AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 11, “Always Becoming” by Nora Naranjo-Morse, Gail Joyce, and Kelly McHugh

The last talk of the Objects Specialty Group session focused on the work of Nora Naranjo-Morse, a Tewa Indian of Santa Clara Pueblo who was selected from a nationwide contest to design a composition for display outside the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). In 2007, her idea for five sculptures, ephemeral in nature, came to fruition on the NMAI grounds, entitled “Always Becoming.” The three speakers shared their ongoing experiences regarding their collaboration in this talk, representing artist, collections management, and conservation.

It was Nora’s intention to embody in the sculpture the significance of three main values held by Pueblo families: environment, family, and culture. However, she took a unique approach by engaging community in both the creation and stewardship of the sculptures, and in doing so, highlighted the idea of an intertribal ideal. The ideal was manifested in the cooperation of members of the public, as well as staff at NMAI, who all came together to build the artworks. A series of podcasts as well as YouTube videos (Episode 1) document their collaborative effort under her guidance.

The figures vary in form and materials, comprised of mud, fired pottery sherds, wood, and straw, and other organic materials. Her choices are especially relevant given that Nora’s desire was to allow the sculptures to ultimately return to the earth, promoting stewardship, but not preservation in the sense that conservators typically understand it. The role of nature in shaping their condition and form is welcomed as a part of the process of “Always Becoming.” Weather plays an expectedly large role in the formative processes, and is reflected by the layered structure of the sculptures; as one layer melts away, another is revealed, a process that Nora appreciates in person as she travels to NMAI on annual visits. The return of the materials to the earth is also represented by the re-use of elements. For example, ground up sherds of fired pottery, or grog, were mixed into some of the mud. However, the idea of returning to the earth does not preclude the replacement of all elements. When a bamboo rope used to represent a tie at the top of the teepee form disintegrated, it was decided to replace it with strips of rawhide, offered by a staff-member at NMAI. In this way, intertribal community was also promoted, and the sculptural form maintained what Nora considered a crucial element. This promotion was also clear given the numerous phone updates, dialogues, and discussions that occurred between Nora and the staff over the course of the year when she was not present.

Gail then discussed her experiences in participating from a collections management perspective. She noted the role of human interaction in shaping the sculptures as well, citing an example whereby a homeless gentleman took up short-lived residence in the teepee after carving out a small shelter during a particularly inclement evening. While the sight of smoke and flame was certainly alarming, however brief and quickly addressed by NMAI security, Gail juxtaposed her own reaction with Nora’s, who appreciated that someone considered her work a warm and welcoming shelter. Gail proposed that the idea of the sculpture as a living document and testament to nature, nurture, and conceptual art is often at odds with the traditional museum approach to preservation. Even if roles were re-envisioned, however, a balance was reached whereby all parties contributed. For example, pieces of pottery or memory stones that fell off were to be left; on the other hand, fired ceramic moons, as they represented part of a sequence, were to be sent back to Nora to re-create. A locust wood and rawhide fence was constructed to keep children from climbing on the sculptures and the surrounding plants from being trampled. Gail highlighted the influence of animal interaction with a few examples: mason bees drilling holes into one of the figures, and a robin’s nest in the Y-post of another.

Kelly spoke about her involvement when she took the place of a previous staff-member in 2009, after the construction, focusing on the ongoing role of conservation in the project. She stressed the admirable qualities of Nora’s vision, including community inclusion, the interaction of the sculptures with people and the environment, the importance of materials, but most of all, engagement with both the public and NMAI staff. This point was especially relevant and well-received, given that the AIC Annual Conference theme this year is Outreach. NMAI conservators became more comfortable with the idea of deterioration and the expectation of it, though preservation by creation, through deterioration, is not typically a part of our approach. Kelly suggested that the project prompts a discussion regarding alteration of materials, wherein some ambiguity currently exists. She illustrated this point by noting use of the term “time-based media” to refer to many digital and performance arts, where change is accepted and expected as part of the life of the artwork, and effecting an appropriate conservation approach. She suggests that this very idea is just as appropriate and more useful for sculptural projects such as “Always Becoming,” which is, eponymously, in a constant flux. In conclusion, she expressed gratitude at being given the freedom to experience change, and urges other conservators to be open to similar experiences.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 11, “Made in L.A.” by Rachel Rivenc

The original topic of this talk shifted from the analysis of sculpture created by the “Finish Fetish” artists using ATR (attenuated total reflection) to a discussion of the materials and methods of fabrication employed by three of these artists: Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, and Larry Bell. Though not accepted by the artists themselves, “Finish Fetish” was a name bestowed upon a group working in the L.A. area in the 1960s referring to the cool, yet pristinely finished surfaces that were characteristic of their art. Rachel noted that care must be given to preserving the signature surfaces, thus any analytical investigations required the use of non-invasive techniques only. The materials examination was augmented by interviews with artists when possible, as well as archival documents.

