Julia Gartrell – Multiples and Machines

I’ll admit up front that I was already a fan of Julia Gartrell’s work before I went to see her current show at the Scrap Exchange’s Green Gallery.  I first encountered her at the Made in the USA show in 2009 with a piece titled You Too Are Involved.  The piece was intricate and participatory; and ultimately doomed to break apart because of that.  Getting to watch the object of so many hours of planning and labor collapse into a tangled dirty mess made the experience all the more memorable.

So it was with interest that I watched Gartrell’s “Mundane Machines” doing their pointless work at the Scrap Exchange.  The destruction was of a much slower type in the pieces on display than You Too Are Involved,  but perhaps more hypnotizing because of it.  Two “machines” in particular interested me.  The first looks like a spinning wheel, with a large, self propelled wheel on one end that slowly pulls string from a spool on the other end.  In the middle, the string runs underneath a tall, skinny chunk of wax.  The point at which the string slides along the wax is lit with a bulb, helping it to slowly slice upward through the heated, softened wax.  When I was there the string had advanced only an inch or so upwards, of course making me wonder how long it would take to complete it’s task, and whether the spool or the wax would run out first.  The second machine brought in the participatory aspect by presenting a trio of suspended wooden tennis racquets that could be used by pulling on a rope, making them swat like a fly swatter.  Each racquet is paired with a balled  up piece of cloth coated in colored chalk, which can be batted into a piece of paper on the wall.  It’s sounds complicated to write it out, but it’s really very simple; yank a cord, swing a racquet and a puff of dust floats off the wall.  The maddening thing about it is that the dust doesn’t particularly like to cling to the paper.  If you succeed in making an interesting mark, the next swat is just as likely to erase it.  As an art making device, it is particularly futile, which I suspect is the intention.

As for the “Modified Multiples” in the show’s title, the most dramatic is a suspended arrangement of eyeglasses that are each zip-tied to another one in a floating row of thin wire frames and glass lenses.  The effect is of a giant floating millipede with the spiky ends of the zip-ties poking out sideways and acting as legs, while the body is made of mostly empty space and glass.

The larger connections of the show to the Scrap Exchange itself is also an enjoyable element.  For any creative individual, it is hard to see the things that Gartrell makes out of  mundane objects and not end up searching for similar objects in the warehouse outside.  I myself left with fifty small glass bottles and some glass tile samples, as well as some vague ideas on their use.

“Modified Multiples//Mundane Machines” will run from August 17 through September 15.  The Green Gallery is open during regular store hours (MTW 11–5, Th & Fri 11–9, Sat 10–5, Sun 12–5),

Matt Zigler


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Art as Experience at The Dwelling

Ever since surrealism slowly started to become a dirty word in the so-called “art world”, the trend in contemporary art has been ever more academic, analytical and detail oriented.  There are, of course, many notable exceptions to this trend (Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, etc.) but you only need to chart the steep increase in students enrolled in MFA programs to recognize that the main thrust of contemporary art attempts to wrap itself in more and more sophisticated language, perhaps in an effort to earn its this established place within academia.

This side of the artistic spectrum is only one part of the picture, and still a very recent one.  Dig back to the roots of art; cave paintings, ritualistic objects, shamanistic experiences, etc. and imagine the cave painter stepping away from his work to discuss with his fellow cave dwellers the solidity of his lines, the clarity of his concept, whether the work feels too “precious”, to understand how far removed this academic impulse is from the act of pure creation.  The cave painter’s work is experiential.  Its value lies not in the quality of the concept, but in the feelings and emotions of the viewer, experiencing it by the flickering candlelight of a smoky lamp deep underground.

This is the type of work that is on display at 1102 Taylor Street in Durham in an installation titled The Dwelling.  An amusing article on the front of the house describes how two local artists, Julia Gartrell and Julienne Alexander, took shelter on the porch of the house in order to escape a sudden rain storm.  Peeking through the windows they saw huge voodoo dolls, bottled specimens, collections of human hair, paintings on the floor, woven patterns on the walls.  They gained access to the house as “accidental anthropologists” to show that witchcraft and sorcery was closer than we think.

This article is all the frame we need to  enter into the experience of the house.  It allows us a willing suspension of disbelief such as we take part in while watching a film (the Blair Witch Project comes to mind) and for a period of time we wonder at the life and motivations of this modern day sorceress.  The items we are presented with vary from the monumental: stuffed burlap marionettes that you can control by pulling various cords; to the mundane: in what would be the kitchen, alongside bones, turtle shells and pieces of glass is what appears to be a jar of Cheetos.  Do Cheetos have some previously unknown magical powers (other than to turn your fingers orange), or did the woman need a snack between incantations?

Every room, corner, hallway, floor, etc is filled with the record of a life less ordinary than our expectations of an economically depressed area of the city would lead us to believe.  As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and in a place of deprivation and economic strain, people have always found ways of trying to bend the world more in their favor.  Perhaps there is a timely social message behind the installation, but I appreciate the “accidental anthropologist’s” efforts to not make it overly evident.  Instead I was able to have an experience filled with mystery, exploration and discovery that left me with a desire to go make a few incantations of my own.

The Dwelling is part of the Durham Storefront Project‘s Spring display and yesterdays Solstice party was a closing ceremony.  It won’t be up much longer, so for more information you can email psychicweekend@gmail.com.

Matt Zigler

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Murals and Photos

Here I was ensconced at my desk doing a little late night catch up on this season’s recent art criticism in the national press and whose work did I unexpectedly find myself revisiting but Diego Rivera, featured this past winter in a Museum of Modern Art exhibition that reunited three of Rivera’s original portable murals from his solo show at the fledgling MoMA back in 1931-32.  It was only the museum’s second solo exhibition,  a rarity at the time and given to a 45 year old Mexican artist at that!  So as I glanced at the iconic social-realist images celebrating industrialist progress, dynamic social change and revolutionary protest my thoughts wandered to the fight in the state these past few months over Amendment 1 and in particular a pair of extraordinary First Friday gallery openings this past weekend.    One called simply enough The Portrait was a temporary exhibition compiled of some 3,000 images of North Carolinians photographed by a team of volunteers led by Curtis Brown of the Vote Against Project.  It was an amazing collective experience at the one-night-only-showing with lines of visitors leaking out of the temporary 3rd floor Hargett Street location and down into Adam Cave’s 2nd floor gallery space below.  (This was in fact a good thing and served an added bonus feature as viewers could also peruse the paintings of Will Goodyear in the evening’s second highlight show which also tackle the thorny historical precedents of this amendment and the havoc it can unleash if successful.)

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s vote it must be remembered that there’s much to be said for looking back at our history to see how cruel injustice can be, the wrongs that seem to be continually going on out in the world and how society and artists have dealt with them.  It’s what secured Rivera’s position as a great artist and someone not afraid to take a stand.  I take heart seeing the outpouring of sentiment and action that this amendment has stirred and the positive social change that the state is nurturing.   And let’s not forget the quote from State House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Charlotte-area Republican,  who noted in March that the debate is “a generational issue.” Tillis, who is an acknowledged amendment supporter, also said. “If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years.”   On Monday polls were still showing a lead for amendment supporters though the point count had shrunk by half.  Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, the times in NC are definitely a changin’…

(photo above courtesy The Daily Reflector, gallery image courtesy The Vote Against Project and Diego Rivera mural images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)



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The Personal and the Political

The most powerful statement I’ve come across on the controversial state constitution Amendment 1 is not from the pastiche of yard signs spread all across the land right now or even from some of the snazzy web imagery out there which can be quite engaging.   (There is also just a certain amount of sheer outrageousness out there too which shows you how sensitive an issue this amendment is across the state.)  For me the most captivating response on the amendment debate emerges in a single poetic antiphon from the palette of painter Will Goodyear who is opening a rousing show this month at Adam Cave’s gallery in Raleigh.  The artist’s recent work includes a series of paintings couched in all the iconography and wrongheaded historical precedent swirling around the raging political debate over this amendment.   What Goodyear has done is succeed in accomplishing that most formidable of tasks: using a looming (and at the time of this writing still to be decided) hotbed political issue as a springboard for both dynamic cultural exposition and highly personal artistic exploration as well.

