Painted On…What?

May 12, 2010

Painters are a resourceful lot, constantly experimenting with different materials and the effects they can accomplish. A quiet corner of our new gallery of Northern European paintings is a great example. Curator J. Patrice Marandel has installed a wall of smaller paintings, mostly religious scenes by Italian and Northern European artists. They include paintings on slate, marble, copper, and silvered copper.

I talked to conservator Joe Fronek about the science behind the way paint and support interact. Joe explained: “The harder the surface, the less porous it is. Paint really sinks into canvas. It does so to a lesser degree with slate or marble, and even less with copper. You get a wonderful glow. The paint brush doesn’t experience the drag created by a rougher surface.”

You can see this in the juxtaposition of works like Alessandro Turchi’s Saint Agnes Protected by an Angel (c. 1620), painted on marble, and the nearby St. Francis (c. 1600), by Paolo Piazza, where the lighter colors sing atop the marble. Nearby hangs a Simon Vouet painted on canvas. The juxtaposition of works on canvas and works on marble, slate, and copper perfectly illustrates the difference in the way the paint communicates, depending on the underlying surface.

A nearby gallery holds another fine example of painting on marble (in this case, onyx): Jacques Stella’s Jacob’s Ladder (c. 1650). The rich vein in the marble becomes an element of the composition; Stella uses it to represent the ladder, and certain elements of the background landscape. Patrice says the natural vein of the marble is part of the challenge to the painter, providing a jumping-off point (and a non-negotiable element) on which to base the composition. The smooth, light-reflective surface of the marble gives the painting a luminosity it would lack were it painted on canvas or wood.

Particularly in the flock of sheep in the foreground, you can really see the marble showing beneath the paint. Joe explained the natural aging process of a painting like this one: “Oil paint is oil mixed with pigment. It binds to the underlying material, and as it dries, it releases solvents. Then it oxidizes and hardens, and a process of deterioration begins. The paint gradually becomes less opaque as it ages. In the case of the Stella painting, the aging process is more apparent, because the underlying material is so colorful.”

Amy Heibel

Learning More About You

May 10, 2010

This week we launched Project Membership, a campaign to get 10,000 new members in the next ten weeks. As part of the project, we asked some of our members to let us know how art affects their lives, and to tell us a little bit about their favorite works of art (at LACMA or anywhere else), among other questions. It’s been really fun to get to know a few of our members better—they’re insightful and have enabled me to think about art in different ways. Here’s a sample of some of the answers we received. You can read the full interviews with each of these members (and more) here.

Jaime Turrey, Owner, Monsieur Egg

How does art affect your life? I used to live with some artists of the found object variety, so historically, art challenged my sanity. But over time their work helped me to appreciate more and more the beauty, history, and strangeness of the world around me.

What’s your favorite work of art? The Mexican muralists (Rivera, Siquieros, Orozco) were a great influence on me. Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park says a lot of things about me.

Mike and Malcolm Miley and Amelia Chen Miley, Teacher/Writer and Registrar

How does art affect your life? Mike: I want to spend all my time immersed in art. Art is what gives my life joy and meaning. I am always awed and humbled by other people sharing their points of view with me and getting me to see the world in a new way. Art is where we learn the most about ourselves and our potential. It makes us more appreciative, compassionate, and enriched. I can’t imagine living one day of life without art in it.

Amelia: Artistry in the natural landscape and in architecture is something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. Driving around Los Angeles, you can get a little of that everyday. If I’m having a dreary day, I’ll check out to see what new creations they’ve decided to highlight that day. I’ll always find something to brighten my day.

Elizabeth Allen, Film and TV Director

How does art affect your life? I work in a commerce-driven art form, but often use more pure (non-commercial) art as my inspiration. For example, I use artwork as references and communication tools with my crew when prepping films.

Elizabeth Hunter, Writer/Producer

What’s your favorite work of art? Michelangelo’s David, especially when contrasted and compared to Barkley Hendricks’ Brilliantly Endowed. I like perfection.

