Cracking the Conservation of a Curious Contemporary Construction

In 2004 artist Matthew Picton laid a sheet of plastic over the cracks in the asphalt of a playground. He traced the cracks and painted them with black enamel paint. Then he carefully cut and burned away the plastic surrounding the cracks. What was left was a giant spidery web.

A conservator installing the web-like construction by Mattew Picton

Matthew Picton, 2004.Cut-Out Drawing #3 Briscoe School Playground. 86 X 120 inches. Duralar, pins, enamel. Museum Purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 2006.27

A giant spidery web is not an easy thing to handle by any measure, but especially from a conservator’s perspective. When Cut-Out Drawing #6 arrived at the Fine Arts Museums, it looked like this:

Picton's piece packaged in flat boxes Picton's piece in flat packaging as it arrived at the museum

When Nora Velensek arrived at the museum’s paper lab on an advanced conservation internship from the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, she expressed her enthusiasm for the treatment of contemporary art. When she saw Picton’s work in this perplexing condition, Velensek didn’t hesitate, diving right in to the challenging project and providing the piece with just what it needed—some careful attention that would leave the artwork in the best shape for a future exhibition.

When Velensek opened up the mysterious package, she discovered that the artwork was not extensively damaged, but it was definitely not in great shape for long-term preservation, either.

The web-like construction of Picton's construction prior to installation Attaching the delicate pieces of Picton's piece together over a grid

Contemporary art installations often appear spontaneous, but they can require complex installation methods. The main tasks of this conservation project were to figure out how to affix the artwork to the wall, attach its numerous pieces to one another, develop clear instructions for future installation, and construct a sound archival armature that could also serve as an installation support.

In working out installation solutions, conservators generally do not experiment on valuable artworks, opting instead to create mock-ups that allow for the testing of various ideas.

Creating the mockup, a conservator traces the web-like form onto paper

In this case a mock-up was created using similar materials to those used in the artwork itself.

A conservator spray paints the outline of the piece through a stensil

The web-like construction as seen as a stensiled pattern

Once the installation tests were conducted on the mock-up, the original artwork was hung in a hallway to further refine installation techniques. The three sections of the artwork were attached to Fome-Cor lattices to support them and keep them from becoming a floppy tangle. Then the segments were placed adjacent to one another on the wall.

Conservators hang the mock-up on the wall to test out installation options

Based on instructions Velensek obtained from communication with the artist, the plastic web was suspended from large ball-headed quilting pins.

Based on directives from the artist, the webing is hung on a pin

Picton gave Velensek an important tip: pull the web out to the end of the pins to create a three-dimensional, shadowy effect that made all the difference in the appearance of the artwork.

Mounting the webbing on the end of the pin creates shadowy effect desired

Finally, previously separate parts of the artwork were joined into one seamless web.

The separate pieces of the web are joined together seamlessly

As with a Christmas tree, the take-down is always much faster than the set-up. This was especially true of the Picton cut-out, thanks to the sturdy supports that Velensek constructed, which will double as handling lattices for future installations.

A conservator takes down the mockup installation

In addition, Velensek created a detailed instruction plan, which will facilitate easy and safe installation of this intriguing artwork when it is next exhibited.