All posts in “SAM’s Collection”

Conserving SAM’s Asian Art Collection

Thanks to funding from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, a pair of important 17th-century Japanese screens, Scenes in and around the Capital, are currently being restored by specialists at Studio Sogendo, a private studio in California. The screens, likely created by a machi-eshi, or “town painter,” present a panoramic view of Kyoto during the Edo period. They show both Kyoto’s center and its periphery, and give insight into the daily lives of different social classes, in addition to representing seasonal festivals.

When the screens first arrived at SAM in 1975, they were already in fragile condition and by the time this conservation work began in 2017, extensive repairs were desperately needed. Painted using ink, color, and gold, and mounted on wooden frames, the screens are being restored using traditional Japanese methods and materials. I was able to visit Studio Sogendo while one of the panels had been stripped of its backings and laid on a light table, allowing a rare perspective of the materials and quality of the painting. The conservation treatment has been invaluable, not just in terms of preserving the paintings, but also in offering opportunities for examination and study. The internal frames must be replaced and expert craftsmen in Japan made new custom frames for the work. The incredibly precise joinery of the new frames can be seen in these images. The conservation phase of the project is nearing completion and the reassembly of the structure, replacement of the mount fabrics, and retouching of the areas of loss is underway.

 

This crucial project would not be possible without Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, one of few programs dedicated to preserving historically or culturally significant artworks. We look forward to the return of Scenes in and around the Capital, which will be on view among SAM’s extensive Asian art collection when the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in late 2019!

– Nicholas Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

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Object of the Week: Model Totem Pole

The black stone used for this carving by Haida artist Charles Edensaw is argillite, a carbonaceous kaolinite shale. Truly unique, this sedimentary rock is found in only one place in the world: Haida Gwaii. Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the archipelago in British Columbia is home to this very special material and the similarly distinct Haida artistic traditions that have arisen from it. More specifically, argillite comes from the Slatechuck Mountain. And while Haida peoples have accessed the Slatechuck quarry and produced such argillite carvings for centuries, it was not until 1941 that the quarry site (measuring approximately 18 hectares) was officially designated as land belonging to the Skidegate band, assuring that access would remain theirs in perpetuity.[1]

For those who might not identify as geologists, or even amateur geologists, the slate’s black color comes from its high levels of carbon. A kaolinite shale, it is composed of clay material that has been subjected to heat and pressure over geologic time, resulting in a highly uniform and workable rock.[2] For example, it ranks at two and a half on the Moh’s scale of mineral hardness (on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being diamond-hard).[3]

Measuring 19 inches tall, this model totem pole (qwa.a gyaa.angaa) was expertly carved out of one piece of argillite. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the larger the carving, the more difficult it is to do successfully, as natural imperfections in the shale grain can result in fine fractures. Further, argillite is sensitive to its environmental surroundings, and can absorb and desorb moisture quickly; it is essential that freshly quarried argillite is slowly and carefully dried, otherwise it is prone to cracking.

Currently on view in the third floor Native Art of the Americas galleries, this piece makes clear just how skilled and masterful Edensaw was as a Haida carver. The figures on the pole from top to bottom are: a bear holding five stacked cylinders—representing a ringed basketry hat—above an eagle’s head; two human heads on either side, also wearing ringed hats; a bear, holding its tongue; and another bear, holding a seal-like figure with a fish-like tail. Though quite a lot to fit into 19 inches, compositionally, each animal and human figure bears exquisite incising and detail.

Such model poles were primarily made for commercial sale as Haida contact with Americans and Europeans increased during the 1800s. In fact, around the time that this piece was made (circa 1885), argillite carving experienced a surge in output corresponding with an exploration of new forms. As traditional Haida ceremonial objects and practices were increasingly banned by the Canadian government, new forms of creative expression thus emerged.[4] Edensaw was an important figure during this period, whose personal style influenced many other Haida artists living in Skidegate and Masset. With a deeper understanding of argillite’s geological properties, rarity, and cultural significance, this carving by Edensaw is all the more impressive.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Model totem pole (qwa.a gyaa.angaa), ca. 1885, Haida, argillite, 19 x 3 x 2 3/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.129
[1] “Haida Argillite,” Simon Fraser University, Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, accessed July 11, 2018, https://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/exhibits/virtual-exhibits/haida-argillite.html.
[2] “Care of Argillite,” Government of Canada, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/care-argillite.html.
[3] Peter L. Macnair and Alan L. Hoover, The Magic Leaves: A History of Argillite Carving (Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1984), 17.
[4] Macnair and Hoover, 113.
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My Favorite Things: C. Davida Ingram on Sonny Assu’s Breakfast Series

“I think the value of Sonny Assu’s piece, Breakfast Series in SAM’s permanent collection, has a lot to do with righting the wrongs of history.” – C. Davida Ingram

Consider the value of contemporary Native art through the perspective of Seattle-based artist, curator, educator, and writer, C. Davida Ingram. Visit SAM’s Native Arts of the Americas galleries and the Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast installation to contextualize Sonny Assu’s Native formline design elements in his representation of Tony the Tiger or the “12 essential lies and deceptions” in his box of Lucky Beads. How does your perspective on food and access to land change as you consider the serious history behind this seemingly lighthearted artwork?

