Tea-Soaked Bones and Rabbit-Skin Glue

March 31, 2010

The Conservation Center has got to be the most fascinating area behind the scenes at LACMA. Recently I dropped in on Don Menveg, associate conservator in the Objects Department, who was in the process of restoring a wooden panel with carved bone from eighteenth-century Mughal India that was once part of a prayer rug stand.

On this panel there are two long areas of damage (or “loss,” as they say in the conservation world) running vertically at the connection between the joints of the three wooden panels which are enclosed in a rail frame. While the foundation of solid wood appears to be inlayed with bone, it’s actually appliqué, meaning the bone is nailed into the board and then the gaps are filled with many small pieces of a decorative tropical wood.

The surface was most likely uneven and then sanded down to be smooth. The loss of the inlay probably occurred because of wood’s characteristic of expansion and contraction in response to changes in temperature and humidity. In order to repair this rather unique object, Don had to do his own experimenting with different techniques and materials before arriving at a aesthetically pleasing and chemically stable solution. He tried using various animal-based glues and natural fibers such as ground coconut shell to achieve the right color and adhesive properties he was looking for.

Don’s repairs involve many steps. He begins by using a chisel to carefully remove exposed fiber and glue from the surface of the wooden foundation where the decoration has been lost. He photographed the intact portions and then traced the pattern onto a bone folder (a thin sheet of bone used by paper conservators to fold paper). He then cuts out the bone (which has been soaked in tea to give it a more aged color) and glues it into place with an organic glue made of fish skins. He chose not to nail it down because he wants his repairs to be somewhat obvious to viewers.

The gaps between the bones are filled with very thin strips of rosewood veneer, which is glued down with a mixture of mahogany sawdust and hot rabbit-skin glue. The sawdust acts as a fibrous medium to bond the wood pieces to each other, but it also has the ability to expand and contract at a similar rate to the wood, preventing future loss of the inlay. Don prefers to use all organic materials so the additions will be in harmony with the rest of the piece.

Aaron Ziolkowski, Collections Information Intern

Happy Birthday Dear LACMA

March 30, 2010

Where were you on March 31, 1965? If you lived in Los Angeles and loved the arts, there’s a good chance you were here in the Miracle Mile, on the opening day of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

…er, Los Angeles County Art Museum. LACAM? Truth be told it took a while before the museum settled on the acronym LACMA. In the beginning most people seemed to refer to it as the County Museum of Art—as differentiated from the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, which opened back in 1913 and from which this museum would secede (leaving its original institution to become the Natural History Museum).

The new museum was dedicated on March 30, 1965, and debuted to the public the following day. The above image came from a small book developed by the museum and inserted into the March 28 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Here are a few more pages from that book, showing off some well-heeled patrons posing for the cameras.

Today that wide-open atrium is filled by Tony Smith’s “Smoke”

Today those stairs are gone, replaced by a new grand staircase.

We’re considering reinstating a dress code for visiting the museum. No fur, no admission.

The painting is by Stuart Davis, the sculpture by Pegot Waring, the chair by Mies van der Rohe, the dress by Galanos… but who did the hair?

I also dug up a few photos from the museum’s inaugural year that really show off how open and airy the campus felt. When the museum’s original campus opened, its three William Pereira-designed buildings seemed to float above water. Unfortunately that water proved unsustainable as the legendary tar beneath our foundations seeped through no matter what protective measures were taken. Eventually the fountains were removed, literally paving the way for the Anderson Building, now known as the Art of the Americas Building, which was built in the 1980s. Here are a few shots to give you some sense of how open the campus felt when it was first created.

Scott Tennent

Much More than “Paintings on a Wall”

March 29, 2010

What is “new media art”? Recently I asked that question of a group of kids at the new arts high school, Central Los Angeles High School #9. Since January, LACMA educators Elizabeth Gerber and Jane Burrell have been running an after-school course called Art Museum 101. Over the last few months, the students have toured the museum with director Michael Govan, met with president Melody Kanschat to talk about architecture and building projects, and heard from other leaders in the museum on topics ranging from finance to gallery design.

