Left: Löis Mailou Jones's Moon Masque, Center: Paintings Conservator Amber Kerr-Allison cleans the painting using a wet technique, Right: Cleaning the painting using a dry technique.
Conservators must use a variety of techniques when treating mixed media artworks, each suited to a particular material in that piece. Read on to learn about the different treatments that Paintings Conservator Amber Kerr-Allison used to prepare Löis Mailou Jones's mixed media painting Moon Masque for display in our exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, now on display through September 3.
Jones's artistic career spanned almost the entire 20th century. She studied painting in the United States and France and traveled extensively throughout Africa and Haiti. Heavily influenced by traditional African art forms, her works highlight the connections between modernism, abstraction, and African motifs. In Moon Masque, she has framed a Zairian-inspired mask with abstracted silhouettes and patterned bands of color reminiscent of Ethiopian textiles. It's difficult to tell until you are close to the painting, but the mask is actually a three-dimensional work that Jones created out of papier-mache and placed on the flat, painted canvas. The mask is painted in acrylics and overlaid with strips of gold leaf.
After examining Moon Masque, Amber noted that the weight of the mask was placing stress on the canvas, causing it to sag and stretch and creating tiny cracks in the painted surface. Since conservators not only strive to keep artworks in top condition but to protect them against future damage, Amber placed a padded backing board behind the painting in order to reduce the stress on the painted layers created by the weight of the mask. The padding fills the space between the canvas and the back board, supporting the canvas and curtailing the possibility of further damage to the paint layers. Additionally, the padding will reduce vibration of the canvas any time the painting is handled and transported.
Amber then cleaned the work using both wet and dry techniques. A low pH, water-based solution was applied to the painted surface of the canvas using small cotton swabs. The low pH level ensured that the acrylic paint would not swell during cleaning. Gentle but highly effective, the solution removed environmental surface grime without affecting the molecular structure of the paint. Next, she removed dust and accumulated dirt from the crevices in the mask via a dry-treatment system using a specialized sponge. You may not think of a sponge as a high-tech, but this one is specially designed to lift and sweep away embedded surface grime in much the same way that a pencil eraser lifts graphite from the surface of a sheet of paper.
After cleaning the painting, Amber began a consolidation treatment on the surface of the work to secure loose material and to fill in cracks. She reattached the strips of gold leaf that had begun to curl away from the surface of the mask using a conservation-grade adhesive and then applied a special reversible paint to hide the cracks that had formed in the paint layers on the canvas. Amber chose this reversible paint because future conservators must be able to distinguish between her treatment and Jones's original work, and to undo Amber's treatment if necessary.
Not only is Moon Masque exhibition-ready, but Amber's work has helped to ensure it will be protected as it travels with African American Art to other museums across the country.