LaStarsha McGarity and Raina Chao
Artists incorporate modern materials into their works in dynamic and innovative ways, creating fantastical forms and unique challenges for those charged with their long-term care and preservation. Zayamaca #4 by Alvin Loving, made in 1993, is no exception. The piece – which came to the Saint Louis Art Museum as part of the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection, a gift of 81 works by contemporary African American artists – can be described as a painting on paper, as a wall-mounted flat sculpture, or most accurately as a sculptural painting. The spiraling, boldly multihued tendrils of Zayamaca #4 are comprised of acrylic paint and medium on collaged paper adhered unevenly with acrylic medium to an artist constructed, multi-part, red poly(methyl methacrylate) or plexiglass sheet backing. Loving also signed, dated, and titled the piece on the PMMA backing in black permanent marker. Due to a combination of inherent vice, manufacturing method, and the difficulties of handling the work, cracks and failed joins propagated throughout the sections of the PMMA backing. The failed joins particularly compromised the overall structural stability, prompting invasive conservation efforts to prepare the piece for exhibition. While a mounting system to enable display could be constructed as a short-term solution for exhibition, it would not address the piece’s inherent instability, postponing treatment until circumstances like a total failure of the PMMA backing, forced a reaction in the future. Instead, the decision was made to proactively address the weaknesses before further damage occurred throughout the plexiglass sheet and propagated into the paper and paint layers. Following conversations with the collector, the artist’s gallery and the artist’s estate about Loving’s artistic intent and thoughts on his work’s continuing longevity and care, the plan to carefully delaminate the paper layers from the backing so that a professionally cut support material could be inserted to provide a stiff, planar layer was implemented. The interdepartmental effort drew expertise from the Saint Louis Art Museum curatorial, installation, design, and conservation departments. Given the complex nature of the artwork, techniques typical of paper, painting, and objects conservation were employed in tandem to improve the reversibility and long-term stability of each component while respecting and honoring Loving’s artistic aesthetic and intent.