Author Archives: Lauren Ross

BMA Voices: Using art to explore language

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician

This artwork is compelling and it confuses me. I like crossword puzzles, cryptograms, brainteasers in general, etymology, and games of language manipulation. It seems obvious that playing with language is a significant part of Bruce Nauman’s artistic practice. Our Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman recently wrote:

In addition to provoking viewers to consider the aesthetic dimensions of a format associated with advertising, Nauman called attention to the idea that visual art can be a means for exploring language.

Especially in his language-based work, Bruce Nauman is SERIOUSLY funny. But he’s serious, too.

It’s easy enough to grasp the progression (spelling and rhyming) of the words in the title. How did he come to those particular words though? Which one came first? Or was it just an immediate kind of thing where the words mentally landed one after the next? I’ve wondered if you’re intended to think of the sad cliché of violins playing? It’s easy then to think of something that might really be sad. VIOLENCE and SILENCE together = what? It could be death. Is the word SILENCE intended to get you to think about the silent nature of the neon itself, flashing in the dark? Or is SILENCE to make you think about VIOLENCE being under-reported or ignored? Could it just be that Nauman heard a great piece of violin music that had a violent crescendo and then got really quiet? Or, maybe the cadence of the words has a natural incline and decline as you think them or say them. But I doubt it’s that simple.

What about the colors? The sequence of words goes like this:  VVSand then the same words, only completely backwards:

SEE
Do the specific individual colors or their transitions make you feel the ideas of the words differently? I think they must. I’m not sure it’s fair to say it, but maybe Nauman assigned the specific colors to each word for a specific conceptual reason, manipulating the gases as if using physics to harness synesthetics. Nauman studied mathematics and physics in college, so I assume his use of the noble gases is pretty well-informed. The sequencing of the words, too, is another aspect entirely that is mathematically specific.

When I moved here in 1989 as a young art student, I first saw this piece and was absolutely astounded by it. I hadn’t seen any of Nauman’s work before then, and it introduced to a whole new genre of artwork. Everything I’ve seen of his since has moved me.

Now that I’ve lived here for 25 years, the way I experience this work is slightly different. I think it’s because it’s located in Baltimore. It’s not pleasant to admit that Baltimore has a reputation for violent crime. Maybe any city where it was installed would summon up the same ideas. Yet there is an impact or echo of a city’s identity on a work of public art. Language manipulated in this way is suggestive politically. Figuring out the suggestion is part of the intellectual challenge in looking at Nauman.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: Beautiful frame meets serious portrait.

John Hesselius. John Hanson. c. 1760. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elizabeth Curzon Hoffman Wing, in Memory of Hanson Rawlings Duval, Jr., BMA 1967.30.37

John Hesselius. John Hanson. c. 1760. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elizabeth Curzon Hoffman Wing, in Memory of Hanson Rawlings Duval, Jr., BMA 1967.30.37

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician 

While preparing paintings for the BMA’s newly installed American Wing, I’ve come to appreciate some decorative styles in frames in which I hadn’t previously been as interested. I have a great attraction to frames from the 19th and 20th centuries, and frames made by artists, and wood frames from the 17th century in Northern Europe. Honestly, I couldn’t choose a favorite. But the beautifully refined and carved frames for some of our late 18th American portraiture have recently caught my eye, in part because I needed to treat one.

The frame for the portrait of John Hanson by John Hesselius was made c. 1760. The frame seems to be original to the painting, fits it well, and is stylistically contemporary. Prior to installing the framed work in the gallery, both the painting and its frame needed some attention. As I focus on frames primarily, that’s what I will talk about.

The frame had not been examined until recently, and it was discovered that its surface was covered with a layer of soot and grime. There were splits near the site edge of the frame at the mitres, and numerous missing pieces of ornament and losses to the gilding.

Hanson details

Before treatment photograph of the frame.