The amendment, in case you’ve been living under a rock or have somehow otherwise been kept blissfully unaware these past several months, is North Carolina Senate Bill 514 (2011) proposing to amend the state constitution to ban same sex marriage and define “that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state.”  (North Carolina remains the sole Southern state without such a constitutional provision though state law currently declares same-sex marriage as not valid.)   This is of course a complex issue and thorny complicated territory must be navigated particularly in terms of civil unions which have broad ramifications in matters like child custody, hospital visitation and inheritance rights.   Comparisons have already been made between this amendment and another in North Carolina’s past (with 18th century roots) banning interracial marriage.  That one remained on the books all the way up until 1971 and is in fact a starting point for Goodyear particularly in his Legacy of Inequality panels included in the show. 
These richly layered paintings juxtapose lawmaker images with state capital imagery and other works of Raleigh architecture and environs.  The piece is in keeping with Goodyear’s ongoing interest in the urban environment of the city and the underlying significance of people, place and society.  For Goodyear a portrait has a broad definition and can encompass “your works,  your environment, your sociopolitical environment” as he described to me on a recent studio visit.

Goodyear often begins an image with the tools of printmaking media specifically by building up a layered screen created by  photographic transfers or by drawing media.  As Cave describes, “one of the things I found very interesting and it’s hard to see when you look at the finished pieces is that he is as free in using the screens as he is in using paint. It’s not like he does one screen and then moves on. He keeps screening and screening and it’s the same image or a piece of [it] and he’s working all over with that image.  And then he puts that away and starts the other processes.  So even with the screening it’s not like it’s just that one process.”

A key component to Goodyear’s imagery is his aggressive mark making and paint handling which hearkens back to Abstract Expressionism.  Working and reworking the surface is critical to the painter’s process –he paints on durable panel for precisely this reason–and he will generally begin with water based paint and drawing media which he then seals with beeswax.  On top of this he will begin to scratch back through and utilize additional drawing and oil based media to impart ethereal murky atmospheric effects which gradually reveal or conceal various landmarks, physical placemarkers, figures or even autobiographical snippets of the body.  It’s quite the balancing act to maintain and oftentimes the most dramatic visual elements such as a bold shock of color come last.

When you go, keep in mind that the show maintains a three-pronged approach mixing in notions of self image (both emotional sense of self and the biological self), environment (in terms of our physical and sociopolitical) and the socioeconomic landscape which all come together to create the artist’s own sense of self in the world.  No easy task this and Goodyear manages to make his laborious process look like it came off quite deftly.   This show is in short much like the voting day itself, something to mark on your calendars and is not to be missed.

(Note: As an added bonus for First Friday the third floor of the gallery’s building will house a large-scale  temporary installation / portrait show shot in locales all across the state recently and focusing on what family is, the wide range of meanings and the ramifications of this vote.)


A Matter of Context: New Works by Will Goodyear is on view at Adam Cave Fine in Raleigh from May 3 – June 16, 2012.

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Local Hero

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced this past week and the attention grabbing headlines made particular note that there was no fiction prize awarded this year.  However I was stirred by an aspect of the prizes that hit a little closer to home: the nomination of North Carolina’s own Chris Hondros in the Breaking News  Photography category.  Hondros was an NC State alum and journalistic photographer who covered pretty much all the recent major conflicts around the world including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and conflicts in Angola, Kashmir, Kosovo, Lebanon, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the West Bank.  Neglected as well is the fact that Hondros’s death was overshadowed in the press at the time of its occurrence because he perished alongside noted documentary director Tim Hetherington of ‘Restrepo‘ fame.    (It is also important to note that fellow photographers  Guy Martin and Michael Brown were also injured in that same attack.)  The current exhibition at Artspace‘s upstairs Gallery Two goes a long way towards rectifying this overshadowing.  Looking through this show’s  portfolio of Hondros’s work, all but one of which we are fortunate to have housed nearby at the Gregg Museum at NCSU, is a reminder of how nimble and versatile the photographer really was, performing his journalistic duties with an exquisitely compassionate eye.

Hondros’s legacy will likely be secured by the single photo immediately below which he took of a  young militia fighter in Liberia in 2003 and which was beamed around the world.  It is a moment of spontaneity certainly (one with need of some clarification as the fighter appears to be solitary and looking directly at the camera when he was in fact momentarily separated from a larger group at that moment and looking beyond the photographer)  yet it is one which captures an extraordinary moment of unbridled enthusiasm in the midst of extreme strife and conflict.

But like all the great wartime photographers Hondros always seemed to keep an eye out for that particular moment which captures the time and essence of culture, place and event. Look no further than his photograph below of a Kurdish girl walking home for instance.  It’s poignant yet timeless in a most mysterious way. One which is quite fleeting in the majority of today’s photo headline stories.   This was a theme that ran through much of the photographer’s images I think: a sensitivity to local people and context while at the same time expressive of larger gripping, universal themes of conflict and the devastations of war.  Give these photos a closer look if you get a chance as we are not likely to see the photographer the likes of Hondros pass our way again anytime soon I’m afraid.

Looking at the power of the visual imagery is a moving enough experience. But the most somber aspect of both the images and the retrospective itself is the simple fact that Hondros put his life on the line for his work.  One is constantly reminded of this but perhaps most poignantly in the final portfolio of Getty images taken just before the photographer’s death from brain injuries suffered from a mortar attack.  The Artspace photos are more well rounded than that last day’s work due in large part to the vast extent of territory which Hondros covers and divulges before our eyes.

Chris Hondros: A Retrospective is on view at Artspace in downtown Raleigh through May 26, 2012

(all detail images courtesy of Getty Images/Chris Hondros except portrait of Chris Hondros taken April 18, 2011 in Misurata, Libya image courtesy of Katie Orlinsky)

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Collaborating with El Anatsui: Perry Hurt & NCMA’s installation and conservation team – Part II

Here’s the second part of my recent discussion with North Carolina Museum of Art conservator Perry Hurt on the installation of the museum’s exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to you from Africa. Additional items discussed here include a few particulars on the dynamic work Zebra Crossing, El Anatsui’s team of assistants and their working methods and a few finer details on NCMA’s own Lines That Link Humanity.

Dave Delcambre:  Was there much in the way of conservation work that you had to do on the wood pieces in the exhibition?

Perry Hurt:  No not at all. That gets into another whole discussion because back to the wall sculptures [discussed in Part I], the conservator’s job is to make things last as long as possible. From a very pessimistic but very realistic viewpoint, the moment the artist takes his hands away from making the artwork it’s starting to fall apart.  It’s just a matter of how long it takes before it absolutely falls apart and becomes dust again.  In many artworks it’s a very long slow process.  And as a conservator we try to slow that process down as much as possible. In a building like ours we designed it so that temperature, humidity and light are kept as stable as possible and that slows down the process of deterioration.  The way you handle an artwork and the way you display it that’s another interaction where you limit how much damage, how much degradation is related to the object so that once again you’re preserving it as long as possible.  When we restore a painting, when we take off dirty varnish and remove dust and grime that’s a visual [effort] try to get back to what the artist initially represented but at the same time it’s also a preservation thing.

PH: So we’re always trying to preserve the artworks but the fact is that some artists are going to use some materials that you can’t do very much to.  You can keep the temperature and humidity stable so that in itself doesn’t degrade the object but there are always certain materials like rusty metal. You can slow down rust. You can put paint on it, you can do all sorts of things to slow down rust. But you can’t do that without visually radically changing the way the object looks.  So especially on a found object like a rusty metal lid you pretty much have to accept that it’s rusty and that it’s slowly deteriorating right before your very eyes because that’s what the artist has given you, that’s the parameters of what he’s given you to work with.

PH: In particular the wooden wall sculptures the way he’s applied the paint and what not. is not the most stable process. He did it to get to the point that he wanted to make the object that he was pleased with but inherently there are problems with it. There are problems with every painting.  I’m certainly not saying that he was not skilled at what he was doing but he chose to do it a certain way and that has ramifications.  So there’s certain instability to the paint on those. We are limited. We can’t even dust it because we don’t want to knock any of the paint off.  But that’s true with a lot of contemporary art.  A Robert Rauschenberg that’s up right now [Credit Blossom (Spread)] has a quilt in it and that quilt is going to slowly but surely fade with exposure to light and that sort of thing.  But there’s nothing we can do about that. We can limit the exposure so we can limit the amount of fading that’s going to happen but that fading is going to happen over time regardless.  It’s just a matter of how fast or how slow that’s going to happen and we just have to accept that to a certain extent.  If you want to enjoy the piece and you want to see it, you have to put it in the light. The light’s going to damage it but that’s the choice that you make so that you enjoy your artwork, so you can experience it.

