Lunder Conservation Center: A Conservator Finds Art in the Dark
December 1, 2015
Desi Peters recently completed her graduate internship at the Lunder Conservation Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum, in paintings conservation. She describes her conservation treatment of Chapel In-the Fall-Wood by Maceptaw Bogun.
At first glance Chapel In-the Fall-Wood, by self-taught artist Maceptaw Bogun, depicts a somewhat unassuming scene: a sun sets behind a small chapel nestled amidst trees and mountains. However, when the lights are off and the painting is viewed underneath ultraviolet radiation, a different scene emerges. The sun lit sky transforms into a starry night with a full moon. Dangling leaves glimmer in the moonlight. A brilliant star hovers over the steeple and shines on the bolder in the foreground.
Bogun used phosphorescent (better known as glow-in-the-dark) paint to depict an alternate nightscape atop the day lit landscape. When speaking of this painting, he explained, "When you turn out the lights, you see the moon." Phosphorescence is a lesser known cousin of the more familiar fluorescence: the bright glow materials give off when placed under ultraviolet radiation. Phosphorescence can generally be distinguished from fluorescence by its afterglow: a phosphorescent material will continue to emit light after the source of energy has been removed, while a fluorescent material will not.
For this treatment, one of the main questions was identifying what type of pigment is responsible for the phosphorescence. From her research, Desi Peters, a graduate intern at the Lunder Conservation Center, determined that the two most likely pigments were zinc sulfide and strontium aluminate. Different phosphorescent materials have different afterglow durations. Zinc sulfide has an afterglow of minutes whereas strontium aluminate has an afterglow of hours. To explore this, the painting was placed under ultraviolet radiation in a dark room and the afterglow was timed. The paint glowed for over two hours! This experimental finding, combined with other forms of analysis including x-ray fluorescence, helped conservators determine the pigment responsible for the phosphorescence is strontium aluminate. This information will inform the painting's treatment and display conditions in the future.
Desi Peters has an MA in Art History and an Advanced Certificate in Conservation from the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is interested in Modern and Contemporary materials and working with artists.
Eye Wonder: Ten Years of Blogging at SAAM
November 29, 2015
Ten years ago, November 29, 2005 to be exact, SAAM launched Eye Level, the first museum blog at the Smithsonian. It's given us the ability to tell stories and show people the museum from the inside out. We sat down with Jeff Gates, the blog's managing editor and lead producer of new media initiatives at American Art, for an eye-opening look at the genesis of Eye Level.
Eye Level: Let's open our flip phones and travel back to 2005. Eye Level was the first Smithsonian museum to have a blog. How did this come about? What was in the air?
Jeff Gates: I first proposed doing a blog to our Public Affairs department in 2002. I had been blogging personally since 2001 and thought it would be a great way to promote our museum. But it was premature; blogging was just beginning to catch on. Two years later, I had two new bosses, Mike Edson and Joanna Champagne. I pitched the idea once again. Blogging was becoming more mainstream and both were very familiar with the web and saw a blog's potential. Our website, at this point, was fairly static, meaning the pages we developed were informative but were rarely updated. The challenge was developing a workflow that would allow for this constant flow of new content.
EL: Did you have to pull teeth or was everybody on board?
JG: No, no teeth were lost in the process, I'm glad to say. However, you have to remember, this was a new medium for museums in 2005 and few outside the blogosphere knew what it entailed. So, we had to be very strategic in how we sold the idea. At the same time, SAAM had been closed for a multiyear renovation and a date of mid 2006 had been set to reopen. And everyone was focused on our reopening. I put together a PowerPoint that explained what a blog was: how, as a content management system it allowed for new stories whenever we wanted. It also allowed for comments. Commenting was new to the Net and very new to museums. Many of us were advocating for a different relationship with our visitors and online readers, one that was less hierarchical and more interactive. We took our time pitching the idea and it paid off. We got the green light.
EL: In your opinion, what makes a good blog post?
