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«Article: Living artists and the conservation of contemporary objects: Preserving an aesthetic of decay Author(s): John T. Campbell Source: Objects ...»

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Article: Living artists and the conservation of contemporary objects: Preserving an aesthetic of decay

Author(s): John T. Campbell

Source: Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume Twenty, 2013

Pages: 195-206

Editors: Lara Kaplan, Kari Dodson, and Emily Hamilton

ISSN (print version): 2169-379X

ISSN (online version): 2169-1290 th

© 2015 by The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, 1156 15 Street

NW, Suite 320, Washington, DC 20005. (202) 452-9545.

www.conservation-us.org Objects Specialty Group Postprints is published annually by the Objects Specialty Group (OSG) of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC). It is a conference proceedings volume consisting of papers presented in the OSG sessions at AIC Annual Meetings and is intended to inform and educate conservation-related disciplines. Under a licensing agreement, individual authors retain copyright to their work and extend publications rights to the AIC.

This article is published in Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume Twenty, 2013. It has been edited for clarity and content but has not undergone a formal process of peer review. Responsibility for the methods and materials described herein rests solely with the author(s), whose article should not be considered an official statement of the OSG or the AIC.



OF DECAY JOHN T. CAMPBELL ABSTRACT This article examines the conservation of contemporary sculpture in the context of the artist/conservator collaboration using the work of artist James Magee as a case study. Magee is a Texas-based artist known primarily for a decades-long project called The Hill—a site-specific architectural installation in the desert outside of El Paso. Magee’s exploration of beauty through the product of decay combined with the use of a wide array of organic and inorganic materials all set within the rugged environment of the Chihuahuan Desert provides unique challenges to the conservator in preserving the material aspect of the work. Through specific examples, this article emphasizes the importance of an artist’s voice and intent in the development of treatment and preservation strategies related to their work. This article demonstrates how initial groundwork for the artist/conservator collaboration, including assessment of artist interest, knowledge, and goals related to the conservation of their work, can enhance the artist interview guidelines developed by the conservation community over the last two decades. The article concludes by examining the variables and compromise that determined the scope of the author’s collaboration with Magee.

1. INTRODUCTION Since the early 1990s, interest in the artist/conservator collaborative process has gained considerable momentum in the field of conservation (Wharton 2009).1 This article explores the collaboration between the author and the artist, James Magee, in preparation for the 2010 exhibition, Revelation: The Art of James Magee, hosted by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. Issues related to the conservation of contemporary works in the context of the artist/conservator collaboration are presented with the goal of extending the current literature base that guides similar endeavors. Within this context two specific aspects of the collaborative process will be highlighted: (1) setting the stage for a successful collaboration and (2) choosing/assessing the scope of collaboration.

2. BACKGROUND As the sculpture conservator of the Nasher Sculpture Center, the author embarked on a trip to El Paso, Texas, in January 2010 in preparation for James Magee’s exhibition, Revelation: The Art of James Magee, scheduled for later that year. The primary purpose of this initial trip was to become acquainted with the artist and the works in his El Paso studio under consideration for exhibition. The trip also included a visit to The Hill, Magee’s ambitious and majestic site-specific work, in preparation for a catalog to accompany the exhibition. Over the course of three days, approximately 12 hours of discussion were digitally recorded, covering topics related to the preservation and conservation issues of works in Magee’s studio and at The Hill. Although not all artists share the same interest in and enthusiasm for discussing the conservation of their works, Magee appreciated being able to talk about his work and receive feedback from a conservation perspective, especially given the unique materials he uses, as will become clear below.

Although this visit resulted in extensive information gathering, it also marked the beginning of a partnership between conservator and artist.

AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Vol. 20, 2013 195

2.1 THE HILL The Hill is a site-specific work located 90 mi. east of El Paso in the Chihuahuan Desert. Pilgrimage to the site requires a 1.5-hour drive from El Paso, followed by a 15-minute walk from the road to installation site. The complex of four rectangular buildings sits on 2000 acres of desert wilderness. The buildings, set roughly at the points of the compass, are 40 ft. long and 17 ft. tall and are connected by raised stone walkways (figs. 1a, 1b).

Figs. 1a and 1b. Views of The Hill (© Tom Jenkins, courtesy of Lisa L. Jenkins. All rights reserved)

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The architectural aspect of The Hill is impressive. At 52,000 square ft., it is not unlike an earthwork.

It was constructed by the artist, with minimal assistance, over 25 years from native shale taken from the ancient seabed that encompasses the surrounding area. Integral to this architectural complex are sculptures housed inside each building. Illuminated solely by natural light, it is easy to understand why Magee refers to these installations as “jewels in boxes” (Magee 2010).

With the artist as guide, The Hill was revealed to the author as a performative experience.

Moving through the site from Building One (the South Building) to Building Three (the East Building), the sculptural installations increase in complexity, requiring the manipulation of articulated elements to reveal the contents within. The mechanics were so complex in Building Three that the artist required assistance manipulating them (fig. 2).

Still in progress, Building Four (the West Building) is slated to host the most complex sculptural installation at The Hill. Having already dedicated over a quarter century to realize his vision in the desert, the artist estimated that the interior of Building Four would take an additional 20 years to complete (fig. 3) (Magee 2010).

2.2 THE STUDIO Not all of Magee’s sculpture makes it up to The Hill. He also creates work on a gallery/ exhibition scale. His studio is a modified industrial warehouse outfitted with wood and metal fabrication equipment, a large drafting table, and shelves filled with various hand tools and hardware (figs. 4a, 4b).

