CONSERVING MODERN PAINTS
JASON MARTIN was born in Jersey, United Kingdom, and studied at the Chelsea College of Arts and Goldsmiths, University of London, in the early 1990s. His work is often monochromatic but heavily textured, where layers of oil or acrylic gel are dragged across the surface of the painting with brushes or with comb-like pieces of metal or board in one movement, often repeated many times. Martin currently lives and works in London and Lisbon.
RUTH PASTINE was born and raised in New York City and received her MFA degree from Hunter College, City University of New York. Her work in painting engages the phenomenological investigation of color, light, and matter and explores the subtle character and nuance of color and light, challenging preconceptions. Pastine questions the visual experience and redefines the perceptual field. She lives in Ojai, California.
ANALIA SABAN is a contemporary artist who received an MFA degree from UCLA. Originally from Buenos Aires, Saban often works with paint materials in nontraditional ways, such as casting objects in acrylic paint, and is known for creating paintings in which the paint is sculpted by a laser machine. She lives in Los Angeles.
They spoke with TOM LEARNER, head of GCI Science, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.
TOM LEARNER: In very broad terms, could each of you talk about why you are drawn to working with paint?
RUTH PASTINE: My work is focused on the phenomenological investigation of color and its optical invocation of temperature, light, and spatial interplay. My painting process explores the perceptual interaction of saturated and nuanced color relationships that investigate the dialogue between object, presence, and phenomena. Focused on the spontaneous process of painting and the methodical repetition of working serially, I work to transform the materiality of the painted surface into an optically immaterial experience. The dialectic of opposition between presence and ethereality is always in flux. My paintings explore the phenomena of color perception and color relativity.
ANALIA SABAN: Paint is the question that drives my work. Paint can be a ground rock pigment mixed with oil, or synthetic paints, or all the versions of beeswax and colored pigments. There are so many definitions of what paint is. I don’t really understand why we look at a painting and why that painting becomes so valuable for art history and culture, and why a monetary value is attached to a painting. I try to understand this process through the making of works.
JASON MARTIN: I’ve always tried to find inventive strategies of making painting. I suppose the broad concept has been to explore ways of combining minimalism and expressionism. This has involved, crucially, the use of all kinds of application devices—such as brushes or cardboard or flexible pieces of metal with an edge like a comb—to move the paint around the work, and it ultimately reduces the act to a very minimal monogestural mark but also records evidence of my body within that trace. I like the nakedness of the brush mark and how that relates back to the body.
LEARNER: Could you expand a little on the types of paints you use, and how that affects your working process?
MARTIN: I have always been interested in exploring the inherent nature of materials. When working with oils, I often add walnut or poppy oil to loosen and speed up more strident movements. This gives me much more freedom with tracing a more infinitesimal mark. With acrylic paste, I often crop a poured edge prior to using a tool that passes through the poured mass so as to frame the concentrated area, effectively leaving the gesture benign and quoted.
SABAN: Different paints lead to very different practices of painting. Just think about the variation in drying time. With oil paint, if I add a lot of paint, it might be wet for fifty to a hundred years. That versus acrylic paint, which will probably dry overnight, or encaustic paint, which will probably dry the moment it’s cooled down. So the definition of paint is what really drives the work. In other instances, the media informs the idea. For example, once I built this brush out of acrylic paint. The whole brush is just acrylic paint. This is something that only acrylic allows me to do. Another thing that I can do with acrylic paint is use sculptural techniques. I am able to take a canvas all painted with acrylic and then carve it with a laser machine. Again, only acrylic paint permits me to do that.
PASTINE: I’m fascinated by the materiality of oil paints—and this involves the chemistry of paint. Cadmium colors are weighted and heavy and inherently have an opacity that is very different from other saturated colors that are transparent. I utilize these differences for their essential properties. I work on paintings that are built up with countless brushstrokes and many successive layers. Each layer is a complete layer that covers the entirety of the surface, and there is drying time in between each layer. Over the course of several months, these paintings will resolve.