DD: I guess otherwise it would be in a dark vault or a vacuum.

PH:  Exactly. And that would be great as far as preserving it. Sometimes I wish that would happen to all art where it was in a dark vacuum where nothing would change it so it would last forever. But what’s the point if you can’t enjoy it? If you can’t see it and you can’t experience it then really what’s the point?

DD: You have to strike that balance.

PH: Exactly. It’s always a balance, yeah.

DD: How do you think El Anatsui’s guys work?  I remember in one of the videos I didn’t seem them wearing any gloves.

PH:  No they didn’t.

DD: They must have super tough fingers.

PH: They have young super tough fingers.  It’s interesting because I had gloves on, I had nice wire cutters, I had hammers and I worked at a nice bench. And you see those guys [in the video] sit down with their bare hands and feet and very simple tools just cranking these things out and working very fast.  I mean it took me close to a week to make one of these [mock-ups.]  And a guy described this as being less than a day’s work as far as he was concerned.  But yeah it’s amazing.  I’m sure they get stuck every once in awhile and maybe a little cut here and there but I guess they’re used to it. I guess they have tougher hands than I do.

DD: With the show, have you gotten other interest or have other institutions called you to find out about tricks of the trade or how to go about the work beyond your paper?

PH:  The show previous to here was in Austin [the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin] and when it was there they invited me to come down and do a presentation on this.  So these [mockups] traveled down there with me and they got handed through the crowd and all that sort of thing so the word’s gotten around a little bit.  For all I know Denver might ask me to come when it [the exhibition] goes there, just whatever they find most interesting.

DD: Now did you have the benefit …you were able I assume to see the show before it came here?

PH: Oh yeah I saw it at the Davis [Museum at Wellesley College] in Boston and I saw it in Austin as well.  And like we talked about the artworks are different every place they go up.  It looked like a very different show in both places. Of course the pieces were recognizable for what they are but they each looked very different because they’re in a different place with different light and a different shape room and they look quite different.

DD:  Is there a problem over time after the work has been installed for a few months?  Does gravity affect it?

PH:  In some cases.  The acrylic rods especially the long ones that have a fair amount of weight or material on them, they do relax a little bit. But the trick is in those areas you just want more sticks, more rods.  So instead of having one every foot or two feet away, you have one three inches away, you have several of them, you group them together and that avoids that problem.

PH: Now on our piece Lines that Link Humanity, we had one issue on that and it is that purposely we asked for an artwork that is larger than the wall.  The wall that artwork was commissioned for is a floating wall. In other words the outsides and the top are free and we wanted the object to extend just slightly past the wall to make it look even more three dimensional and it’s substantially larger than the wall.

PH: So one of the reasons ours has so much shape, so many wrinkles and folds and that sort of thing is [with] all that area you have to condense it somewhat to make it fit on that wall and all that material has to go someplace so it has a lot of shape to it.  But the one way we were able to extend past the wall is to use some of the thicker clear rods, long ones kind of like fishing poles almost, behind the piece to extend out the edges and when you walk around behind the piece you can see those a bit more obviously especially the top corners.

PH: So you have a rod that’s maybe 2-feet long and it’s holding the piece out there and we’ve wired the artwork to the end of that rod.  And over time, over about a year and a half, eventually I started noticing that the top, some of it was sagging just a little bit. The continual weight of just a few square feet of [wired together metal pieces] and that one rod started bending over just very slightly. So I went back and reshaped those areas to help it keep its shape that we were looking for.

DD: How much would you say the overall piece when it gets that big weighs?

PH:  As I recall we estimated that it weighed between 125-150 lbs. which really isn’t a whole lot.  I mean two people can pretty easily pick up 150 lbs but when you spread it over that large area and you’re asking people to pick it up and put it on the wall and you’re in an awkward position it’s a lot heavier than you might think it is when you start working with it. You put too much weight on those clear rods, they’ll bend, snap off, whatever.  Once again it’s the whole idea of spreading the load, using as many [rods] as you can get away with, so that no one spot is taking very much of the weight.

DD: When you install do you have a team so that several people hold the top and work your way down?

PH:  Not so much because you want to avoid that. If you just hold it from the top all the stress is on that top row. So with that piece demonstrating what we did, we had a boom from one lift to another and we had about four or five people along the top and we picked it up and laid it over the boom  so there was enough of the top part laying over so we didn’t actually have to attach it to the boom it was just laying over the top of it. So then we lifted up the boom so that the bottom was more or less where we wanted the finished artwork to hang then we pushed it against the wall and put in lots of chopsticks so then once all this [bottom section] was supported down here then we could lift this [top portion] up so all this was supported and was in effect much lighter and you push that part against the wall and put the chopsticks in.

DD: So you always work from the bottom up then.

PH: Yeah, you work from the bottom up to avoid loading all that weight on the part you’re working on. Then once it’s up there with all the chopsticks sticking in it then we did that same thing when you start shaping it. If you go up [top] and shape that first then you have a bunch of excess [below] that you could shape the part and then you just move up the wall that way or sideways or whatever.  The video that [NCMA webmaster] Chad Weinard photographed particularly of the installation of Stressed World, he left a camera in one spot and did time lapse photography. It’s posted on the museum’s blog now so you can see two or three different days that we worked on it. But you can see that it goes up there in one fell swoop but then the changing of the shape that takes several days inevitably because you move a little here and a little there, it’s the artistic process and you’re never really sure when it’s finished. So you stand back and take a look to see what you think about it and then you move it a little more and eventually you get stale for that day so you have to walk away from it and the next day you come out and reassess.  Does it look right, does it look good, what can I do to make it look better?

PH: One piece in particular in the show was kinda funny. There’s one piece called Zebra Crossing and because there are so many pieces in the show, there’s a danger in hanging them all the same way.  When El Anatsui first started making these pieces, it was enough to just sort of hang them on the wall and everybody went, “Oh my gosh, look at that. That’s an incredible artwork.”  But then once they got used to the idea that they could influence the artwork slowly and surely people started shaping them and hanging them on things to make an even more dramatic statement with the artwork. So over time not only did the pieces get bigger and heavier but people were handling them more and more to make all that shape with all that sculpting. That’s one aspect that was really impacting the way our piece was handled because by the time we got ours, plenty of people had had them already so the idea of just hanging them up and having them hang like a drape was just not enough. I mean people that had more of the control over the piece wanted more of a statement and more shapes in it. They wanted big folds and drama to a certain extent and all that handling just contributes to the stress on the piece so that was one of the things I was dealing with.  But for this exhibition when you have this many of them you realize you can’t use the same aesthetic for every one of them. You can’t just go to it and make lots and lots of shapes because then they all start looking the same you know? So you try to be sympathetic to each piece itself, what it needs to make it interesting but also keeping in mind that you want them all to be as different as possible.

So if you look at the various ones in the show, some of them have very graphic elements, very hard lines or shapes and those pieces in my mind didn’t need a whole lot of shape.  They’ve already got a lot of interest because of these very strong graphic elements so I tried to make subtle shapes in them, to change them relatively little and it’s interesting because you have the happy accident kind of quality in that when they’re first put up there you’re just trying to put them on the wall, you’re not trying to make any shapes but inevitably when you put them up with all the chopsticks in there’s some shape imparted by that and you say, “Oh I like that shape and I don’t like that shape over there so we’ll keep that one and lose that one.”  So there’s a little bit of coincidence involved in it too. There are things happening that you don’t expect and that’s fun and interesting so you want to preserve some of that. So a couple of the pieces that went up that’s pretty much exactly what happened. They went up and I said, “That looks good almost just the way it is and it doesn’t need any more shape. “ There are several pieces like that. Other pieces, particularly the ones that are more or less monochrome that don’t have really obvious lines and shapes in them, to me those are the ones that benefit from having a little bit more drama, a little bit more shape in them.

