Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The protection problem

In 1978 Richard Killeen came up with a stand-out idea. In recent paintings he had been using the toss of a dice to determine the kind of imagery and where it would be placed on the canvas. Taking this introduction of the arbitrary a step further, he cut shapes out of metal and pinned them to the wall. The resulting cut-outs came with instructions like “hang in a group in any order” and questioned the neutrality of the white cube. If white walls make silhouettes out of paintings, as indeed they do, why not hang silhouettes in the first place? The frameless, oddly grouped, seldom random arrangements were a surprise and a delight. When asked if people could hang them badly Killeen would answer, in his way, “Some people hang paintings upside-down. What’s the difference?” The cut-outs did have one issue: their delicate surfaces. Painted with alkyd, a resin-based lacquer, they are easily scratched and finger-marked. Which brings us to the protection problem.

Many art museums have a troubled relationship with contemporary art, fuelled by their efforts to popularise and encourage young audiences. Understanding the point at which protecting a work of art compromises the artist’s intention is a real tension.

A good example is the current display of Richard Killeen’s cut-out Black insects, red primitives at Pataka in Porirua. The work is included as part of an exhibition called I see red thanks to twelve red shapes that are interspersed with its seven black insects. As you’ve probably guessed, this is a kid’s show. To protect the work the elements have been hung within a square shape and a sheet of Perspex placed over them. Black insects, red primitives has essentially been framed.

So here’s the question. Given that Killeen cut-outs are partly a critique of the frame, should cut-outs like Black insects, red primitives be displayed in a way that is so at odds with the spirit of the work? Protective coverings, stanchions, alarms and guards all come with a price. In the case of Black insects, red primitives, that price is too high.
Image: Left, a shaped painting by Gretchen Albrecht gets the pinned-perspex treatment. Right, a portrait of Nathaniel Webb by an unknown artists and Richard Killeen's Red primitives, black insects at Christchurch Art Gallery's exhibition I see red on show at Pataka.