This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
McBride: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Patrick McBride and on behalf of myself and my colleague, Rebecca de But, I’d like to talk to you today about our paper, What’s In and What’s Out: A Decision Making Model in the Conservation of Primitive Art. Much of our talk today will center around the two images you see on screen currently. Both are by James Dixon, an outsider artist from Tory Island and the top one is the East End of Tory Island, and the bottom painting is the West End of Tory Island. But before I begin I would like to apologize for not being with you in person. We had planned and hoped and were looking forward to traveling with you and attending the conference, but unfortunately we got let down with sponsorship at the last minute. Hopefully, this alternative is acceptable and we will be following the conference on the net, and I hope you are having a great day.
I’m going to talk to you today very much in two parts. The first part of our presentation would revolve around James Dixon and Tory Island and the Tory Island School of Art. He’s nailed in the paper supports he used in creating the two images are his means of creation, the paint layers, the paper support, the additions to the surface, and the manipulation of the media by the artist himself. But this experience, trying to conserve the two works of art, led us to do a lot of research in the area and we moved on very much to deciding on a decision making model, weighing of conservation options, researching the decision making models that were there, and defining what is meant by insider and outsider art, and then amendments to the decision making model to come up with our own suggested model for conserving outsider art.
And so it’s James Dixon. James Dixon was born on the 2nd of June, 1887 on Tory Island, and throughout his lifetime only left the island on very few occasions. Tory Island is an island off the coast of Donegal, the northwest coast of Ireland. It is associated with Ulster Irish speaking community in Donegal known as the Gaeltacht. You can see on screen where the island is located, map on the left-hand side of Ireland and Tory Island is a small island and pictured there on top right, and it is located just off the northwest coast and the lower ordin [short for ordinance] survey map on the bottom right hand corner gives you a better idea of its size and its location.
James Dixon came to painting very late in life at the age of 72 having viewed an exhibition by the Irish artist Derek Hill. His paintings demonstrate a physical mapping of Tory Island and the surrounding seascape, while at the same time being beautiful works of art in their own right. His technique involved the use of paint and local materials to mimic that of the landscape and the surrounding fisheries industry. He painted his environment in a traditional way, but with very untraditional materials, reflected in the additions to the surface. What his materials comprised of, very many paint layers and ethnographic objects found on the island.
His experience of the fishing and the agricultural industry on the island very much flavors his work. The island, and the rugged nature of the land and sea, gave form and dialect to his work and are expressed using coarse and rough artistic forms. Areas of impasto and grooving on the paper support mimic the contours in the landscape and the coarse nature of the island surroundings. In 2011, Paper Conservation Studio received a commission to conserve these two works of art. The two works provided a different challenge for most others for the studio, for a number of reasons. The size of the images, the mix of materials, the support paper, how the support was constructed, the approach of the artist, and indeed how the images were created all provide to be unique and challenging. The creative approach of the artist was clearly very different than anything experienced by the conservers previous and forced them to question the nature of the conservation interventions needed to stabilize and conserve them.
The supports, in each case, consisted of 8 to 13 sheets of heavy machine made paper, most likely carthage paper, which had been joined together using an adhesive. The sheets were tiered in a format seen on the right here and 13 sheets being used for one painting, and 8 on the other. The joints have deteriorated completely and were in need of some support due to multiple layers of paint. Heavy paint layers and additions of material to the surface made while the paint was created, were very heavy and stressed the joints. This led to the joints being lined with strips of Japanese paper as part of the treatment to support them. Very little is known about the type of paper that Dixon used, apart from few lines regarding materials given to Dixon and particularly the paper size and paint from the artist Derrick Hill.
Dixon’s style of painting, his physical surroundings, and the landscape of the island, motivated his choice in paints used. Multiple types of paint, such as painters oils, house paints, and even boat paint had been used by Dixon during the course of his work. This has led to several layers of paint being adhered together to create features of land and sea. Now this is undertaken, some of the paint samples showed that they were oil based house paints common in the 1960’s. Other materials found on the surface were newsprints, fragments of raw wool, horse hair, insects, earth and straw.
