installed, or in the case of Bridge, another work in the exhibition, taking over a storage room not normally accessible to the public.

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Koo Jeong-A, "The Bridge," 2009, razor blades, dimensions vary

The atypical placement evokes a sense of mystery, poetry, and, for Bridge, which features dimly lit razorblades, even a sense of danger. Koo uses an artist’s technique that’s a few decades old—disguising installations as a means of drawing viewers into the creative process. The idea is that, once visitors “see” the work—recognize it as art—it becomes complete. Suddenly, seeing Mountain Fundamental aside Band makes a lot more sense to me.

Allison Agsten


A Tour with the Director

July 14, 2009

Today’s guest blogger, ForYourArt’s Bettina Korek, is hardly a guest at all. She is a former staff member, and also, until recently, the co-chair of President’s Circle Avant-Garde, LACMA’s young patrons group. Bettina has left an indelible mark on Avant-Garde; the event she writes about below was her last as co-chair.

A few weeks ago LACMA Director Michael Govan met with members of President’s Circle Avant-Garde for a very special “surprise tour” of the museum (this is just one of the pretty amazing perks of the group). A couple of themes came up during the tour that I thought would be interesting to share—and something visitors can keep an eye out for when touring LACMA on their own.

Michael welcomed us in the Director’s Lounge, which was a treat in itself—the private space is in LACMA’s famed Bruce Goff-designed Japanese Pavilion and is filled with furniture by Noguchi and Maloof—and started off by speaking about his desire to have the museum bridge time, from ancient to modern. This idea informs so much of where LACMA is headed, and will ultimately manifest itself in the way we’ll enter the museum, starting with the present and traveling back in time—all the way back, in fact, through art history and ending with a view of the tar pits; a reminder of how fragile human culture is through the lens of geologic time. As Michael explained, “reverse history is a fiction of the present.”

Art of the Ancient Americas galleries, installation designed by Jorge Pardo

Art of the Ancient Americas galleries; installation designed by Jorge Pardo

As we left the Director’s Lounge and headed up to our first stop at the pre-Columbian galleries, the relationship between, and relevance to, ancient art and the future was immediately clear in Jorge Pardo’s installation design for the Art of the Ancient Americas galleries.

Michael pointed out his favorites, like one of the smiling figures, and added another interesting layer—many objects in LACMA’s collection are meant to be used. Of course, the most obvious examples of integrating art into everyday life can be found in the museum’s decorative arts and design collection, but there’s also drinking vessels, plates, hunting spears, and even a child’s toy represented in the pre-Columbian galleries.

Our private tour ended at the amazing and newly acquired Matta, where the topic of communication was at the fore. Michael pointed out how (pre-Twitter) this astounding work reflected the global exchange of, and reaction to, information—a Chilean artist living in Paris addressing a crisis in Watts.

The purchase of the Matta was made possible partly with funds from Collectors Committee, another support group of the museum, and it seemed a fitting place to end this special evening.

Bettina Korek


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