Oftentimes the works he creates in the studio are the result of research and development of ideas for sculptural programs at The Hill. Almost as much an exhibition space as a workspace, Magee has filled the walls of the studio, the hallway to his office, and even the washroom with art. Having run out of wall space, he converted a shipping container into an ingenious large rolling storage unit. At the foot of the walls lay many more works in different stages of fabrication and realization. The sheer number of iterations or pieces confirms the vast amount of exploration and experimentation Magee undergoes to produce his work.

–  –  –

2.3 MATERIALS: A UNIQUE CHALLENGE The materials Magee incorporates into his artworks originate from a range of sources, including repositories of discarded scrap, purveyors of industrial supplies, stalls at open-air markets, and the shelves of traditional art supply vendors. These sources provide a wide variety of inorganic materials, such as diverse types of stock metal, various forms of glass (e.g., windshields, blasting media, shatter proof glass, wire reinforced glass, and beverage bottles), antique car bodies, barbed wire, metal shot, and melted lead.

These inorganic materials convey an overall industrial feel to the works, but closer examination also reveals a distinct connection to the organic world. Housed inside glazed iron frames are dried hibiscus flowers, paprika, honey, wax, paper of varying quality, sea shells, interior wood trim, and animal bones.

Most of the materials used in Magee’s sculptures are selected to convey an aesthetic marked by weathering and neglect, giving his works a patina reminiscent of ancient artifacts. Magee explains that he sees beauty both in the process and the products of decay, and material selection is critical to capturing this desired aesthetic (Magee 2010).

Sections of antique car bodies, for example, are seen by the artist as “painted skins” weathered by the desert sun to a shadow of what initially rolled off the assembly line (fig. 5) (Magee 2010). These objects are prized by Magee for their “beautiful” muted colors, replacing showroom gloss with a delicate, natural satin finish (Magee 2010). During the author’s visit to Magee’s studio, a stack of antique car hoods, stored side by side, stood waiting to be incorporated into sculptures. There is no hurry to bring

–  –  –

them inside. Instead, they wait outside the studio in the harsh elements of El Paso and continue to develop their prized patina until the artist is ready to use them.

Magee is well aware that the same natural processes that deteriorate his source materials to achieve their patinas will eventually prey upon his finished works. In the future, the rusty fulcrum on which these sculptures balance will be reduced to a mound of crumbled oxides. Magee clearly articulates that maintenance is a distinct aspect of his work (Magee 2010). In fact, he finds beauty in the effort to ward off the inevitable (Magee 2010).

From the conservator’s point of view, Magee’s aesthetic of decay creates a challenge in differentiating between intentional vs. unintentional degradation. At face value, the condition of the artwork is clear: stone and mortar are weathered by the desert climate, paint on reclaimed industrial scrap is sun bleached and friable, much of the stock steel features rust, and organic materials are desiccated and oxidized. The task of identifying recent change in the condition of the work is quite difficult at best.

Many of the works are in their intended state, but without the artist’s guidance, assessing this would be almost impossible. Thus, it quickly became clear that a constructive conservator/artist collaboration would greatly enhance the success of the upcoming exhibition and future treatments.

3. COLLABORATION PROCESS Magee’s works exemplify the critical importance that conservator/artist collaborations can have on preservation and treatment outcomes. Collaboration allows the conservator insight into the artist’s intentions and preferences regarding their artworks. It also provides conservators the opportunity to understand and document what is essential and what is less critical in preserving the meaning of a work as well as its overall aesthetic. Conservators are thus armed with the necessary information to better distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable changes in condition and are therefore more likely to make sound treatment decisions.

Open dialogue with Magee, for example, revealed that the thick layer of fine desert dust that collects on his works is not considered integral to each piece (Magee 2010). Further, unlike artworks by David Hammons, such as High Falutin’ 2 (1990), and the late Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting: Four Corners (1974) (Scheidemann 2007), Magee’s works can be safely dusted. Additional discussion also revealed that although Magee’s sculptures are often constructed from naturally weathered materials and subsequently housed in a harsh and inhospitable environment, much like the towers of vulnerable candy busts stacked in the late artist Dieter Roth’s damp “Schimmelmuseum” (Mould Museum). Unlike Roth, however, once Magee’s works are complete, their aesthetic is not to be dictated by the process of decay as a melancholy display of transience and mortality; their condition is meant to remain static (Magee 2010).

Such information was invaluable for guarding against incorrect condition diagnosis and corresponding treatment decisions in preparation for the Nasher exhibition, and documentation will also inform future endeavors in preserving the artist’s legacy.


To enhance the potential for success and increase the likelihood for a productive artist/ conservator collaboration, it is necessary to understand the artist’s interest, knowledge, and goals regarding the conservation process. Therefore, before going down a conservation checklist related to a specific object, initial efforts should focus on developing an understanding of each party’s expectations

and goals. Examples of early questions to consider for promoting groundwork dialogue may include:

(1) What is the artist’s experience with and understanding of conservation? (2) What has worked in the past when collaborating with conservators and what could be improved upon? (3) How interested is the artist in being involved with the conservation process? (4) What is the artist’s level of interest in the Campbell AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Vol. 20, 2013 object? (5) How familiar is the artist with the materials used to create the work? and (6) What would be the ideal outcome of this collaboration? Spending this initial time to lay the groundwork for the collaboration can expose potential areas ripe for misunderstanding and clear up misconceptions about the process.

3.1.1 Assessing Interest James Magee had a strong interest in discussing conservation and preservation issues related to his work and appreciated the potential benefit of collaborating with a conservator. He had positive interactions with conservators in the past, the most recent of which was troubleshooting a condition issue via correspondence. Due to its remote location, however, few conservators are able to visit The Hill. Over time, Magee had compiled a list of concerns and was eager to receive feedback.

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