PH: So we had hung all of them except for the very last one Stressed World and I’d already decided on that one. Unlike the others one I’d already seen a previous installation of it that I really liked and that was one where the artist himself  had done the shaping and I thought that’s really good for that piece. But all the other ones I really just disregarded what it’d looked like at other places and decided on my own what looked good in our space. So I hung all of them except for Stressed World and Zebra Crossing was the last one and in comparison to all the others I thought it looked a little boring. And Linda Dougherty who is the curator of record for the show we walked through because she really had the last word about what they looked like.  I was doing the [installation] work but it was really her taste and feeling about what looked good or not. So we walked through and she’d say, “Change this one a little and that one a little here.” But for the most part she liked them but for Zebra Crossing she said, “It needs a little something in the middle.”  That’s all she said.  So it was late on a Friday and I’d moved it a little bit and moved it a little bit and said, “Well this isn’t working so I need to do something radical.” So I started making big shapes in it and just changing it as much as I could all over the place and I worked on it for about an hour.  Then I stood back from it and realized it looked radically different from anything else in the show.  So then I said, “I don’t know what Linda’s going to say about this. I‘ve just gone way off on a tangent with this one.”

PH: So Monday came along and I said, “Linda what’d you think?”  She goes,  “Oh I love Zebra Crossing, how’d you come up with that?”  And I said, “Oh I just went crazy and made a bunch of shapes in it.”   So someone else at the museum had walked through the exhibition totally cold and not knowing anything about the artwork and caught Linda and told her, “I think one of the artworks is falling off the wall.”  And she was talking about Zebra Crossing. And in the end I realized that was the feeling I was trying to do. I was trying to make it look like it was flying off the wall and that it was really alive and that something was happening there even though it’s totally static. I wanted the feeling that it was really coming off the wall.  That was a fun element.

DD: I was going to say there must be a really fun element to it. Modifying them to that extent?

PH:  Oh yeah. Like I said this quality is not something that is normal in our line of work.  I guess it can be stressful because like that first time we put up Lines that Link Humanity, Kinsey Katchka was a great curator.  I believe she had a big hand in bringing the work to the museum.  She really understood the artist but her profession is not to be an artist.  So when it fell to her to do all the shaping it wasn’t something she was normally used to. Fortunately the head art handler Tom Lopez is an artist a very good practicing artist. So the two of them working together it worked out because Kinsey had an idea of where she wanted to go and Tom is an artist and has refined instincts in that way so it worked out and they were able to make something very interesting out of it.

But like I said before this idea of making an artwork, shaping an artwork is not really in our job description as a museum professional. That kind of creativity is not something we’re expected to exercise on a day to day basis. We do a lot of problem solving but it’s not making art so to speak. So that aspect of this show is very different and its fun and its interesting.  But El Anatsui’s work gave us a lot of liberty to have fun with it and be an artist for a day and that was really refreshing and interesting. And I think that just about everybody that was involved with the installation felt that it is a different kind of thing.

DD: Was there any particular work in the show that was most difficult to install?

PH:  Well certainly Stressed World was because it’s large and fragile and so we didn’t have the liberty with it that we had with the other pieces. That was stressful because it had to be handled very carefully and in a very certain way.   We actually used rigging, pulleys and ropes to get it up on the wall and we didn’t do anything else like that in the whole exhibition.  That was particularly difficult. The people that had to work on Open Market, that was rather difficult because there’s just so dang many of those boxes!  I think four people spent two days putting that one artwork out there.  There’s just so much of it. You have to count all the boxes.  You have to make sure they’re all there. You have to handle each one specifically.  And make sure that everybody’s doing the same thing because you can’t have one person  doing something totally different on one end than on the other end of the artwork. That was just a big project that one artwork.

PH: But it’s one of the great benefits of working here is that we have great people here.  We have people that really know their jobs and they’re very experienced at it. And putting up an exhibition is a gigantic teamwork effort.  It’s teamwork that’s been going on for a year at least if not two years between all the departments. Certainly the curator’s probably been dealing with it for three or four years and the registrar at least a year out. But then when it comes right down to it with the installation we’re talking three or four different departments and 20 people probably and it’s very much an orchestrated dance to get it all done and do it safely with the objects, get it done in a timely manner and make it look good and make it look relatively effortless.

PH: I frequently talk with museum professionals and I talk a lot with the general public and one of the things I frequently want to say but often can’t find a time to say it is that art museums in particular are extremely good at hiding the work that we do.  And that’s intentional in that we want the visitor to enjoy and experience the artwork. It’s really why they’re there and why we’re here.  But the fact is that we’re so seamless in how we get it done that the vast majority of people have no idea how much work it takes to run an exhibition- how many resources, how many people, how much time it takes to simply get the artwork here and put it on the wall and make it a non-distracting experience for the visitor.  In that respect we shoot ourselves in the foot because if people don’t realize how much work and effort goes into it they don’t even think about what it takes to support an institution like this.

DD: They don’t value the resource as much….

PH: Exactly.  I mean I don’t begrudge anybody a visit to the art museum if they don’t have a penny in their pocket. I hope they can come to the art museum but the fact is it does take huge resources to run any museum.   And I think some other museums, I won’t say history or science museums because there’s [also]a lot of work there to make one little exhibit happen.  One little display takes lot of work to make happen but especially in art museums where you supposed to have this contemplative experience of just you and the artwork with no distractions I think we’re particularly adept at hiding all the work we do to make that happen.

DD: Now how about taking the show down?  Are there equally challenging circumstances there – deinstalling as well as putting the work up?

PH: You can imagine what Christmas is like with a big family and everybody’s ripping through their gifts and everything. Well you can imagine what it would be like if you had to put them all exactly back together again exactly like they were and make it appear as if nothing had been opened.  That’s basically what you’re talking about. It’s sort of… the thrill is over, you’ve had your exhibition, you’ve had your fun but now it all has to very seamlessly go back in the box and go on the next exhibition.  And you have to do it pretty quickly because almost without fail within say a week the same space where you’re taking this down will have a new exhibition in it and all that stuff is going to be coming in the door. So everything is very much deadline driven. You don’t really have a whole lot of time to figure it out when you’re there you have to have done it all in advance.

PH: And so Amanda from the African Art Museum will come back and help us get it done in a timely fashion but you have to rely on the professionalism and experience of the people that are here. The registrars will have it all figured out, they’ll have their lists and their checklists and the art handlers will have all the crates up there and have the right crate for the right artwork and we all have to get it back in there and off the wall.   The wall sculptures in particular they will all come down off the wall exactly the same way they went up.  We’ll put the chopsticks back in , we’ll take the clear rods back out and we’ll slowly but surely release them from the wall, gently take them down, roll them back up and put them in their crates.

DD: Do any of the pieces in the show come in sections or were they all one piece?

PH:  They’re all one piece and I think that’s generally the case for the metallic wall sculptures. I think they’re all one piece unless they’re extremely large like the exterior piece in Venice. That’s the only one that I know of specifically that was shipped in individual pieces and then put together on site.  For all I know, all the extremely large ones…in St. Louis the Nelson-Atkins has a very large one and the Metropolitan Museum  also has a very large one that as far as I know I [both were] a complete piece and came that way.

DD:  You mentioned the tangles when you roll it, are they always wired the same way so you don’t get tangles on the same face?

PH:  They’re generally all twisted on the back but I know of at least one that is double sided. It’s meant to be seen from both sides [it’s at] the Blanton in Austin.  Their piece is meant to be shown both sides. I didn’t get a really close look at it and they still hang it on the wall now like a conventional one.   We talked for a very short period about the idea of suspending it so you could see both sides of it and I think that’s an interesting project. I hope they call me back on that one.

DD:  How do you think that one would proceed?

PH:  There are a number of different ways you could do it. I started thinking about clear fishing line and all sorts of stuff like that. I mean there’s certainly ways to do it and I think it’d be very interesting to see one of these suspended in the air. It’d be a very different piece.  One of the things that’s interesting about these, like Stressed World in particular is that the openings, that kind of fishnet quality and whatnot, the way the light works with that it can be really interesting, the shadows that are created by it, that sort of thing. And especially when you are talking about suspending one so you can walk around it, so then everything that you can see through it [and] the shadows that it casts become that much more a part of the artwork.