Gilding is usually topped with shellacs and tonal coatings that over time can be difficult to clean, as the dirt becomes imbedded. It’s a careful task to undertake: gold leaf is very sensitive to many solvents and also to excessive rubbing or handling. The entire frame is carved wood that’s been gilded (more than once). There are no composition ornaments which have been sculpted separately and then added on. The workmanship in the carving of the frames of this period is exquisite, with moments of angularity. This frame is actually quite delicate. There are pierce-carved center and corner cartouche ornaments with leaves. The swept top edge of the profile consists of a gentle serpentine ribbon which is burnished and water-gilded, and terminates in c-scrolls at center ornaments. The rest of the gilding scheme is matte. The site edge of the frame exhibits a gadroon pattern, which radiates directionally from the centers of the rails, drawing the viewer’s eye into the picture plane. There are three large leaves which adorn the center ornaments as well, splayed out in symmetrical fashion. The quiet areas of the profile are adorned with gentle and delicate garlands of small leaves and flowers. Another beautiful feature is the way that the pierced carved negative voids echo the oval format of the portrait on its rectangular ground.

It is a very fine example of mid to late 18th-century American frames, which closely resemble their contemporary English counterparts. Sometimes they are called American Rococo. I have seen these frames referred to as George III (although in this case, that appellation would NOT have gone over well, situated on the portrait of John Hanson. In 1781, John Hanson of Charles County of Maryland became the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, under the Articles of Confederation and was a great patriot. Part of Maryland’s Route 50 is even named for him.)

The treatment performed consisted of dusting, consolidation of gilding, structural repairs, loss compensations and ornament casting and replication, gesso recutting, in addition to surface cleaning and ingilding.

Hanson MT detailI finished this frame with no time to spare before it needed to be installed.

HANSON no pic

After treatment photograph of the frame.

The framed painting is now hanging in “Salon style” in the newly installed Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing, in Gallery 8, along with a large group of portraits in the BMA’s collection.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: Questions I have about “The Figure of Question”

James Lee Byars. The Figure of Question. 1989. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn; Bequest of Blanche Adler; Gift of Thomas A. Leahy; Gift of the Living Arts Foundation, Inc.; and Gift from the Estate of Felicia Meyer Marsh, BMA 1990.117. © Estate of James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars. The Figure of Question. 1989. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn; Bequest of Blanche Adler; Gift of Thomas A. Leahy; Gift of the Living Arts Foundation, Inc.; and Gift from the Estate of Felicia Meyer Marsh, BMA 1990.117. © Estate of James Lee Byars

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician

The Figure of Question by James Lee Byars is a totemic, gold form, which rests in the stairwell of the BMA’s West Wing for Contemporary Art. I have been taking care of this sculpture for a number of years now, and I always have these questions when I approach it:

#1. How can we keep people from touching this?
It must be irresistible, despite its proximity alarms. Visually, it is tempting, its form so appealing. Entirely covered in gold, so smooth and perfect, it must be a huge challenge for children and adults alike to keep themselves reigned in.

#2. How in the world did it get in here?
The sculpture weighs approximately 3 tons. Moving a piece like this requires riggers and a crane. The West Wing was literally built around the sculpture after its installation.

Installing The Figure of Question.

Installing The Figure of Question.

Installing The Figure of Question.

Installing The Figure of Question.

#3. Why did Byars love gold so much?
Why not something less heavy or valuable? Is it the idea of weight? Is it because gold leaf is made by being beaten on a stone like marble; the two media reunited in this single piece – an extravagant marriage that forms a luxurious object? I read an article about the artist by Dave Hickey published in Flash Art in 1994. Hickey writes of Byars’ objects of gold, fabric, and stone: “(he) presents them to us in the interrogative mode, as if to ask: What do you think? Do these things exist? Would we be better off without them? And is seeing enough?” In James Elliott’s book The Perfect Thought, there is another really great essay by Achille Bonito Oliva about Byars’ employment of gold: “a rare material that in a cultural sense refers to the alchemical process of its transformation from a base to a noble substance, brute material rising to the status of spiritual abstraction.”

Perhaps because it inspires so many questions, this object is one of my very favorite in the BMA’s permanent collection. I like the artist, I love gilded objects, and I get to take care of it.

We use soft brushes to remove loose dust that accumulates on its top, down the sides and near the base. It is satisfying to engage with it. Byars’ surface is intended to be pristine, showing only the marble’s texture beneath the gold leaf. Because there have been times the sculpture has been touched, it’s had to be regilded several times. Jim Brewster, a gilder in Baltimore, has worked with the Museum on this object, and I was fortunate to learn his method of applying the patent leaf to mimic the artist’s original crystalline, fractured pattern.