JEFFREY LEVIN: Do you know where you’re headed when you start, or is it a very iterative process?
PASTINE: I work very spontaneously and see paintings emerge. It’s very physical and rigorous keeping the entirety of a surface active. There’s a dynamic at play. There are predetermined color systems and defined canvas formats and sizes that I begin with, but I’m invested in the spontaneity of the process and how paintings evolve instinctually and paradoxically in opposition to these known components, which advance the work. The painting process drives the content.
MARTIN: There’s always an element of chance in my work, as opposed to something that’s more contrived and understood. It’s very much about an ephemeral moment. There’s always got to be that discovery, something on the move.
LEVIN: How important is the quality of the paint you use?
PASTINE: Important, actually. With different brands, the saturation, density, and opacity of the pigments present new material to work with. I’ve found that I might have some paints remaining from a prior series, and I’ll utilize them to further different charged and nuanced optical experiences in my current series. I used to believe, “Use only top-shelf,” but some of the experiences that I’m looking for might be found in a less concentrated or opaque-based foundation.
SABAN: I use all different paints at all different prices. Once I made a whole body of work from the color gray. I had very little money at the time and I went to a local paint factory where at the end of the year they mixed every leftover color into this gray color. You could get it super cheap, so I was able to afford a lot of paint for a lot of work. But at the same time, I had seen a show of Jasper Johns at the Met with all these gray colors, and I thought, “Now I can make my own series in grayscale.” But in other cases, I do have to care more about the pigment.
MARTIN: My choice of acrylic paste medium is based on its tensile quality. My chosen brand has a purity of consistency and resists shrinkage. The strength of this medium affords possibilities that allow potential casting—a process now very central to my practice. When working with oils, color choices depend on the behavior of the ground and how that ground resists or absorbs—forming a key of more or less stability. Choices regarding opacity versus transparency are dictated by the nature of the ground support and how that prepared ground supports the intended applied surface. Generally I use paints that have inherent qualities that perform well over time with their lightfast capabilities. That said, I like to disrupt more familiar approaches to advance experimental outcomes that may proffer dynamic and exciting results.
LEARNER: What about the physical body or texture of some paints? How do you explore that aspect in your work?
SABAN: I’ve explored this a lot with acrylic paint. It’s important that acrylic paint is really a polymer—a plastic, as opposed to an oil paint or an encaustic paint or a watercolor. If it’s basically a plastic, it should have a very plastic quality, and I can make a sculpture with it. I realized that I didn’t need to paint on canvas but could make my brushstrokes on a surface like Plexiglas, from where I could peel them off, turning them into small objects or sculptures, and then glue them to a canvas. In other cases, I paint directly on canvas but on top of a layer of silicone spray so I can then peel it away from the canvas. What is interesting about this is that it takes the texture of the canvas, so you can see the brushstrokes on one side and the texture of the canvas on the other—the other side of the paint that you never see.
MARTIN: The connection between painting and sculpture is interesting to me, too, and how the collision of the two creates dialogue. This has been a consistent challenge for me, exploring how these identities overlap. Can a use of paint become reduced so that it serves as a subservient application, dismissing all but a textural veneer for the sake of furthering a more fruitful enquiry as a facade to sculpture? The sculptural element in my work affords me a loose fit relationship with how I explore compositions that nevertheless relate back to the language of painting.
LEARNER: Are you drawing attention to the construction of the work?
MARTIN: This is a fine balancing act, as working with materials inventively often leads you down blind alleys that don’t transgress anything worthwhile beyond decorative play. However, I’m not interested in a pyrotechnics of effects. The construction of form and the evident reference of the hand and body with roller or paintbrush or profile is a choice that serves to contain more a dialogue outside of effects—or what the dismissive pariahs of painting parlance condemn as “technique” and “style.”
SABAN: I feel there’s a lot of myth around painting, and I want to uncover that myth. I want to show that the painting itself is a sculpture. We’re used to seeing a painting on a wall as a two-dimensional piece, but every painting is a sculpture. It’s not just the surface.