JG: My first reaction is to respond by saying, "What makes great writing?" I'm constantly asking that. Good writing is a key component. But, then one must consider the context of the medium. Our blog posts are written in a more informal voice than, say, one of our more traditional publications. This fits part of our museum's strategy to make American art accessible to everyone. We want to encourage a conversation with our viewers. In addition, it allows our curators to tell the stories of our artworks and the exhibitions in which they appear.
In the past ten years our writers are now coming from just about all departments in the museum. Some are seasoned writers; but some are new. So, I put together a handout on what makes a good blog post. I still use that today. These aren’t strict rules, just guides. Every point focuses on good writing.
EL: Ten years ago, people used to comment. Then they shared. Now they "like" posts thanks to a Facebook link. How has social media aided the blog world?
JG: The Internet is now much more interconnected. And that presents both a challenge and opportunities. You are correct, people used to comment a lot more on our blog posts than they do now. Now, they share those with others on Facebook, via Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest amongst others. The conversations are no longer contained just within our blog. They now spread out using any number of these platforms. This wide network of connections is a boon to everyone and certainly Eye Level. The other aspect of this interconnection is the syndication of our blog posts on other sites. Our stories are posted simultaneously on other blogs around the world. As an example, over 5,000 people per month read our content on a French-based culture blog.
EL: What is the role of storytelling in museums today, and do you think the blog is a way of telling those stories?
JG: Every single artwork in SAAM's collection has a story to tell —a context and narrative that makes the piece and the artist who created it interesting. More importantly, American art reflects American's experiences, from colonial times, through the Civil War, the 20th century, and to the present. The stories are both our history and our lives. So, yes, storytelling is an important part of our engagement with our visitors, both within our galleries and online. Eye Level has become an important conduit of these stories. And as part of our museum's overall strategy, its informal structure attracts a large and diverse group of people to the blog.
EL: Forget the flip phone. It's crystal ball time. What's next for Eye Level as the blog enters its second decade?
JG: I'm not a soothsayer. But I'm an observer, constantly looking at ways content is delivered on the Web and how we can leverage those trends to further the mission of the museum. Blogging was one of the first forms of social media. And it remains a valuable tool. Valuable and interesting content is what's really important, no matter how we deliver it. That being said, the development of new delivery formats always shifts the strategy. And we use many here at SAAM. When Twitter came out, many said blogging was dead. Actually, its role just changed. Originally, it was a method for putting out timely and, often, short posts. Twitter took that role and expanded it. Then there was Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. In the last ten years I would say blogging has gone from the quick to the reflective. Tweeting is to react. Facebook and Pinterest is the share, and blogging is to reflect. That's the role of Eye Level here at SAAM. It allows us to post constant narratives about our artworks, our research, our public programs, and our education outreach. Ten years ago, our website was static. Now it's much more dynamic and our ability to constantly create new content has become an important part of the museum. That will never change, whether it's called a blog or something else.
In This Case: Luis Jiménez's Model for "Fiesta"
November 24, 2015
In redefining the myth we're really redefining ourselves...
Luis Jiménez,Texas Monthly, September 1998
The Luce Center is filled with all kinds of treasures and Model for "Fiesta" by Mexican-American artist Luis Jiménez is no exception. The General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned Jiménez to make a grand sculpture for the Otay Mesa border station near San Diego, California. Wanting to create a work that presented "real people in a real situation," Jiménez constructed an 8-foot statue of a man and woman dancing a traditional Mexican hat dance called Jarabe.
When it was finished some thought the sculpture was disrespectful to Mexican culture. Some believed that the woman's dress looked Spanish rather than Mexican, and that it fit too tightly. The man, critics said, was too dark and too fat.
However, the vast majority admired the larger than life sculpture. One journalist for the The Los Angeles Times said of the piece, "The work is a credit to the GSA art program," and the couple is "timeless." Others, like the Colorado Springs Independent claimed it a "masterpiece." The Texas Monthly also said that Fiesta was "showing us the true faces of the West."
"True faces" was exactly what Jiménez was trying to accomplish in his sculpture. He saw his artwork as a bridge connecting people from one side of the border to the other. He was never interested in labels, like Hispanic or Chicano, nor was he interested in depicting stereotypes. Instead Jiménez wanted to recreate real working-class people.