DD:  The lighting would play a huge part in it too.

PH:  Absolutely.  It’s hard to see you might have to pause it but on the time lapse video part of Stressed World, when we put the exhibition in we just have working lights. The rooms are evenly lit. We don’t have the spotlights on the walls. It’s just the easiest way to see what we’re doing. We actually have task lighting we can roll around if we need to but the wall sculptures went up in that flat lighting and I gave them some shape and everybody asked, “Is it done?” and I said, “No, it’s not done. You’re not going to know if it’s done until you get the exhibition lighting on it.” Because these things are so three-dimensional, you give it a shape in this flat lighting, you see a shape but you don’t really don’t see how dramatic it is until you get that exhibition lighting on it that really creates the sparkle and the shimmer and the shadows in particular .  Because you get the slightest little variation in the surface then the exhibition lighting really gives it a dramatic shadow.  It looks very, very different.  In the middle of that video you’ll see the artwork suddenly change from looking rather flat to dramatic, but this is just a change in the lighting.  No one’s touched it and it’s a quick thing because it’s just one picture difference so you have to be kind of expecting it and look for it.

DD: It becomes a very critical part of the whole exhibition then.

PH: Absolutely and I’ve noticed that with every exhibition I’ve been a part of here. The artwork goes up and everybody is interested in every artwork that goes up and seeing it. But then you stand back and it just has a sort of bland quality and then the exhibition lighting technician goes through and changes all the lights and the next day when you walk in its lit like an exhibition.  It’s like magic overnight. Certainly it’s a theatrical thing but the change in the lighting can be just magic the way it changes the way everything feels and looks and gives it that punch that you expect from an exhibition.

PH:  Talking about the nuts and bolts and practical things of conservation and exhibitions, it can sort of take the magic out of it.  Exhibitions can be dramatic in feeling and transportive for the viewer.  But when the little details are pointed out, it somehow detracts from the experience.

DD:  You mentioned working with other sculptures earlier, have you gotten involved with sculpture conservation as well?

PH: I’m a painting conservator. It’s what I’m trained in so I understand paintings and if you hand me one I know how to do the job and don’t have to ask questions usually.  Working on one of these metallic sculptures was quite a stretch which is why I did the research because I was more uncomfortable with it so talking with other people was important.  But there’s lots of things to be done here and we don’t have a specialist in everything so when the Rodin gift came to the museum 2-1/2 years ago a lot of that Rodin sculpture maintenance has fallen to me. Before that I knew very little about metallic sculpture but now after a crash course in it that’s my responsibility so the Rodin sculptures that are outdoors particularly I have to wash and wax and maintain those sculptures. We’re getting ready to do it in the next month or so. We do it two or three times a year. There’s plenty of other jobs that keep me busy here.  The conservation lab is just a natural for showing people what goes on behind the scenes. It does give people insight into how things change and are being done here at the art museum.

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa is on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh through July 29, 2012

(Installation photos courtesy NCMA with special thanks to Perry Hurt and Natalie Braswell.)

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Collaborating with El Anatsui: Perry Hurt & NCMA’s installation and conservation team – Part I

At the opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s current exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa I was immediately intrigued by both the diversity of the artist’s work and the challenges inherent to the presentation.  At the suggestion of museum staff, I sat down with Perry Hurt, one of NCMA’s conservators (and a specialist in painting conservation specifically) who was instrumental in the show’s installation. He has in fact become an expert on the installation and handling of El Anatsui’s work in American museums, gathering input on the process from other museum art handlers and publishing an article on the process referenced by the other institutions during the show’s tour.   Perry assists frequently at NCMA with exhibition installation and conservation of other media in the museum’s collection and he graciously agreed to share with me a few details about the Anatsui show’s extraordinary installation.  Below is Part I of our talk:

Dave Delcambre: I thought we might want to begin with where you started with the installation?

Perry Hurt:  We commissioned El Anatsui for our own sculpture Lines That Link Humanity for the new West Building and that happened well before the building opened. We received it six months or so before the new building opened and it came in a little tiny box just a little bigger than a carryon luggage just packed in there folded up like a sheet.  [NCMA staff] opened it up downstairs and knew they needed to hang it to photograph it, so the board of directors and the people that had kindly purchased it for the museum and everybody could see it.

PH: This was the time when the whole museum was closed to the public so we chose to put it up in one of the galleries where the show is hanging now.   So many of us in conservation and art handling… I was one of many many people who showed up to help that day.  So we started putting it up and the process was really led by Kinsey Katchka—who was an NCMA curator at the time and the one dealing directly with the artist and his agents—and Tom Lopez the NCMA head art handler.

PH: What we knew about it was basically what the agents had told us which was you could hang this [work] any way you want to.  They described certain ways of putting up a board with nails on it or maybe a couple pieces of a foam just anywhere you wanted to, just put it up there and grab pieces of it and push it around and put a nail through it and give it some shape and that was about all the instructions they gave us.

DD:   That must be sort of freeing in a way?

PH:    Well it was but it was also a dramatic departure from doing anything else.  I can’t think of another artwork in the museum that’s like that.  Most artworks, I’d say 99.9%, are done when they leave the artist and we display them with an absolute minimum of intrusion.  You know a painting has a couple of D-rings on the back of a framed artwork and we hang it; a sculpture, we make a pedestal and it might have a little curvy piece of metal that we strategically camouflage with a little paint so you don’t see it just to secure it so the sculpture  can’t be knocked over.  But other than that we don’t put any spin on what the artwork looks like.  We present it without any details or extra context because we don’t want to misconstrue what the artist meant it to look like.

PH: So the El Anatsui –the wall sculpture – is radically different than that in that he finishes the work to his specifications his own view of what the piece should look like but then he tells you to hang it any way you want to , give it whatever shape you want. The idea of an artwork that can be transformed every time you move it to a new site or hang it in a different place it’s a new artwork that’s part of the magic of this particular type of sculpture.   So it’s a very freeing, interesting thing but it’s not something that museum professionals tend to deal with.  We want the artist to tell us, “Do it this way and this is what I mean it to look like.”  Even though it’s a nice thing for the artist to give us this whole new kind of artwork to interpret any way we want to, that’s really outside of our job description so to speak.

PH: So I think we had 12 or 15 people show up that day that we hung it and we already had the wall prepped with some nails and things like that, and we started unrolling it and putting it up there and the whole process was very painful.  Literally because the pieces were made out of metal with rough edges and lots of sharp wire and things like that so we were continually getting poked even though we were wearing gloves, and our clothes were snagging on it and all sorts of issues like that.   But slowly and surely we gradually started getting it up on the wall but we all realized that because of the size of it and its own inherent weight, we were affecting it, we were bending the little metal pieces and separating the wires and affecting the artwork in ways that none of us….

DD:  Just from handling it and moving it around?

PH :  From moving it around and just handling it.  None of us felt good about that but that was how we had been directed to do it. So we finished that day and by the end of the day I had already started talking to people about how there’s just got to be a better way to do this.  The reason that thought was particularly important was that we all knew this was a temporary installation and it would only be up there about a month before we would take [Lines] down and reinstall it in the new building two months, three months down the road.  So as soon as I got back to my desk I started thinking,”Well how am I going to do this?”  Well the obvious thing was to communicate with other professionals in other museums who had dealt with this type of thing before.  (*see list at end of post below for affiliated museum professionals contacted) 

DD: Yes I was going to ask if there were other people out there that you talked to?

PH:  Exactly, there are plenty of people out there, but these sculptures are quite new.  He’s only been doing them for about ten years and they’ve only been known to the museum world for about five or six years so they really are quite new.  And as of right now, we’re talking this was 2-1/2 years ago now so it was relatively new.  So I had a couple of leads right off the bat and I started calling around. But one of the first places I called was the St. Louis Museum of Art and they had hung quite a few of them and then I called the Metropolitan Museum of Art and they gave me some insights.   The Fowler Museum on the West Coast…there are about half dozen places I called and spoke with specific people that had dealt with these types of things before.

DD:  What sort of things would they tell you?