LEVIN: Ruth, how engaged are you with respect to the installation of your work?
PASTINE: I’m striving for an immersive experience—viscerally, physically, and perceptually—and so the installation, placement of paintings in dialogue with one another, height, and lighting have a great impact on how you experience the work. What I try to impart to those who are installing the works is that you’re not lighting the paintings’ surfaces, you want to illuminate the room. They have their own light. As your eyes adjust to the physical presence and phenomenon of the works, they reveal and emit their inherent emergent light. I work serially, and the orchestration and dynamics between paintings of site-specific installations and my exhibitions is very important. There’s a vital relationship between the work and the architectural space. I’ve become more strident about sharing the proper care and handling of the work towards success. My suggestions for placement of works and installing paintings at particular heights are toward ensuring that the viewer has an immersive experience. I think it’s important to learn the artist’s intentions when possible, and how they envision having the work experienced.
LEARNER: Analia, you and I have spoken previously about the notion of time and art and how conservation responds to issues of longevity. Could you talk about that?
SABAN: I think it’s interesting how time is embedded into painting and art. The question of time is important because it connects with human aging and the fact that we’re wet living things until we die and dry out. Paint goes through that process. When you paint, you’re working with a wet medium, and then it’s dry and it starts to fade. Over time, the particles start to disintegrate, and there is no way to stop that. It’s the human struggle against time that is connected to painting. A piece of marble does not go through the same aging process we do. What impressed me most about the conservation lab at the GCI is the fact that it looks like a hospital lab. You use most of the same tools—from X-rays to microscopes and even to CT scans—to analyze particles of paints. Seeing all that was an exciting way to make the connection.
LEARNER: Jason, do you think about how your paintings might change with time?
MARTIN: Sure. Dyes fade, but the surfaces have a seal or fixative or layer that creates a barrier from the long-term punishment of daylight. The water-based mediums with a generous surface mass can shrink over a year and then will marginally change, possibly revealing fissures. For this reason, I send touch-up kits with the pigment works and care notes to resolve any intrusions. The oils oxidize over sixty years if applied in such ways and hence go through a slow structural change. The oil on occasion has been purged from the dense layer below and erupted into the surface. This has happened with some early oils that were scraped with large aluminum laser-cut profiles or combs. The paler works with a majority of white oils have in areas discolored to a yellow. However, if these zinc or titanium white oils are exposed to sunlight, they benefit from not discoloring, as these oils are photosynthetic.
LEARNER: Conservators and conservation scientists are always trying to predict what might happen to works of art in the future. One way we can try to do that is to artificially speed up aging, using such things as light and temperature.
SABAN: Yes, I was really excited about your experiments artificially aging modern acrylic paints. I’m excited about the GCI’s aging machine, where you can take samples of paint and then over many days simulate many years of aging. In the end, what I noticed with the human eye is that modern paints are very stable. They were completely unchanged after so many “years” of artificial aging. It was very disappointing to me that they were so stable!
PASTINE: That’s not disappointing to me—that’s great news!
LEVIN: Are you looking for your work to reflect the passage of time?
SABAN: When I think about this question, I think of that perfect time when you’re between twenty-five and sixty-five, when you’re fully grown up and you’re all together. I think my works have a lot of that quality, and contemporary works are at that point in life. They’re built in a way that much of the work might disintegrate, but the main parts will remain intact. There’s a structure in place to prevent the work from completely disappearing, but then there will be different parts that might shed over time.
MARTIN: When I arrive at something that has a truth, and it conveys its own emotional place, I step away and think that is beyond me. It is something that I leave behind. It is a testament of my time here. I’ll be gone and the work will carry on.
LEVIN: Have you thought about making explicit how you want your work handled over time? How is somebody looking at your work fifty years from now going to understand what your intention was?
SABAN: That’s the million-dollar question. I still don’t have an answer. It’s hard to predict. To show a bit of aging is important. You look at the work and right away you should have a sense of its age without looking at the title on the wall. I think that’s very, very important. But it’s too late if half the work is in pieces on the floor. That’s different. You have to interfere and stop that process. But the work has to show aging, it has to show time, because that is just embedded in the history of art.