Elizabeth invited me to talk with the class about new media and museums. I showed some examples of the ways that artists use computer code, cell phones, and social media as raw material. The first project I presented was the homepage takeover that was part of last year’s exhibition Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea. The piece, by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, consisted of a series of paranoid and poetic narratives that unfold in an animation involving text and voice on LACMA’s homepage.

We also looked at Natalie Bookchin’s Laid Off, part of the artist’s Testament series where she uses found videos from YouTube to create a multichannel video installation presented at LACMA.

We talked about how artists use “found” media, how they can provoke a response by interrupting or disrupting an ordinary online experience, and what it means when art exists outside the physical realm of the museum. One student said he’d like to write a bit of code that would cause users’ computers to go dark for a minute; when they come back online, the program would prompt the user to record how they felt during the experience. Another participant said she’d create a faux sidebar ad leading to an online presentation of photography of food made from fantastic ingredients and an interview with a “chef” about seemingly impossible dishes. The kids admitted that museums often seem like a place to see “paintings on a wall,” and the discussion about digital art expanded their view of what art is and can be.

This spring, LACMA will introduce some exciting artist-led digital media projects. Steve Fagin and a small group of fellow artists are creating a piece that will unfold entirely and exclusively via text message. When our exhibition The Fruit of LACMA, curated by Michele Urton and the artist collective Fallen Fruit, opens in June, it will include videos uploaded by the public on the theme of “show us how you eat”—we’ll have more to say about that soon. And we’re already thinking about how to present other web and mobile-based artist projects on campus.

Amy Heibel

Telling American Stories, Part Two

March 26, 2010

In February I posted curator Bruce Robertson’s remarks about the painting Watson and the Shark, which hangs in the first gallery of our exhibition American Stories.

The exhibition includes another great painting (and a favorite of many visitors to LACMA, as it usually hangs in our American Art galleries), Cliff Dwellers, by George Bellows. It hangs towards the end of the exhibition, with other early twentieth century works.

George Bellows, "Cliff Dwellers," 1913, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund

Recently, I asked a group of kids attending Art Camp at LACMA to tell us what they see in Cliff Dwellers. As is so often the case with kids, they descended on the painting with glee and open-minded curiosity about all the visual information contained therein.

The kids’ close visual attention and the ease with which they imagined themselves in the world depicted by Bellows is a model for how to read a picture. American Stories offers gallery after gallery of paintings that invite viewers to do what these kids did so well: to look closely and investigate a different time and place through the eyes of an artist.

Amy Heibel

A Concert in the Gallery

March 25, 2010

LACMA’s Art & Music concert series has been a staple of our music programming for four years. Each concert finds a connection between the museum’s exhibitions or permanent collection and the music being performed. Typically we hold these concerts in our Bing Theater, but for Saturday night’s performance, in celebration of Renoir in the 20th Century, we’re doing something we’ve never done before—holding the concert inside the Renoir galleries.

With the exhibition’s focus on Renoir’s later works, the musical choice was quite clear. At that time in France, Debussy and Ravel were composing groundbreaking music that ushered in the Impressionist period in music. Given the confines of the gallery, the acoustics of the room can only accommodate a single instrument, so solo piano was also an obvious choice. While there are a handful of world-class French pianists actively performing today, there is really only one master of that repertoire—Philippe Entremont. The world-renowned pianist and conductor began his piano studies at a young age with Marguerite Long, who was a favored interpreter of the music of Ravel. Entremont has performed recitals of Debussy and Ravel the world over, and we are fortunate to have him fly in from France for this concert. Here’s a video of Entremont performing Debussy’s Sarabande from Suite pour le piano, in 2008.

To be visually surrounded by Renoir’s greatest works circa 1900–1920, and to be musically surrounded by France’s greatest music circa 1900–1920, performed by one of France’s legendary pianists, is going to make for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Mitch Glickman, Director of Music Programs

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