Artwork: “Breakfast Series,” 2006, Sonny Assu (Gwa’gwa’da’ka), Kwakwaka’wakw, Laich-kwil-tach, Wei Wai Kai, born 1975, five boxes digitally printed with Fome-cor, 12 x 7 x 3 in. each, of 5, Gift of Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.93, © Sonny Assu.
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Object of the Week: Dog Hedge

The teapot is a centuries-old vessel whose origins are firmly rooted in China. Features of the teapot have evolved over time, depending on the culture and period, but for the most part the vessel is a straightforward formula with certain basic elements: a spout, a handle, a lid, and, of course, a container for hot water. Tried and tested, right? Enter Peter Shire.

For decades, Los Angeles-based Shire has worked at the intersection of fine art, craft, and industrial design, experimenting with a variety of mediums and methods to produce iconic ceramic works and furniture that challenge the modernist maxim “form follows function,” first coined by American architect Louis Sullivan. The form of this ceramic teapot, titled Dog Hedge, does not immediately align with its understood function. In fact, many of Shire’s teapots (an ongoing and touchstone series in his practice), don’t pour tea properly—they are objects meant to be looked at. In the words of the artist, they are “referentially functional.”

One of the original members (and first American) of the 1980s Italian design collective Memphis Group, Shire has proven himself a master of surfaces and mimicry. Interested in the plasticity of materials such as clay, he approaches his practice with playful rigor. In this 1982 work, orange, lime green, and red geometric shapes overlap with rectilinear planes of speckled pink and blue to form a postmodern constructivist composition. The various ceramic components balance precariously, testing the limits of the teapot’s utility.

For this work, Shire found inspiration in such diverse sources as Stonehenge, aqueducts, post and beam architecture of the 1950s, the architecture of Luis Barragán, and the “anthropomorphic qualities of the [teapot’s] spout as a mouth and the lid as eyes.” In Shire’s hands, the teapot—as both an object and an idea—becomes deconstructed and reimagined on his own personal, conceptual, and architectural terms. Appearing from one angle as a dog in profile, the piece’s title also references Stonehenge—a monument whose unclear use and construction no doubt finds a parallel in Shire’s own work.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Images: Dog Hedge, 1982, Peter Shire, ceramic with glaze, 9 1/2 x 14 x 9 1/2 in., Gift of Anne Gould Hauberg, 86.138 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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New Cedar for Bunyon’s Chess

A brilliant conservator[1] once noted that “art conservation is a fight against entropy.” This is especially visible for works sited outside which require conservators, artists, and stakeholders to carefully consider what is essential for an outdoor sculpture to continue to exist for future generations. When the carved cedar elements of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture Bunyon’s Chess were no longer structurally stable, di Suvero and his studio worked closely with the Seattle Art Museum to explore the artwork and discover solutions.

Bunyon’s Chess was created by Mark di Suvero in 1965 for Virginia and Bagley Wright’s residence in Seattle. The family’s documentation of the creative process provides wonderful insight into the artwork.

In 2006 the Wrights promised the work to the Seattle Art Museum and it was moved to the Olympic Sculpture Park. The cedar elements had begun to show degradation in their original site but this accelerated at the park partially due to the exposed location and partially due to the natural deterioration of cedar. As cedar ages in an outdoor setting a number of events occur: the natural biocide slowly migrates out with water, the wood absorbs water at an increasing rate as it deteriorates, fungal deterioration is common, as well as insect and wildlife damage. The logs of Bunyon’s Chess were treated annually with a fungicide to slow the fungal deterioration but without major visual interventions such as end caps or moving the sculpture to an interior location, deterioration continued at a fairly rapid pace.

In 2009 an in-depth condition assessment was performed which determined that the deterioration, particularly on the interior had progressed to a state where the logs were in danger of falling. In 2010, the logs were consolidated, the large losses filled and the exterior coated to prolong the life. During this period research and conversations with di Suvero regarding the replacement were begun as this treatment could not prolong the life of the cedar indefinitely. Di Suvero determined that new logs could be carved to replace the original cedar, as it is the visual integrity of the work that is important.