Sara Granik, Manager, Entertainment Advertising

How does art affect your life? I was so fascinated by my high school art history class that I decided to spend a year in Florence when I went to college. That year in Europe changed my life—my eyes were opened to beauty I never imagined could exist. Today, my love of art is manifested in my daily life, teaching me that sometimes you have to look deep to see the beauty in a person, situation, circumstance.

What’s your favorite work of art? Courting Couples in the Voyer d’Argenson Park in Asnières by Vincent Van Gogh. I saw it in Amsterdam in 2002 and just stood and stared for about an hour. The large print now hangs in my bedroom at home and I often catch myself staring again!

Wes Craven, Filmmaker

What’s your favorite work of art? Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The Simpsons’ version isn’t bad either.

Ellen Castruccio, Director of Marketing, Membership

Faux Pearls, Fish Scales, and Fancy Dress

May 6, 2010

Over the past year, hundreds of eighteenth to early twentieth–century garments have passed through the Textile Department at LACMA’s Conservation Center: royal wedding gowns, French Revolutionary waistcoats and breeches, and Victorian walking suits, to name a few. These historic costumes are part of the recently acquired costume collection to be featured in the upcoming exhibition Fashioning Fashion, opening this fall in the new Resnick Pavilion.

One of the exhibit’s highlights is a diaphanous pink silk gown from the 1830s. The skirt is decorated with a sea of faux pearls which weigh down the sheer silk and would click together lightly as its wearer moved.

Collaborations between LACMA’s Textile Conservation & Research Departments reveal these faux pearls were manufactured in a curious manner: delicate and hollow glass beads were filled with a slurry of material derived from fish scales and gelatin or sturgeon glue. This slurry coated the interior face of the hollow bead creating an iridescent, or in this case pearlescent, effect. This curious technique was developed by a seventeenth-century French rosary maker.

The story goes that the rosary maker, Jaquin, while vacationing in Burgundy, observed that a tub in which fish were soaking bore a film of silver particles on the water’s surface. Skimming these particles and dehydrating them, he was left with a lustrous powder. He felt he had the makings of an iridescent pigment and began experimenting in the manufacture of faux pearls. Initial trials (and a suggestion from a clever female customer) determined that the pigment only held fast to the glass surface when applied on the inner surface of a bead, injected in one hollow end of the bead and allowed to drain out the other end. When applied to the outer surface, the necklace wearer’s body heat and sweat dissolved the coating, creating a mess. This trade secret was closely guarded until 1716 when it was outed by famous French naturalist M. de Reamur, whose knack for experimental study led him to work out numerous trade and ancient manufacturing secrets. After Reamur’s revelations, this manufacturing technique became common in Europe and faux pearl beads produced in this manner decorated historic costume in the centuries to follow.

These images show the even manner in which the coating covers the inner part of the bead. A small drop of the slurry was swirled around inside the bead. LACMA Associate Conservation Scientist Charlotte Eng was able to separate the pearlescent coating from some broken beads. Magnified images show the platelet-like guanine crystals which give fish scales, and the pigment found on these beads, their iridescent appearance. Pretty neat stuff.

Maria Fusco, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, Textile Conservation Department

The Mystery of The Aristocratic Women

May 4, 2010

Mysteries abound in the art treasures of LACMA, and none more profoundly puzzling than The Aristocratic Women, on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building in the South and Southeast Asian art gallery.