PH: Oh they would say, we’ve hung 20 or 30 of those but they’re all quite small compared to the one you have. And then once they came out of the [shipping] box—everybody has a story about the boxes they came out of because the boxes by museum standards are quite crude. They’re just basic crates and one even had the old style latch with a stick through the clasp and that was how it was shipped from Africa to the U.S.    Museum quality crates are armored trucks by comparison and maybe they’re over engineered but we have standards and then when you get one of these crude crates that has a major new art piece in it, it sort of sets you back.

PH: But everybody had slightly different approaches. One person would mention, “Oh you need these heavy duty rubber gloves so you won’t be hurt by the artwork” and then the next person would say, “You can’t use any gloves at all because the gloves just snag on the artwork and they get shredded anyway so don’t worry about that.”  And one place, I think it was Kansas City, they had a piece probably twice as large as ours to hang and they had hung it a couple of times so they had a boom system with a long 4-by-4 basically with two mechanical lifts on each side that they would wire the artwork to and literally hoist it up the wall to attach it to the wall and do whatever they had to do.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the conservators that dealt with it there were textile conservators so their approach to this artwork was much more like how you would handle a textile which is really a departure.  Their point was that you have a very large flexible object which really can’t support its own weight so when you go to hang it and display it you need to spread the load over the whole object of the way it’s mounted.  So if you have a very large El Anatsui you can’t hang it from the very top edge because there’s too much weight on it.  It will cause the piece to damage itself just gravity pulling on it.  So how do you avoid that?  You support it all over the face of it every 1-foot or 2-feet on a grid. You want to have something in the piece attaching it to the surface behind it so the weight, the load is all spread throughout the whole piece.

DD:  Can you do that without intervening too much or having to attach other pieces to it to accomplish that?

PH:  Well that’s the trick. For me the trick in all this research was to talk to all these people, ask the right questions, get their input and then pick and choose what worked for one person, what worked for the other person [to find] what would work for our situation.   The thing is that the improved system that we came up with was definitely thanks to the input of all these other people but also keeping in mind every one of these artworks is different, every place you put it is different so you have to pick and choose every time you put one of these artworks up the right system for that one situation. So getting all that information together we came up with a more holistic way we hoped to [use to] put up our piece. So like I said the first time we put it up we had 12-15 people and it took about four hours just to get it up on the wall and then we spent two or three days time after that shaping it and sculpting it giving it shape once it was up on the wall.  With the process that we came up with from all this research [for the reinstallation] we got it up there with about five people and it took us about two hours. It was radically different and it was much, much easier on the artwork. We saw very little stress on the artwork by doing it this way.

PH: One of the fun things that was different about it that I introduced to it was using chopsticks for the process.  Basically we cover the wall with foam [a particular type called Ethafoam] and then we use [a boom] to lift the artwork up there. The type of boom and the way we attach the artwork to the boom varies with the size and construction of the artwork.  Once [the work] is up to the right height and next to the wall you push it to the wall and use chopsticks to go between the various different pieces of the fabric of the piece into the foam.    So you don’t make new holes you just go through an existing hole and you can put a chopstick every 6-inches or 1-foot, whatever you feel is necessary and you put them all over the place just kind of indiscriminately to hold the piece up there. Then once the piece is up there you can start picking out various areas and making folds and mountains or whatever shape you want to give it and then pull out the chopsticks in that area, put them back in [elsewhere] to hold that shape and then keep moving on.

PH: And that was quite different from the way it was done before because before you put a nail or a screw in when you wanted to hold a shape, then you would pull the next area to make a different shape and as soon as you did that the whole piece would pull against the nails you had put in and the nails would end up damaging the piece.  The other thing is that particularly with our sculpture there are areas that stand out 12-to-16 inches from the wall and the piece has a mind of its own.  When you pull it in one place it wants to pop out in another so invariably if you put nails and screws to attach it then they get buried and lost behind the piece and you don’t know where they are and you can’t get them out and you can’t reach through the piece to get the nail out so inevitably you’re pulling against one place and you’re pulling against a nail that you don’t want to be in there any longer.   The other good thing about the chopsticks is they’re very visible so you can’t lose them.  You can always find them to pull them out if they’re the things keeping the piece from going in the direction you want it to go. You can just pull them out and put them back in when you’re ready to put them back in.

DD:  Had the other museums tried the chopstick method?

PH:  No, they never had never done chopsticks. They had tried many other things but no one had ever thought about it in a two step process the way we did it because you have to get it up on the wall and chopsticks help to anchor it on the wall but then you also have to shape it and the shaping process is where a lot of the damage was happening because once again you were pulling against screws and nails and all that sort of thing. The chopsticks were soft wood but they were hard enough to hold the artwork up there but you can find them and move them and you don’t have this resulting damage in moving it.   The second trick was that once you establish the shape and get it exactly the way you wanted it then you go back and you replace all the chopsticks with clear rods made out of acrylic.  That was relatively new to the process as well because everybody had been using screws and nails and pins and things like that.  The clear rods are just like the chopsticks except that you make them various lengths and diameters and that sort of thing and since they’re clear they basically disappear once they’re in there.

DD: So the base they’re going into, is it a sort of rigid foam?

PH:  Exactly. It’s a rigid foam and you put the rods in at a slight angle so that the artwork rests on top of it and some of the rods are relatively flexible so if you have a big shelf of the material coming out you can kind of bend the acrylic rod to make it kind of like a spring so that it pushes up lightly against the area and you hold the shape that much better since you’re spreading the load.  Where we probably used 100-150 chopsticks to hold the artwork up there during the process we ended up putting close to 700 clear rods in to spread the rod and make sure the whole piece was adequately supported so it wouldn’t damage itself over the long run just fighting gravity.

DD: So then would you come back in and put a longer rod in and then clip it?

PH:  Yes we actually did do that.  We got smart eventually.  I went through and made hundreds and hundreds of rods that were ready at a certain length but then later on during the installation of the current exhibition you didn’t need to do that. You just had a standard length and you put it in there and if it was sticking out a little too far you just clipped it off.  A much quicker process but then you know it takes awhile to figure these things out.  But that was one of the gratifying things about putting this current installation up, that our research on our piece… you know I never intended to publish that  but once I had gotten all this information together and made an internal document to spread this information around the museum then Kinsey Katchka said well you should really publish this because this exhibition, the retrospective, will be on the road soon and this is such a new thing I think people will really appreciate your thoughts about this.  So with all the editing and everything that needed to be accomplished with it, it didn’t actually come out until about the time this exhibition opened at the first venue which was in Toronto I believe.  So even though it had not officially come out yet, Kinsey was very closely associated with the people at the African Art Museum and the opening of the first venue so she was there before it opened suggesting and disseminating the knowledge that we had accumulated. So it did influence the first hanging but now we’re the fourth institution that’s had this show and each institution that it’s gone to since the very first one has appropriated things from my article to match their own situation.

PH: So the process of hanging the show has evolved as it’s reached here so it was really interesting to see.  The one thing you have to say is that Amanda [Thompson from the Museum for African Art] is the registrar who travels with the exhibition to help with the installation and the de-installation and she knows all the pieces intimately. She knows exactly what the artist expects and she dictates how things are going to be done and what they’re going to look like to a certain extent.  It’s her job to go to every venue and spend two or three weeks and make sure that everything’s accounted for and make sure it’s handled correctly and all that sort of thing.  So she’s seen the wall sculptures in this exhibition go up and down numerous times now and she’s seen the process evolve over time and so the way the ones in the exhibition went up varies because of their own size and their own shape. Some of them are quite small and two people can handle them very easily but then the largest one Stressed World, I think we had eight people there the day we put it up on the wall because it’s quite large and delicate and you have to handle it very differently to get it up on the wall.

DD:  Do you find there’s a difference with the bottle cap pieces versus the longer strips?  Does it vary even in the surface of the piece as far as how you can handle it with the rods and the amount of people?