Gilding

Jim Brewster teaches me how to gild.

Gilding is a painstaking process, and costly. (The current standard of gold is about $1200/ounce.) It requires patience, precision, and a proper working environment: there should be no dust or breezes of any kind. During one gilding campaign, a plastic tent surrounded the object to minimize dust accumulation and wind. Intervention such as completely regilding a work of art is not undertaken lightly; in fact it was discussed as a predicted necessary maintenance when the object was purchased.

Before the West Wing Reinstallation in 2012, there were enough abrasions, scratches and disfiguring oil spots from people touching it that the work again needed to be ingilded in a few select places. 22-karat gold leaf sheets were attached to the surface with a very thin adhesive coating, placing them in a loose random fashion, so as to imitate the existing gilding scheme without appearing brand new. Sheets of gold are extremely thin, at “1/250,000” of an inch. You can imagine that such a very fine material would be easily marred by the oil in a hand or scratched by the slightest touching.

As an employee of the BMA and a person engaged in collections care, I mostly think about question #1. As a lover of art, I definitely linger on question #3.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: A Green Frame? Uncovering the Original Artist’s frame for Thomas Hart Benton’s “Bubbles”

Thomas Hart Benton. Bubbles. 1914 1917. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of H.L. Mencken, Baltimore, BMA 1947.317. Art © Thomas Hart Benton Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Thomas Hart Benton. Bubbles. 1914-1917. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of H.L. Mencken, Baltimore, BMA 1947.317. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

A Green Frame? Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician Paintings & Objects, describes uncovering the original artist’s frame for Thomas Hart Benton’s Bubbles, 1914‑1917.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

BMA Voices: The Enchanting Working of Vija Celmins’ “Galaxy (Cassiopeia)”

Vija Celmins. Galaxy (Cassiopeia). 1973. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gertrude Rosenthal Bequest Fund, BMA 1991.24. © Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins. Galaxy (Cassiopeia). 1973. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gertrude Rosenthal Bequest Fund, BMA 1991.24. © Vija Celmins

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician Paintings & Objects

What I love about this drawing has everything to do with the mystery of the image, and the metaphysical nature of the object itself, describing something that is beyond tactility – a galaxy. It gets translated through the use of another powdery substance, graphite. I think that Vija Celmins is one of the great living artists of my time and someone whose work I deeply admire. I encountered a large retrospective of her work in Cologne, Germany, quite by accident, and feel really lucky to have seen it. There were galaxy drawings, videos, prints of waves, three dimensional “rocks”, images of static, and more. The works are all indefinable but precise, and in all there are definitely the elements of trickery, or at least they leave me feeling a bit tricked and even odd. Peculiar, but mesmerized.

I asked our Head of Conservation, paper conservator Tom Primeau, what he thought about the artist’s technique in Galaxy (Cassiopeia). He thought that perhaps the artist had prepared the paper and then found a way to create a misted resist using something as utilitarian and practical as soap, which then created the star/cloud formation of the galaxy over and around which she could form the negative “space” with the graphite. She uses a common artist material to execute highly finished resonant images, something of a strict challenge, and what I really enjoy in her work. In an interview in 1992 with Chuck Close from the book Between Artists, Celmins talks with him about the magic aspect in her stone sculptures:

Well, the best part is that they do have a little bit of a magic quality to them. I think that the impulse to make these was so complicated that I can’t say much about them without sounding silly. They’re really something to experience, I think.

It is no wonder that Celmins was included in the Magician Ricky Jay’s Magic Magic Book, a two-volume edition also in the collection here at the BMA. The first volume is all about magical “blow books”, wherein Jay has researched the history and technical varieties of blow books. In these, a reader manipulates the pages and astonishing things happen. In the second volume, the works of several artists are presented scattered throughout, but with the correct manipulation of the book, one can see examples of the trancelike repetition of Celmins’ engravings of ocean waves.

I think in some way the idea of the magic book being manipulated in such a way is somewhat a metaphor for her works. A simple repetitive motion employed in the art-making process can arrive in a mysterious and enchanting result that may seem otherworldly.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.