Pakistan, Gandhara region, South Asia, “The Aristocratic Women,” illustration of the tale of “The Necklace of Thread,” from the “Maha-Ummagga Jataka” (Story of the Great Tunnel), 2nd century, purchased with funds provided by Mrs. Harry Lenart, Robert and Mary Looker, Robert F. Maguire III, and The Hillcrest Foundation through the 1998 Collectors Committee, Stephen Markel in memory of Catherine W. Markel, the Southern Asian Art Council, and S. Sanford and Charlene S. Kornblu

The sculpture depicts a Buddhist tale known as “The Necklace of Thread.” It appears that the future Buddha resolved, rather judiciously, the mystery of the necklace’s rightful owner by examining its scent. It is one of five beautifully crafted sculptures of Buddhist icons from a region known as Gandhara in the second and third century, today known as Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 326 B.C. Alexander the Great had attempted to add this region to his empire. Though he failed, Hellenistic culture nevertheless filtered its way into the region. The Aristocratic Women is done in the Hellenistic/Roman body-defining style, with very Grecian facial features. The exquisitely carved women’s gray schist stone garments, the stola (tunic) and the palla (shawl), of the second-century Roman style, fall gracefully around their bodies, their intricately styled hair delicately curled on their shoulders. Here we witness Western art melding with Eastern sensibilities, and though the details don’t surrender all their secrets, one is nonetheless held in awe.

All the other sculptures in the gallery are straightforward and deeply sacred images of Buddhism: a Buddha, Sakyamuni (the enlightened one) and three Bodhisattvas (saviors of compassion) that would have traveled the various trade routes of the Silk Road through the Hindu Kush to and from China. But who was the intended audience for The Aristocratic Women? Buddhists, being about karma and nonviolence, or Romans, who were notoriously, resolutely proud adventurers? Was it for a Buddhist who appreciated things Roman, or a Roman who was a Buddhist? A sort of paradox, wouldn’t you say? Long hours on duty of wondering can leave you with questions like this. Even in a great museum, a time machine, many things remain unsettled.

Hylan Booker

The Red Light District of LACMA

May 3, 2010

Plans for the Bitter Melon Trellis, courtesy of Materials & Applications

Soon, very soon, we’re going to see a whole lot of hanky panky going on over by the Japanese Pavilion. The eponymously named National Bitter Melon Council (NBMC), an artists’ collective that celebrates, fetes, and educates about this “underappreciated vegetable,” has embarked on a garden project called “Promiscuous Production: Breeding is Bittersweet,” as part of EATLACMA, LACMA’s collaboration on food, art, and culture with the artists’ collective Fallen Fruit. In their “never-ending search for truth through bitterness,” NBMC is planting sweet and bitter melons in a “Farmden” (Farm + Garden), in the hopes that “planting the melons together in a garden designed for maximum vine-to-vine contact” will make for some irresistible cross-pollination and the invention of a Bittersweet Melon hybrid. Yes, NBMC will be, for all intents and purposes, turning the lights down low, illuminating the candles, and cracking open that special bottle of cognac to set the mood for some serious melon romance.

Left: The nearly completed Bitter Melon Trellis; right: (L-R) Hiroko Kikuchi of NBMC and Jenna Didier of Materials & Applications during a Bitter Melon Trellis workshop; photos courtesy of Materials & Appications

Until the melon vines subsume everything in their aching quest for melon harmony, this garden exists as a spectacular trellis construction, built with bamboo harvested from the grove by the BP Grand Entrance. Trellis building began April 10, and is being supervised by local explorers of the art/architectural/landscape realms Materials & Applications (M&A) (who, by the way, are also growing a garden for EATLACMA—a fish taco garden, in fact—but we’ll leave that for a future post.)

Rough sketch of the “Promiscuous Production” garden, courtesy of the National Bitter Melon Council

Brian Janeczko, of M&A, has been leading the Bitter Melon Trellis–building workshops for the last few weekends. How did they do it? Brian explains that torch bending with fire did the trick. This steams the bamboo from the inside out, making it more pliable. Janeczko quoted M&A co-founder Oliver Hess’s take on the process, that “each arch is the frozen moment of the relationship between the person bending the bamboo and the person holding the torch.” Pretty romantic. Once frozen in proper arches, the bamboo framing was lashed together by more than a mile of twine. Matias Viegener of Fallen Fruit declares this garden “a triumph of human-plant collaboration!”

Sarah Bay Williams


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