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Weeping Paintings

Otto Piene’s Harvest began to shed white tears in 2000, seven years after it was completed. Credit: ICOM-CC publications.

You don’t really expect a seemingly dry painting to suddenly start oozing streaks of wet paint, seven years after its completion.

So when Otto Piene’s Harvest, which was finished in 1993, began to weep white paint in 2000, owners, conservators and the artist were all rather surprised.

Although Harvest is Piene’s only work to start weeping, the strange liquefying process has happened to dozens of other artworks from contemporary artists as varied as Jonathan Meese and Frank von Hemert, explains Jenny Schulz, a conservator in Cologne, Germany, who’s made it her business to figure out why. “It’s quite a common thing,” she says.

Taking a closer look at several of these paintings, Schulz figured out something that all the weeping paintings had in common: The tears occurred in places on the canvas where the artist has laid down a thick layer of oil paint.

A close-up of the tears from the thick, white base layer on Harvest by Otto Piene. Credit: ICOM-CC publications.

Although the thickly-laid paint seems to dry, it turns out to be unstable and capable of liquefying. But why? It’s not as if applying thick layers of oil paint is a new thing among artists… Yet the weeping painting issue is relatively new, having emerged in the last two decades or so.

What’s changed, Schulz says, is formulation of oil paints. Until recently oil paint was made using linseed oil. But the problem with linseed, she says, is that it has a tendency to yellow over time.

So paint formulators began exchanging linseed oil for sunflower oil, because sunflower oil doesn’t yellow.

The problem is that sunflower oil doesn’t dry as well. That’s because the oil contains fewer reactive double bonds, which are required to form a permanently dried paint complex, Schulz says.

Thick layers of the sunflower oil paint may seem to dry, but they are unstable. Subjected to changes in temperature and humidity or even the jostling that occurs during transport, these layers can collapse, releasing component parts as a gooey tear running as fast as 2 centimeters per month. Continue reading →

Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Measuring Barbie headspace: Namely, the smells coming off their PVC plastic bodies. ©M. Strlic

Dear eBay,

I love you.

Yours Sincerely,
Conservation Science

I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll.

It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter:

“Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?”

What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” Continue reading →

Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

The 2012 ESOF conference in Dublin takes place on the other side of the wonderful Samuel Beckett bridge. Credit: Sarah Everts

I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum  (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room.

If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF):

When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci.

But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures.

They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint.

They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense.

And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms.

Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Continue reading →

Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Moldy Movies. Credit: Analytical Methods

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it.

Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks.

In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.)

For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi.

Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick.

That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors.

Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device.

With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.)

Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye.

It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence. Continue reading →

Finish Fetish Chemistry

Gray Column, 1975–76, De Wain Valentine. Polyester resin. © De Wain Valentine

Consider this cultural cocktail: the 1960s and 70s surfing scene in Los Angeles, that era’s emerging aeronautical and chemical industries, plus a splash of flavor from Hollywood and the Beatniks.

The result is a group of artists called the Finish Fetish who produced minimalist sculptures often made from materials newly available in those decades, such as polyester.

Finish Fetish is “extra spit and polish in pop and minimal art plus space age materials.” This description (from Peter Plagens via artdesigncafe) explains the obsession with “finish”…which should not be confused with the Northern European Finnish.

One of the Finish Fetish is an artist called De Wain Valentine. Commercial resin available at the time “wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do–which was to pour really big objects,” says Tom Learner, head of Modern and Contemporary Art Research at the Getty Conservation Institute.

Valentine wanted to create his extremely large sculptures in a single pour of polyester resin because creating the artwork in two steps interfered with the seamless look he was after. Continue reading →

When Acrylic Paints Get A Spa Day

Andy Warhol's acrylic portrait of Brooke Hayward needed the surfactant that had exited the painting to be cleaned off. Conservation scientists used surface imaging technology to monitor the cleaning process. Credit: MOLAB.

When acrylic paint was introduced in the late 1940s it was a boon for artists with a penchant for instant gratification: Acrylics dry within hours, compared to the weeks and sometimes months it takes for oil paint to completely harden.

But few things in life are perfect, and acrylic paint is no exception. In order to keep pigments stable in the acrylic polymer base, paint makers had to include additives called surfactants. Unfortunately, after a few years or decades, the surfactants get itchy feet and rise out of the paint to the surface of the artwork.

Once there, these surfactants can leave a white film on priceless paintings and they can also be sticky, attracting dirt and grime to the artwork.

In this week’s C&EN, my colleague Celia Arnaud digs deep in to acrylic paint chemistry and talks with conservation scientists about what they do to remedy the problem of wandering surfactant.

Unfortunately, many existing solvents that might be used to clean off the surface of acrylic artworks tend to make the paint swell… This makes museum staff nervous because it’s not clear what long term consequence come from this swelling. Another problem is that solvents that don’t cause acrylic paints to swell aren’t typically good cleaners.

That’s why researchers at the Tate Galleries in London, the Getty Conservation Institute in LA and the DOW chemical company have teamed up to try and find a solvent that cleans but does not swell acrylic paint. At the same time researchers at the University of Delaware are working with Golden Artist Colors, a paint company, to work out good cleaning conditions for acrylic paintings.

If these researchers hit paydirt, acrylic paintings around the world will finally get that facial treatment they’ve all been needing.

Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

This light artwork involves a lot of electronic toy dogs suspended from plastic bags. This complex installation was made by Francisco Rocha.

I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.)

These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it.

Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Continue reading →

Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

This light artwork involves a lot of electronic toy dogs suspended from plastic bags. This complex installation was made by Francisco Rocha

I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.)

These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it.

Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Continue reading →