PH:  Absolutely.  Stressed World is a really good example of that in that the upper and outer parts of it are very substantial and the way they’re made is generally from the longer pieces of metal from the [bottle] tops and they’re wired together.  Those parts are quite strong. But the center and lower right of that piece are made out of the little skinny metal pieces that are left on the neck of the bottle after you take the lid off of it and those are quite weak especially after you put a few holes in them to wire them together. They’re just not very strong at all and they’re like a fishnet in appearance but they’re really quite weak. They can’t take any handling whatsoever or stress or you’ll tear the wire out of them.  Some damage….well because these are all found materials, they’ve all had a life before the artist started using them, you can look at them and say, “Oh there’s a hole in that little metal piece.”  But you don’t know if the hole is new or old if it was there before the artist dealt with it or not so it’s really hard to say what’s new damage and what’s old damage.  But that piece in particular you can see that that weak area has had a harder life than the rest of the piece.  So when you go to hang it you have to  handle it from the strong areas to actually get it up on the wall because that’s when all the weight of the piece is pulling down on it so you have to be sure that you’re holding on to the strongest parts of it to handle it.

DD:  So that adds another dimension…

PH:  Oh absolutely and if you look closely at that piece even the parts that we shaped we tried to only pull at the areas that were strongest. The artist might have made different choices but that’s part of the interesting aspects of this work. Because it’s a living artist even though he says, “Hang it any way you want to hang it” he still has an opinion about what looks best and if you invite him to hang your piece he continues the artistic process just like it was in his studio.  So if he’s standing there and he grabs it and yanks on it and damages it, a wire lets go or whatever, well then that’s part of the artistic process. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It’s what’s necessary to get the end product that he’s trying   for.  But if he’s not standing there and I want to make the same shape, it’s not in my power to damage the piece just because I want it to look different.  I mean that’s just not my job.  My job is to preserve the art and so that’s another thing that’s very different about that type of artwork, these wall sculptures than any other artwork that I’ve dealt with.  There’s a latitude or maybe an expectation there that’s a hard thing to accommodate.

DD: Now what part in the process did you do the mockups?

PH:  I did the mockups well after we hung our own piece and I did them for two reasons. One is that even though I’d finished dealing with our own piece I knew this exhibition was coming here and I made these probably six months ago now.  And I thought that just by going through the process I would learn more about how strong these are, what they feel like, what kind of punishment they can take.  But the thing was I knew that if I made one then we could do anything to it, we could yank on it, we could pull on it and really have a feeling for how much abuse and stress these things could take without the real thing falling apart.

PH: We don’t care if this [mock up] gets damaged because it’s really just a tool.  The other thing I realized is that since I frequently do public speaking and I knew I was going to be talking about this process, so I thought well it’s really hard for the people sitting in the audience to understand how fragile these pieces are.   How they’re made, what kind of stresses they can take because they’re really just not familiar with them.  If I was talking about a drawing on paper or a painting or a photograph just about everybody in the audience would have some insight into what those materials are and know what I was talking about. But these things are so totally different that I can talk all day about how fragile they are and people really can’t understand it because they haven’t experienced it. And if they come to the exhibition here or they go and look at ours they still haven’t experienced it because they’re not supposed to touch it.   Some people do just because they’re so intrigued but they’re not supposed to touch it.

PH: So anyway the other reason I made these is was that I can literally hand these to people and say, ”Here, this is what it feels like and yes, give it a tug and pull on it a little bit.”   I even go so far to say, “Ok, so you can see that it’s relatively strong you can pull on it a little bit and go like this [gives the mockup a strong tug] and it’s really not damaging anything but if you took this and you tied a bowling ball to this end of it what do you think would happen when you waved it around?  It would probably break in here [pointing to the middle] someplace.  And that’s effectively what you have when you have this same kind of construction except it’s 18 feet by 25 feet.  It’s got the same strength here but all this weight underneath it.  That’s why when they get larger they get exponentially harder and harder to handle and to display and to move and all that sort of thing.

DD: Do you know how they handle the exterior ones where he’s done the whole facades?   Those must get monumentally heavier.

PH: Oh they do and what I know is basically from the videos that we have here now. And I wish I‘d seen those earlier because it would have explained a lot of things to me. But especially the one that he hung on the exterior of a building in Venice, that came in sections. It was not one huge piece that shipped. It was made in his studio in Africa and shipped there in parts. I don’t know how many sections maybe six, eight, ten sections I have no idea. So when they put the scaffolding up in front of the building they more or less figured it out and they attached the first ones and then section by section put them together.

So that’s how they avoided dealing with a super large piece, they just had smaller pieces that were maybe 10 feet or something like that they put up there one by one.  And there’s one scene even after they put it up there [El Anatsui] goes up and cuts windows out of it and flops down these shapes that he sees as mimicking or resonating with the windows on the rest of the exposed building. It was really interesting to see him work and the other thing that was interesting to see was his studio workers and how they go through the process of making these things, where they make sections that are all very similar. They make certain sections and certain colors and they just crank out the sections, these repetitive patterns and then El Anatsui himself comes in and they start spreading them out on the floor and putting them together like a puzzle that is something like what he is looking for.  So I always knew about the collaborative aspect that he made the piece and then the owner hung it.  But then the collaboration goes even much farther when he has five or six studio workers that are making individual sections which he is then orchestrating together.  I mean it’s just like a symphony orchestra in so many ways.

DD: Did you find from a conservators’ point of view that you had to go back and repair areas that had been damaged?

PH:  Certainly we did.  I mean El Anatsui has said before…he’s even given owners new little pieces of metal to fill in if they felt that was necessary. Basically he tells you it’s this gauge copper wire and the copper wire in most respects is identical to the copper wire he’s used so that’s not really a problem. If the copper wire breaks or gives way, then you can replace that.  It becomes a little more difficult if one of the little holes in a metal piece has torn out then you have to make the decision do you want to make a new hole? Do you want to try and mend that hole somehow? It gets much more complicated when you do that. But fortunately for the size of our pieces there was very little such damage on it anyway. Most of what happened on ours were the wires giving way so we could put the pieces back relatively easily and without any change to the artwork.

DD: Is the wire thin enough that it’s meant to maybe give way first so maybe it doesn’t damage?

PH: I don’t know that it’s meant to give way first but that’s what it does.  As we were describing before those really skinny little metal pieces, those will break very easily and one of the mockups I did I incorporated some of those and you can already see just from the few people that have handled them so far you can see in that piece that that little area is more stressed than anything else.

DD: Now how about the floor pieces? Like the ones made out of tin can lids? Is there a similar process with those?

PH:  They’re exactly the same process really just the outcome is different since the shapes are different.  It has a little different aspect to them. One thing both constructions have in common is that if you touch one side to another it snags like crazy. That’s really a problem on the wall sculptures because if you let them touch each other you‘re continually having to go back and pull them apart and once again that’s another reason why the wires come undone and whatnot.  Especially on the wall sculptures they’re almost all shipped ,in the show anyway not from the artist himself, they’re s hipped on tubes where they’ve been carefully rolled with plastic in between so that they don’t snag on themselves and you don’t have to worry about that.  But the Peak project is the artwork you’re referring to made out of the can lids. To construct that artwork you take the flat sections, they’ve been shipped with plastic in between each section and flat like a carpet, but you take them and you fold them  and you twirl them around a little bit and you put them down and they hold whatever shape they collapse themselves.  And they snag like crazy all over themselves     So if you try to pick it up and then flatten it back out then you’ve got several minutes worth of work just getting it flat again so that you can reshape it.

DD:  The snags, then that’s actually how it holds its shape?

PH: Yes in large part that’s how it holds its shape and it’s an integral part of the work. But you can see that quite a few of them shipped with the exhibition and you don’t have to use all of them. You use as many as will fit within your space.  So I believe we used 45 but there were significantly more of them shipped so we were able to pick and choose certain ones.  I’m not certain about this but it appears some were much newer than others. Some were quite pristine looking and shiny and others were very rusty.  They may have even been exhibited outside for some period of time or something like that because they really look weathered.  Some of those very weathered ones had very large gaps in them where the wires had let go. I mean 1-foot to 2-feet of space that had come unraveled.  And Amanda while she was here she mended a couple of them but it became obvious that we had way more than we had to use anyway so we just chose to put back the ones that had deconstructed and used the stronger ones for our exhibition.

DD:  So that worked out sort of fortuitously.