After much research, new cedar of the similar dimensions and tight ring growth was sourced for carving. Seattle artist Brian Beck peeled the logs in preparation for carving.

Kent Johnson and Daniel Roberts from di Suvero’s studio traveled to Seattle and carved the new logs using the original cedar elements as a guide.

Beck worked with Johnson and Roberts to create the same join between the two logs. Much of the original hardware such as the 36” bronze bolts and galvanized steel eyehooks were presevered and reused on the newly carved elements.

If you look carefully, at the top of the sculpture you will note a slight bend in the top tube. Di Suvero wanted this natural bend to remain but believed this opportunity should be used to reinforce the structure.

Fabrication Specialties Ltd. worked with the di Suvero studio to create an interior support which was welded in place.

The logs were strung with new stainless steel cabling and were carefully measured and marked to the lengths of the original cables to assist with the rigging. Larry Tate, Andrew Malcolm, Tracy Taft, Ignacio Lopez, and Travis Leonard of Fabrication Specialties placed the new logs within the original steel frame working closely with images and a model of the original. The di Suvero studio generously participated in video calls throughout the day.


Special thank you to: Mark di Suvero and Studio, Virginia Wright, Fabrication Specialties Ltd, Equinox Studios, Alta Forest Products, Brian Beck, Christian French, and Catharina Manchanda for helping preserve this public artwork free for everyone to enjoy at the Olympic Sculpture Park year round.

– Liz Brown, SAM Objects Conservator

Photos courtesy of Virginia Wright and Liz Brown.
[1] Lauren Chang
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Greetings from the Institute of Empathy

The Institute is glad to announce that their installation of lessons is on view at Seattle Art Museum. Three Empathics now oversee the production of  transformative vapors and invite you to sit with them in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy in the Seattle Art Museum’s African Art galleries, to invigorate your mental clarity.

Better yet, you are also invited to step into their restorative pool and partake of a mosaic shower from above. A 10 minute power point given by a representative from the Institute, Aurelia Wallace, is also available to explain the lessons on view.

The Institute wants to thank everyone who sticks their necks out to facilitate their work, and suggested a poem full of empathy to honor their efforts.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, 2018, Seattle Art Museum, photos: Natali Wiseman
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My Favorite Things: DJ Riz Rollins & Choreographer Donald Byrd

“The painting is delightful but the content of it is not.” – Donald Byrd

If you missed seeing Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, or if you just can’t enough of these artists—don’t fret! We’ve got works by Robert Colescott and Kerry James Marshall from SAM’s collection on view in our third floor galleries! KEXP DJ Riz Rollins and Executive Artistic Director Donald Byrd have shared some thoughts on these paintings with us. Look through the eyes of these opinionated individuals and continue to consider the questions and lessons that Figuring History explored.

“. . . I think this individual is prescient. Which means he has a sense of something deeper . . . .” – Riz Rollins

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Talent among Beauty at SAM

Downtown, we have two galleries dedicated to Chinese and Japanese art. So, while the Seattle Asian Art Museum is temporarily closed, get your fill of Asian art with the latest installation, Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, on view through July 15, 2018. “We know women as subjects; we see that all the time in artwork,” says Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art. “But to look at women as artists in addition to as a subject of art—that’s what you’ll see evidenced here from the 11th to the 21st century.”

The heart of the installation features artworks inspired by The Tale of Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century and debated as the first novel ever written, the illustrations of this literary masterpiece may not be by women, but as Wu states, “How many women writers do we know from 1,000 years ago? How many artworks have been made from every scene in The Tale of Genji, including the contemporary manga? It’s just countless. In a way we are attributing all of these wonderful works back to the original writer, the woman who wrote the tale.” The two pages below excerpt the scene depicted in the right-hand panels of the screen above.

This excerpt and the page below refer to the right-hand panels of the image above.

Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji to entertain the members of her court. Because of this, it was written in an archaic court language that was little used and quickly lost to Japanese speakers. This accounts for one of the reasons why there are so many illustrations of the tale—as a classic piece of literature, the tale continued to be told in images and annotations across the centuries until in the 20th century when it was first fully translated into modern Japanese.

 

The Tale of Genji follows the life of  Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, and his many romantic endeavors. Featuring over 400 characters that age throughout the book and whose family lineages are often intertwined, Genji is considered a feat of characterization consistency for having been written in installments of chapters over a long period time. Although the book does not have what we might consider a plot nowadays (events simply take place and the characters age), it is one of the first pieces of literature to feature a protagonist, supporting characters, strong characterization, and a sequence of events following the lifetime of the main character.

