In Valerie Hellstein’s spotlight talk yesterday, about her installation of abstract expressionist works, she moved us past familiar thoughts about the actions of the artist (think Jackson Pollock dancing over his canvases) toward a focus on the actions of the viewer. Action painting requires action on the part of the viewer to really experience the work, she explained. We attend to the colors. We think about the depth of the paint and the forms on the canvas. Active looking is required to do more than just pass by the work with a glancing notice. And through our active looking, we become aware of our moment and our place in that moment, standing before the painting.
Results of Treatment
Treatment resulted in a subtle but significant improvement to the picture’s appearance. Greater contrast between the dark colors in the background and the pastel “petals” in the foreground returns a sense of vibrancy and movement to the composition. In addition, although they remain inherently fragile, consolidation left the paint layers more stable–improving the overall condition of the picture.
Read part one of this series here.
Consolidating Flaking Paint
Before the picture could be cleaned safely, flaking paint throughout the canvas needed to be stabilized, or consolidated, to prevent losing original material. A water-based glue made from fish bladders was selected for consolidation–the adhesive is relatively strong at low concentrations and, because it is used warm, it helps to relax lifted paint to allow it to be set flat again.
Gentle suction was used to draw adhesive through cracks in the paint and beneath the paint layers. The adhesive was kept warm in a beaker with an electric mug warmer. The warmth and moisture of the adhesive relaxed areas of lifted paint so they could be carefully set down. The suction held the consolidated paint in place while the glue dried. Any glue residue was removed using warm distilled water, which was applied through tissue to protect the paint surface and prevent paint loss.
Cleaning a Delicate Paint Surface
In order to clean the painting without altering the surface, the conventional methods needed to be modified. In the end, a fairly simple solution of cleaning through a layer of tissue was found to work very well to release the grime layer while protecting the delicate paint. The type of tissue that worked best, “wet-strength” tissue, is the same as that used for making tea bags. Careful testing found distilled water adjusted to a custom pH to be a safe and effective cleaning solution for the picture. Applied through tissue using a cotton swab, it released a fine, yellowish grime from the paint, which soaked into the tissue. Tissue squares and swabs were carefully monitored for hints of other color, but even the dry media–the white chalk and black charcoal–were protected by the tissue interleaf. …Read part three tomorrow.