Craig Kauffman, one of the first artists to use plastics in the L.A. art community, converted industrial fabrication methods into his practice. Heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp, his early work involved painting, typically with clean lines, on the back of acrylic sheets composed of poly(methyl methacrylate), confirmed by ATR analysis. By 1964, he had begun shaping the acrylic sheets by vacuum forming, collaborating with a manufacturer. The acrylic was heated in an oven until it softened, then shaped on a mold to create shallow reliefs. Kauffman’s sketches reveal plans for fiberglass molds with wooden supports, which were especially necessary for his later experimentations with depth and complexity. The transparent shells were subsequently painted, using thick rubber masks to create crisp lines. Later, he created a feathered look by spraying the paint over a cardboard mask, which served to soften the lines. He eventually shifted from solvent-borne acrylic-based paint, an ethyl methacrylate/methyl acrylate co-polymer, to nitrocellulose paints, since the solvent-based paints caused the substrate to craze and crack.

Rachel went on to discuss the technique and materials of John McCracken, who is reported to have said he wanted his sculptures to look as if they were “made of color.” They generally consisted of wooden planks coated in a layer of fiberglass, followed by a primer and various layers of paint, later switching to polyester resin application instead of paint. To make grooves in the surface, he would mask the lines with painter’s tape, then coat exposed surface in the polyester resin mixed with pigment. He consistently jotted down ideas and sketches before producing technical drawings, and even kept a notebook recording the varying temperatures and amounts of catalyst used for the resin as he experimented, making note of how it affected the working time, as well as the properties of the resulting work. Regardless of the conditions, the application of resin to the surface of the planks required an experienced and steady hand in order to avoid the evolution of bubbles in the resin layer (as any novice conservator embedding their first few paint samples for cross-sections knows!). The final step involved sanding of the surface to a smooth sheen.

The last artist Rachel broached was Larry Bell, who worked not with plastic, but with glass. Originally a painter, he would add mirrors to his compositions to introduce volume, eventually deciding that he wanted to work exclusively with volume. He worked often with plywood, mirror parts, and paint, though he increasingly favored glass, such that his paint became instead the effect of light as it was manipulated by the glass. In 1962, he began experimenting with the vacuum deposition of thin films to the glass, soon after which he bought a secondhand machine to execute the process himself in 1966. This purchase allowed him the freedom to create larger panels, which also corresponded with a shift into more environmental art. The vacuum chamber heated the metal under vacuum to a temperature at which the metal vaporized and was deposited on the surface of the glass as a micron-thin film. The three metals most commonly used by Bell were aluminum, silicon monoxide, and nickel-chromium alloys, otherwise known as ‘Inconel.’ The thin film of metal influences the way light is reflected, refracted, and transmitted through the glass. Bell also experimented with changing the temperature and combining metals, all while monitoring the chamber through a window to assess the changes. Rachel noted that Bell, the only artist alive of the three discussed, is actively involved in the conservation of his work, providing conservators with replacement panels when they break.

The above represents but a small portion of the project embarked upon by the GCI (Getty Conservation Institute), a study of the materials and working methods of these and other artists active in the LA area during the postwar period who borrowed from modern industry. The study is a part of both the Pacific Standard Time initiative that included a recent set of exhibitions across Southern California sponsored in part by the The Getty. It also represents the GCI Modern and Contemporary Art research initiative. Future plans include a publication to disseminate the work, a short video, and an exploration of practical applications for the information gained, such as ways to mend cracked and chipped polyester and acrylic resin. Ultimately, the research of Rachel and her colleagues, Emma Richardson and Tom Learner, will hopefully help facilitate treatment decision-making for conservators working with modern and contemporary artwork.