Paintings conservator Dawn Rogala examining works by Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Conversation with a Conservator: Dawn Rogala

by Liz Georges

Typically one associates a conservator with the meticulous preservation of the distant past. The bookish figure poring over a canvas by a long-dead master with a magnifying glass and a cotton swab can seem irrelevant to the contemporary artist whose practice is focused on making work in the here and now. Contemporary paintings conservator Dawn Rogala disagrees. In her experience, which includes research at the Smithsonian Institution and her current dissertation work on Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, everything has a lifespan, and sometimes it’s shorter than you think.

“I’m not talking about a hundred years. I’m talking about five years,” Rogala says. “If used improperly, there are materials that can become brittle or discolored in a very short period of time. You want the people who are collecting your work and the galleries that represent you, you want them to know that your work is going to be around and that it’s not going to self-destruct.”

“A conservator’s goal is to preserve material culture, to extend the amount of time that people are able to experience an artwork” Rogala explains. “I don’t want to discourage artists from any process or material that they want to use, but when I look at an artwork, from any time period, my objective is to keep the dialogue between audience and artwork alive for the longest possible time.”

What’s her biggest piece of advice for contemporary artists? Know your materials. In the course of her research, she’s seen first-hand the disastrous consequences of inappropriate material selection. “Modern materials are engineered for very specific uses.” she explains. “For example, my recent research [at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden] involved looking at Abstract Expressionist paintings. We’ve all heard that a lot of these artists were using house paint, and in this case, the artists I was studying used a very particular type of house paint as a ground layer. They were trying it out. And there was a particular formulation of white house paint available during that just that time period that had problems, and was not strong enough to be a proper foundation layer for those heavy Abstract Expressionist compositions, and it caused problems down the road. It was bad luck on the part of those artists that they happened to be using house paint at the particular time when that faulty paint was available.” In this case, the problem was both with the material, and with the fact that the material was used as the primary support for the artwork. “If the ground layer fails, the whole foundation of the painting could be compromised. And you might not see that kind of structural problem in a painting until it gets shipped off in a truck to a show somewhere., and it arrives at the other side with whole sections of the painting falling off.”

And because modern materials are so carefully formulated, adding to that mix can have unexpected results over time. “Artists may want to experiment with that process first before using home-made combinations of materials in a final artwork,” says Rogala. “Unsurprising combinations can sometimes have very surprising consequences.”

Materials are also vulnerable to changes in their environment. “A lot of people paint on wood. Perfectly fine, but plywood, for example, can be very responsive to changes in humidity. If plywood paintings are stored in areas with wide fluctuations in humidity, the wood will expand and warp in a way the paint layer can’t. This causes the paint to crack and curl up and causes serious problems. It is vitally important that artists educate themselves about their materials, about what they were formulated to do. This will help you understand how they are going to behave in your artwork. Because they are going to behave the way they want to behave regardless of whether they are in artwork, or on a house wall or on a sidewalk or whatever. I’m not saying to change your practice.; the intended function of your materials is already there for you as a guide, as a key to what kind of behavior you can expect from them in the long run.”

There are also online resources that artists can consult to learn about their materials. “There are some really wonderful websites, such as theInternational Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art – North America, and the Art Materials Information and Education Network,” says Rogala. “And many manufacturers also post research and resource information on their websites.”

“There is a lot of interest right now in the conservation community about the behavior of modern art materials,” she continues, “such as industrial coatings, time-based media, and the long-term behavior of artworks made from plastic. ‘The Age of Plastic,’ for example, is an ongoing collaboration between scientists, curators, and conservators from the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Conservation Institute, and George Washington University. Part of their upcoming symposium in DC this June will look at the use of plastic in art and the challenges of its long-term preservation.”

But what if your practice includes materials that degrade, as an intentional part of your work? What if you’ve used materials in an experimental way and the consequences over time are simply unpredictable? “Josef Albers would write on the backs of his paintings what paint he used, what color it was, and how it was mixed,” says Rogala. “Documentation of materials and artist’s intent is becoming an important part of contemporary artwork. Many museums now interview artists when their works enter the museum collection, and ask questions about the material, or for their opinion about the use of conservation over the lifetime of the artwork. Some artists will say ‘Oh no, I want it to fade!’ And that becomes an important part of the piece.”

If the artist is still living, will a museum ask them to retouch their own artwork? “That can be tricky,” says Rogala. “The decision differs from artwork to artwork, and takes in account the relationship of the artist with the collector or museum, and the particular problem with the artwork that needs attention.”

“Conserving an artwork is not like creating an artwork. I’m trained to be invisible,” she explains. “to mimic the artist’s hand at the particular moment in time that a work was made. Since the artist’s hand can change over time, it is often a collaboration of artist and conservator that works in the best interests of a contemporary artwork.”

“I feel so lucky to be able to have this kind of dialogue with artists about their work,” says Rogala, “to help preserve the voice of contemporary artists for future generations. There’s a long history of artists --like Georgia O’Keeffe and Matthew Barney -- working with conservators to ensure the stability of their materials. Artists can check the website for the American Institute for Conservation if they have questions for a conservator.”

Dawn Rogala will be participating as a panelist in WPA’s “No Artist Left Behind” program, “Protecting the Value” on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at the Gateway Arts Center, 3901 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood, MD. Helena Lai, an Account Executive in the Fine Arts division of AON/Huntington T. Block Insurance Agency, will also be on the panel, which will be moderated by WPA Executive Director, Lisa Gold.

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April 19, 2012