Currently the 8-foot statue lives on the University of New Mexico campus, but the model he used for the final sculpture can be found in the Luce Foundation Center here at SAAM. Regardless of its size, both statues have sparked dialogue about heritage and identity. In summarizing his artwork, Jiménez stated, "In redefining the myth we're really redefining ourselves...And I think it's important to keep redefining ourselves. That's something that artists have always done." Art has a special way of making people see the world differently and Fiesta is no exception. Jiménez countered stereotypes with his colorful and captivating sculpture that exemplifies the universality of culture, dance, and passion.
Luce Artist Talk with Britney Mongold
November 18, 2015
How does a self-proclaimed country-girl come to work for some of D.C.'s most experimental theaters?
On Saturday, November 21, local theater prop designer Britney Mongold will visit the Luce Foundation Center to explain her career's trajectory in the latest installment of our Luce Artist Talk series. As a set and prop designer, Mongold works with several theaters across Washington, D.C., including Cultural D.C.'s Source Festival.
Mongold will use objects from Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection on display in the Luce Center to explain her artistic history and describe what inspires her. Objects, like the museum's Merry Go Round Model connect the D.C. artist to her rural origins.
Mongold grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. After studying painting at Hollins University, she worked on a farm, creating functional decorations that taught visitors about agriculture, science, and Virginian history. Mongold's experience on the farm, which included restoring a 30 horse Allan Herschell Carousel, was the artist's introduction to working in 3-D.
Mongold decided to pursue a career in theater and moved to D.C. to study acting at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. There, her decorative experience came in useful when she was recruited as a designer for Rorschach Theatre's Glassheart. Three years later, Mongold is now a prop designer and creates scenic paintings for several theaters in D.C. Mongold's current career is the culmination of years of varied experiences, and on Saturday, November 21, Mongold will be at the Luce Center to elaborate on her creative process.
Her talk will begin at 1:30 p.m. Beverages will be served until 3:30 p.m.
Renwick Gallery: The United States of WONDER
November 13, 2015
After extensive renovations to the galleries and behind-the-scenes mechanicals, the Renwick Gallery of Art reopens to the public today with WONDER. The new exhibition features installations by nine contemporary artists who reimagine—and reinvigorate—the spaces.The artists have three things in common: they are sensitive to architectural space, are passionate about making and materials, and create a sense of wonder that provokes the visitor. The site-specific installations feature the works of contemporary artists Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal. Each artist worked intensively with unusual materials—including tires, thread, insects, branches, netting, glass marbles and LED light strips—to create larger-than-life installations that transform the museum into an immersive artwork.
Today's Renwick is really tomorrow's museum: a place for the 21st century visitor to experience art, and as Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler curator in charge, reminded us the other day, it is also "a place to marvel...and to wonder." Bell also told us that when the Renwick was emptied of its artwork in preparation for renovations in 2013, he realized that the museum's greatest asset was the building itself. Designed by Renwick to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran, a 19th-century banker, philanthropist, and art collector, the building was hailed as "the American Louvre" upon its completion in 1874. The building has had many lives since that time, and was almost torn down in the 1960s to make room for modern office buildings, but First Lady Jackie Kennedy almost single-handedly put a stop to that. Over the main entrance, the inspiring words etched in stone, "Dedicated to Art" now resonate with the words "Dedicated to the Future of Art."
The Future is now. You really can get lost in the materiality and sense of changing environment, as you wander the galleries, perhaps no more so than in Janet Echelman's wondrous takeover of the Grand Salon. But before you get there, you have to ascend the stairs now draped with a flowing red carpet designed by Odile Decq. Look up, and you'll be under a lightscape by Leo Villareal, a sculpture made of LED lights in a never-repeating series of illuminations. Echelman's woven sculpture corresponds to a map of the energy released across the Pacific Ocean during 2011's devastating tsunami. One of art's powers is the ability to transform events in our daily lives, into powerful expressions of the human spirit. In addition to the suspended sculpture, Echelman's installation includes programmable lighting, wind movement, and printed textile flooring.
States of WONDER, indeed.