PASTINE: I’ve always striven to have the finished object command a certain enduring presence. Tom, you and I once had a conversation in the studio about the stability of certain paints I use. I realize now that this is an active conversation in conservation. I’m conscientious about the stability of the pigments and mediums I use towards the longevity of my work having a voice and place in history. Oil paintings have lasted for centuries, and so, with quality paints and mediums, and new formulations, and research in product development, I see this being advantageous to my work.
MARTIN: I’m quite confident that my paintings will remain healthy for many years. All have care issues, however, and all works can be revitalized if necessary. They will certainly be around many years longer than I, and their vitality will hold up for generations ahead. I’m sure with my care notes the works will prevail better than traditional procedures of old that had the disadvantage of not having the insights and knowledge of modern materials and how to use them.
LEVIN: Will having access to materials with long-term stability and color retention influence your choices regarding what you would utilize?
PASTINE: Absolutely, because I want that presence to last. It’s not just the object that engages the viewer, but the experience of that object. I’ve always admired Renaissance icons and illuminated manuscripts, which have lasted for centuries, and although they might not look exactly the way they did when they were made, their brilliant color and gold leaf are very much intact as presences—they’re not just relics of a moment in time and history, but they engage as actual presences. I hope my work can have such longevity.
SABAN: I feel a bit different. I might make a work that may not last forever, but it still could be worth making it and showing it for a certain period of time. In that case, it’s like flowers—you still buy them and enjoy them even though they are not permanent. I choose to work with materials I know might not last. It’s a very conscious choice I have to make—an expensive production choice, usually, as those works can’t be available for sale. They stay in my collection.
MARTIN: For my works, I anticipate they will remain close to the day they left the studio. The industrially fabricated supports are key to a long-term reach, as are methods employed in preparing well-adjusted grounds for destined applied mediums. I made some early errors here and there, and there are always exceptions to the rule. However, in majority, my paintings are constructed to last. Notoriously celebrated painters of the past working with diligence and responsibility were disadvantaged by limitations in the quality of the materials of their day. Time and the elements inevitably change the nature of all things, not least my works. I have endeavored to marginalize the vulnerability of my work to a minimum without sacrificing the work’s inherently delicate nature.
PASTINE: I agree with you with regard to the importance of process. Yes, I have become more educated about the materials I use and how these make for a more stable experience, but my process is focused on investigation and the happenstance of discovery. The work is furthered by not knowing where I’m going and by engaging and challenging limitations and parameters. The completed works are records of the energy and time that I put into them—the challenges I face, the achievements I’ve made, the experiences I’ve had. I see the work charged with those experiences.
LEARNER: When things get damaged or marked, which is not part of a natural aging process, how do you deal with damage to those surfaces?
PASTINE: When the work goes out into the world, there are variables of shipping, handling, and installation, which can pose some problems or involve accidents. Because the work has so much to do with the experience of the material, it’s a problem when a mark makes a very material notation. I’ve been pretty successful on a few occasions in dispersing these marks by addressing them within their interior borders. Because of the seamless nature of my hand-painted surfaces, if you add anything, it looks like a stain on a greater surface, and the mark damages the experience of the continuum of the final surface. I’ve been successful with restoring several works, mixing paints, letting them dry, and comparing their color and quality to the area needing repair. “Less is more” is always the technique I use and recommend. But I’m not a conservator.
LEARNER: Are you happy to deal with these issues yourself?
PASTINE: I’m never happy to have to deal with them. On one occasion I brought in a conservator because the work was already acquired and in a permanent installation. I didn’t want to risk further jeopardizing the work. I’m happy to say there have only been a few times conservation issues have been brought to my attention.
SABAN: I have had major damage to a work, in which it was mishandled and dropped on the floor. The damage was so bad that I let the work die. In other instances when it was a mark, it was tough emotionally to deal with. In most cases, I don’t know how to fix it. I do keep a very detailed manual of all the works—how they’re made, what the structure is—and I have to refer to that manual. It’s like notes on a patient that a doctor would keep.