PH:   Absolutely.  But that’s one of the really interesting things about the whole exhibition and about El Anatsui’s work.  It’s very organic. I don’t know how else to describe it without using that word. Almost all the artworks in this show are very flexible in the way that they can be exhibited.  There’s no one way to put them up. Pieces are interchangeable. You can move them around. Every place they’re exhibited they’re going to look different because the individual parts of the artwork are not gonna be in exactly the same place.  His drawings and his paintings and the prints, they are very conventional in a Western art sense in that they’re finished, they’re framed,  they’re gonna go up on the wall. They’re not gonna look very different from one museum to another but the wall sculptures, Peak Project, Akua’s Surviving Children, the wooden sculptures, they all have this variability in that the pieces actually move.  Or they’re not totally stagnant in the way that they go up.  Open Market is another one, with the little boxes, that doesn’t have a specific shape.  It has a specific idea behind it so that you’re intended to group them a certain way but there’s nothing that tells you to put box number one here and box number two there. You put them basically any way that you want to put them to more or less get the idea that he’s suggesting. I can’t remember another exhibition that’s been like that.  It’s not an absolutely new idea from him but it’s an aspect of art that you rarely see so consistently in a body of work where the artwork takes on,….it’s new every time it goes some place.  It’s recognizable because the individual parts don’t change but it’s new, it’s different every time it’s put up in a different place.   If there’s a definition for living art that must be it:  something that’s continuously changing and taking on the character of a new place where it’s being exhibited.

DD:  Is it true…I know that some of the wooden pieces have slats that you can interchange and that can be moved around and Akua’s Surviving Children, I remember [Lisa Binder]said at the press preview that El indicated that they should all face one direction but that it still has that flexibility in that you can change it around.

PH:  Exactly. The ones that look like conventional 2-dimensional paintings but they’re actually wooden boards that have been scored and carved and painted and all that sort of thing. For the travelling exhibition they are anchored in one specific orientation but they were constructed by El Anatsui to be variable.  All those boards can be moved around to basically make a new artwork. One of the short films in the exhibition actually shows him doing that, the creative process of that he has one up on the wall and he goes over and starts moving boards all around and by the time he’s finished it’s a very different looking piece with a different feeling. The constraints of a travelling exhibition you can’t really do that. You can’t change every piece every single time it goes up on the wall if nothing else just from a preservation standpoint. You just don’t want that much handling from one place to another because ultimately the piece starts to suffer.  Just that aspect of this inherent flexibility is really interesting and it’s just a rare thing to me.

*Below are the affiliated museum professionals referenced in Perry Hurt’s article  El Anatsui Wall Sculpture: Adventures in Handling, Installation, and Display published at Preparation, Art Handling and Collections Care Information Network  www.paccin.org)

Kurt Christian, Head Preparator at the Saint Louis Art Museum
Kevin Etherton, Installation Coordinator at the National Museum of African Art,  Smithsonian Institution
Christine Giuntini, Conservator, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kellen Haak, formerly Collections Manager and Head Registrar at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth
Kinsey Katchka, formerly Associate Curator of Modern and African Art with NCMA
Mark Milani, Chief Preparator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Rachel Raynor, Collections Manager at the Fowler Museum at UCLA
Kendra Roth, Conservator of Modern and Contemporary Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Installation photos courtesy Perry Hurt and Natalie Braswell at the North Carolina Museum of Art and paccin.org.  Venice photo courtesy Public Art Network and artthrob)


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I had the great pleasure of speaking with a true original, whirligig artist Vollis Simpson this past fall for Artsee magazine.  I made the trek out to Vollis’s place near Wilson and spent the better part of an afternoon with him and he was quite gracious with his time.

Vollis of course has been crafting work near the small town of Lucama in eastern North Carolina for the past 25 years.   I’m quite excited about the progress of work for the planned Whirligig Park in Wilson which has great support and enthusiasm behind it.  Several of the whirligigs have already been taken down and are currently under restoration in a warehouse near downtown Wilson.  But it’s also important to note that Vollis is an artist not quite ready to just sit back on his laurels.  The Town of Cary recently installed three whirligigs near the town hall building (which begins to make up for the loss of three smaller ‘gigs near Moore Square in downtown Raleigh which were taken down a few years ago)  and the planned park in Wilson will surely be a tourist destination.   Vollis, who is now 92 years old, is still making work almost daily in his shop, mostly smaller scale pieces due in large part to necessity because as he describes it his “knees are all worn out.”  Do check out the Artsee piece if you get a chance.

Thought I’d share a few pics I took during my trip (though I can’t compete with the magazine’s Donn Young by any means!)

Crafting whirligigs on his scale is not easy work and is a quite physical process coaxing and shaping raw metal into all sorts of kinetic animals, figures and vehicles.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at his hands!

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What the Phone Camera Saw

If you’re passing by the Ackland Art Museum this week you might stop in at the museum store and peek over into the corner where News and Observer photographer Shawn Rocco has a tight little show of photographs up through April 7th.  The images might surprise you as they are cell phone pics garnered via Rocco’s daily exploits as staff photographer.  (Rocco has even coined a medium of his own nomenclature to describe his process:  ”cellular obscura.”)  I heard Rocco on WUNC’s the State of Things and was intrigued by the photographer’s nimble response and quick working method with these pictures which now number into the thousands.  Many of the pics were taken on the way to or from an N&O assignment and Rocco described them as easily overlooked or ordinary events.  Their fascination is their very banality in that they often happened by circumstance or exist as things would easily be overlooked.  The show is worth checking out and perhaps you have already stumbled upon it before even reading this which would be most apropos.

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Art Drawn Deep: Thornton Dial at the Ackland

You have to hand it to Thornton Dial and his family.  They were actually the ones to suggest an early morning breakfast reception this past Friday at the Ackland Art Museum as a private event for select UNC students and staff (though yours truly luckily scored an invite.)  But the gathering also included those who helped organize the Ackland’s new exhibition of Dial’s drawings and the authors who contributed to the show’s splendid catalog.  The reception offered an extraordinary opportunity to hear Dial himself speak about his art and answer questions in conjunction with the just opened exhibition at UNC titled Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper.

The opportunity to meet and speak with Dial, his son Richard and daughter Mattie was amazing enough but the event also afforded the chance to preview the exhibition in their company as well.  It’s an intriguing show focusing on a specific body of work from 1990-1991 when Dial spent sustained time and effort producing a portfolio of drawings in response to a particularly scathing Atlanta Journal Constitution review that questioned his drawing ability.  (Those with AJC archive access can dig it up here.)   The work on display features signature elements from Dial’s work:  the tiger, roosters, fish, birds and also lots of ladies all with strong metaphorical roots and life cycle narrative purposes, rooted in the artist’s signature robust, hardy and vigorous style.

Dial’s work has long been grouped in with ‘Outsider’ or ‘Folk’ Art.  Now 82 years old, the artist is after all self taught and hailing as he does from the rural deep South of Alabama the categorization makes some sense at least initially.  Also to be factored in is Dial’s emergence during the 1980′s folk art craze (when he seriously began devoting time to making art after a long career working in the Pullman factory in Alabama) and also the collection of his work by Bill Arnett long a champion of self taught African American artists of the Southeastern United States.  But as with his working methods, Dial’s story runs deeper than first appearances and as time has gone by, there has been a gradual recognition that Dial is, to put it simply, a significant contemporary artist all categorizations aside.

The artist is largely known for his assemblage sculptures crafted out of all sorts of found object stuff (you name it and Dial has probably worked it into a piece at some point.)  This drawing show is also an interesting counterpoint to a traveling exhibition of Dial’s work currently at the New Orleans Museum of Art and which will be on view at the Mint Museum in Charlotte later this summer  (and I readily admit that I am eagerly looking forward to that show as well.)

A personal favorite moment during the gallery walk-through was the appearance of Ms. Hill’s 2nd grade class from Forest View Elementary School in Durham who were visiting the Ackland on a class trip.  The students rather miraculously emerged during our walk through just as Ackland Director of External Affairs Amanda Hughes described the enthusiastic response of local students to Dial’s work New Generation (2002) and Walking with the Pickup Bird (2002) in the museum’s collection.  When the students formed an impromptu line to greet Mr. Dial and shake his hand it seemed a sort of microcosm of some of the best parts of Dial’s work in general.  Immediacy, sudden surprise and unexpected juxtapositions can bring out amazing things in life as in art.

(specific images of artworks from the exhibition are courtesy the Ackland Art Museum)

Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper is on view at the Ackland Art Museum through July 1, 2012.

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