Xiaojin Wu is planning “. . . a sequence of installations that look at various patronage and audience groups. Following Talents and Beauties we’ll focus on aristocrats, and then samurai.” Make the time to visit this gallery for new perspectives on Asian art and culture.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist and Social Media Manager

Images: Installation view Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, 2017, Seattle Art Museum, photo: Natali Wiseman.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji,  trans. Royal Tyler (New York: Viking Press, 2001)
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Fireman's Coat

Object of the Week: Commoner’s Firefighting Jacket

As Halloween approaches and our thoughts turn to the weird and witchy, we wanted to highlight an early-nineteenth-century firefighter’s coat, called hikeshibanten, since it features a spooky spider. Made in the Edo period in Japan, these firefighter’s coats were reversible, and this design is actually on the interior of the jacket, only visible when the jacket has been turned inside out. A large spider—with an endearing face—looms over the shoulder of the jacket, where it hovers menacingly over an abandoned go board (Pacific Northwesterners may have unnerving flashbacks to the giant house spiders that descend on Seattle in the autumn). The range of tonalities centers on indigo, white, black, and greyish-brown, with red accents on the fan; this color palette visually unites the work, creating parallels between the spider’s eyes and the go pieces.

The method of dyeing used, tsutsugaki, is a type of resist dyeing. The design was drawn on the cotton using rice paste, and these initial lines are visible now as the lightest areas of the design. The spider and the go board were dyed their respective colors, and covered with more rice paste to block any other dye from entering the area. Then the fabric was dipped into indigo multiple times, dried, soaked in hot water again, and the rice paste was scraped off to reveal the layering of colors; this whole process could take 20 days.[1]

But why is this spider on a firefighting jacket at all? The jacket tells a story from the life of Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948–1021), a warrior-hero. The story is as follows: Yorimitsu was sick, and was resting in bed. He was visited by a priest—but the priest was actually a giant spider (tsuchigumo) in disguise! Yorimitsu, being very clever, sees through the disguise, and attacks the spider with his sword, wounding him. Yorimitsu’s four attendants, called the Four Heavenly Kings, were playing a game of go while guarding him, and leapt up to track the spider back to his den.[2]

This narrative was popular in theatrical productions, and there was a song in Noh theatre specifically about tsuchigumo, the intimidating earth spider. The story appears frequently in woodblock prints in the nineteenth century as well. The jacket shows the moment when the go game was abandoned, with tsuchigumo retreating back to his web. So great was the hurried effort to find the spider that the attendants left behind their personal effects, scattering go pieces in their haste.

The human figures in this story are removed from the jacket’s design and the firefighter symbolically takes their place. The firefighter becomes imbued with Minamoto no Yorimitsu’s special powers as a warrior-hero, and the design works as a talisman to protect the firefighter from harm. Firefighting was an especially important occupation in Edo, where most of the buildings were made of wood. The job was both dangerous and glamorous, valorized as a crucial masculine exemplar in Edo.[3] So while these jackets were for a real, practical, dangerous job, they are also imbued with a sort of glamour, which helps explain why such an effort was taken to dye the jackets with symbolic designs. After battling a fire, the coats would be worn reversed to make the designs visible, a stunning effect that visually linked the clothing to success and survival.[4]

Listed in our records as a “commoner’s firefighting jacket,” the ordinariness of the hikeshibanten is one of the things I find so compelling about it. These jackets were objects of both use and beauty, and of hidden, personal importance to the wearer. There are several Edo firefighter’s coats in SAM’s collection, and this one is my favorite. Textiles often have an intimate history with their owners, and this firefighter’s coat makes me think about the capacity for cloth to protect us, define us, and celebrate us. This firefighter, whose name is now lost to time, found solace in Yorimoto’s defeat of tsuchigumo, literally clothing himself in a hero narrative.

– Anna Wager, Blakemore Intern

Image: Commoner’s firefighting jacket (hikeshibanten), Japanese, cotton cloth with indigo dye (sashiko and tsutsugaki), 38 1/2 x 50 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.414
[1] Richard Mellott, “Katazome, Tsutsugaki, and Yuzenzome,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 51-57, 55.
[2] For more on this narrative and related woodblock prints, see Kuniyoshi: From the Arthur R. Miller Collection, edited by Timothy Clark, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009, 268.
[3] Michiyo Morioka, “Sashiko, Kogin, and Hishizashi,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 107-129, 121.
[4] Morioka, 124.
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