MARTIN: Damage is damage! I do sometimes touch up a problem area but in general my lack of patience prevents me from dealing with these issues. Revisiting my own work is very interesting for me. Like a diary, each work sits within a narrative and the memory of my former self at that time. The dialogues and relationships and context of my life all distilled in the brush marks before me: a record of another time. This brings nostalgia and reflection—good and bad.
PASTINE: It’s very distressing to get notification that a work has been damaged. It’s very emotional. There was one occasion where a work of mine was damaged by a handprint, and my heart sank. They were moving the piece without wearing protective gloves, and tried to catch the painting as it was falling and left a handprint. The oils from the skin were released onto the surface of the painting. It was on the lower right-hand corner of the painting, and you could only see it at an angle if the light caught it. I recommended contacting a professional conservator, but I knew that the oils themselves were ultimately going to remain. With any work, it’s difficult to go back to where you were when you made the work and be presented with the arduous task of fixing it. It’s a very different process from creating the work. I’m inclined for the future to have anything that somebody wants repaired to be dealt with by conservators—because that is their focus and expertise.
SABAN: And we have to support the conservation industry.
LEARNER: The conservation profession still struggles with trying to figure out how best to deal with the work of living artists. What are your thoughts on that?
SABAN: My opinion is just one opinion. Let’s say my work belongs to a public collection, and an accident happens. Maybe for me, it’s really not a question. Yes, it would be nice to hear from the curators who might say, “Well, we do think that this work is worth fixing.” But I feel that I’m not an authority here. It’s nice to be asked—it’s your work—but the work is like a child who has grown up and gone out in the world. It takes on a life of its own. I’m quite humble about it. Once it’s out of my hands, it’s out of my hands. But it’s nice to be part of the dialogue, and maybe I can learn from it.
PASTINE: In the past I wouldn’t have thought to engage a conservator. It’s through conversations with my galleries and having experiences with work in public collections that the conservation conversation has arisen. I’m happy to share information about a work’s creation to ensure successful restoration. Conservators have the tools, processes, and techniques that I, as the maker, am not focused on, and I’m happy to have them brought in. When the work is complete and leaves the studio, it takes on a new role.
LEARNER: What about this idea of the artist’s intention? How easy is it to define your intention with your works, and how important should those intentions be in a conservator’s decision about what should be done to your work?
MARTIN: Whenever I have the opportunity, I do engage in dialogue with writers or curators. I always write statements prior to exhibitions as guides for press releases, and hopefully this allows a closer insight to my approaches and concerns. However, beyond the semantics of intellectualized critical posturing and the corrosive nature of discussion, I would never want to answer to an ideological positioning of what I do. To describe is to destroy.
PASTINE: The conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of the work have spearheaded my production and direction, and they have been instrumental in guiding very different series of paintings and creating the dialectic of irreconcilable opposition that’s in flux. These concepts materialized language that best represents my process and what I do spontaneously. I believe there’s a reciprocal partnership in the conceptual underpinnings of the work and the making of the work, and it’s important to share these ideas through talks, conversations, panel discussions, and documentation.
SABAN: With some works, I might need the kind of note you put in a hospital—“DNR,” which means, “Do not resuscitate.” That’s how I see it. There is a difference between the work getting, say, a bit of mold and then getting repaired because that is treatable, and a situation requiring real resuscitation of the work. I’m talking about where you really are putting the work on a respirator and maybe remaking it, or having it redone in a way that is clearly artificial, that doesn’t show the work’s age, and that doesn’t show the work’s personality. It’s kind of a ghost of the work. That’s something I think about in my own person. It’s like plastic surgery. I’ll see once I get to that older age whether I would do it or not. But my perspective right now is that I’m not into it, and I do not want to apply that to my work. Your own philosophy of living should apply. The work should show its age and history, and if the work is really damaged, it should die. But if it has a slight issue that can easily be fixed, then it should be fixed. And that’s why I do support conservation practices.