Thursday, July 2, 2009

The art doctor

After catching mild 'social disease' last month, I am keeping a low profile on the art opening front because of the flu. I know it sounds paranoid but I've already suffered the seasonal flu and it wadn't purty.

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about art conservator Christian Scheidemann who is charged with preserving contemporary works of art. Dirt, latex, doughnuts: you name the material, he's worked with it. Sounds like a thankless job, but he goes about it with admirable enthusiasm. Where he can, he will preserve the material properties of an artwork, but if decay or imperfection is inevitable, he sees it as being part of the work's narrative.

What strikes me most about him is that he does not shake his head at artists who make work using materials that are not durable, and these artworks often sell for a lot of money. An outsider could easily dismiss this as irresponsibility, and maybe it is, but Scheidemann's main concern is the integrity of the art work. For example, on Damien Hirst's pickled shark which has recently been replaced due to rapid deterioration, Scheidemann says,
"What he did with the shark was not very smart, but the artist is always right... I think we would have tried to plastinate the shark - to exchange the bodily fluids with resin. But maybe that's too subtle for him. It would be a totally different work. I think he's more interested in keeping it difficult for a while."
Such insight and discernment! Even some owners of artworks don't show as much sympathy.

I think artists have a responsibility to make sure collectors know what they are buying into. This includes letting them know (if possible - and within reason) if you expect watercolour paper to yellow sooner than expected because you stretched it with heavily chlorinated water, or painted on it with non-archival substances. Or if you use latex, let them know that its stretchiness will not last forever. Etc etc.

When Scheidemann was studying art history and conservation, he had to study the back of paintings, "and could actually discover graffiti from 1448, and see the fingerprints of the artists, and see the first tests on the back side, and how it was done, and what the challenges were for the artist, and what they had in mind". This made me think, what if some gallery like the Met decided to hang all their paintings back to front? How fun! What stories would we find behind those canvases?

Christian Scheidemann runs Contemporary Conservation.


YU said...

OMG I read that as well. It's an amazing article!!

One of my friends from the US visits once a year and brings me a stack of new yorkers which I longingly wait for each year.

gnute said...

Yes! He is an extraordinary person.

I borrow almost every issue of NYer!