On screen at the moment you can see four images depicting some of the damage. Figure 4 is the flaking of the paint on Tory Island West End and you can see the way some of it has quite bubbly and blistered and fallen away. Figure 5 shows the paper joint from the image surface, from the surface where it has split and the paint layer has begun to peel back. Six shows the impasto on the surface and the addition of straw on the surface itself of Tory Island. You’ll see some of these on the next slide and then Figure 7 shows, is a shot from the reverse of the joints of paper and the brownish area would appear to have been vanish, he seems to have used vanish and to adhere his paper supports together to make one overall sheet. As you can see from the discolored [?] backing, there is also a fair bit of debris and damage and discoloration right across the back of the painting which is very visible in Figure 7.
On this slide we can see the additions to the surface applied by Dixon. Figure 8 shows the addition of straw on the surface of the Tory Island West End, both highlighted by the red arrows. Figure 9 shows the addition of newsprint on the surface of this photograph, again taken under magnification. Ten shows a mixture of paint and earth applied to the surface of the painting, while Figure 11 shows the additions of paper and horse hair on the surface of the work. And this final four sets of images show the surface manipulation and that Dixon undertook this manipulation of the media as he was applying or soon after he applied it. Figure 12 shows the undulations in the paper’s support [?] Tory Island East End and what’s particular about it he shows the delineation between the paint, the blue of the sea and the land, and he very much kept the glass for the blue of the sea and the land was slightly [?]. Figure 13 shows scrapping effect, surface donkey hairs and it was very much like a technique used within water color painting where you would apply color and then scrape it away quite roughly to reveal an under layer. Figure 14 shows the pastel layer where he created a mountain effect. He’s very much mixed earth in with the pigment itself to create that unevenness and finally he grooved out some of the surfaces to show plowing lines or to show divisions within the fields on the island itself and they are visible in Figure 15, and the grooved surface mimicked the plowed fields on Tory Island East End.
Before leaving Dixon and moving on to the second part of our talk today, I would like to emphasize two things; both paintings were very beautiful works of art and it was a pleasure to work on them, but you have to be pointed out that they were large and very unwieldy. Tory Island East End comes in 102 by 366 centimeters and West End is 108 by 292. They were large, unwieldy, difficult to manage objects in very, very poor condition. And faced with such difficulty we did what most paper conservers would do in that situation; we procrastinated for a long time. We went off and we talked about it, and ultimately the aim of our intervention was to ascertain the best possible treatment to maintain the paintings, whilst trying to maintain the historic and artistic integrity of the objects themselves.
Normally when such difficulties are encountered solutions are researched from the literature, but the literature relating to the treatment of works of this type is limited and provides care and conservers only with a partial solution. In this instance it was felt that a decision making model would be of assistance. Initial attempts to identify published treatments of other similar works failed, although there clearly were parallels within the conservation of contemporary art.
Model on screen at the moment is one model we discovered which was developed by a working group for the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art and was to guide decisions into the conservation of contemporary art. This model was built upon similar work undertaken by Ernst Van der [?], whose main focus was on the conservation of traditional art. What is central to the contemporary art model is the assessment of the condition and the meaning of the object, the discrepancy between both the art and conservation options that arise and finally how these options are weighed to enable a treatment to be arrived at. Conservation program adopted would naturally be a compromise between the various different factors. The model represents this process in linear form with the condition and meaning have an equal importance at the start of the process. Combining both allows for the discrepancy to be determined.
We also added a series of other factors to the list when trying to weigh the conservation options; the restoration options, financial limitations, legal aspects, technical limitations and possibilities, relative importance and finally, restoration and conservation ethics, both of which are depicted on the model on the screen. You can see the linear model on the left hand side and the section, section 6, the weighing options is highlighted on the right, and they say that within the weighing options these ten features apply. To quote the group, ” A discrepancy therefore can only be determined with extensive knowledge of the work on the one hand and investigations of the physical condition of the work on the other hand.”
The other piece of research we came across, which we thought was particularly relevant was work by [?]. His evaluation of the knowledge is central to effective conservation. He goes on to say that effective conservation needs the understanding of what constitutes a discipline base for conservation and assessing the causes and effect that develop between the philosophy of intervention and the practice. He notes a number of attributes that are needed to be present for good conservation to take place. These are the presence of a community of scholars, a traditional history of inquiry, a model of inquiry that defines how data is collected, an ability to define what constitutes new knowledge and effective communication network. Clearly the level of knowledge that is present about an object is essential to effective conservation. The contemporary art model cannot be relied upon to govern interventions to treat outsider art because, as we have seen earlier, certain conditions are different. These two factors cannot be viewed as being equal if you’ve considered the modern art sector, there is clearly a body of knowledge, communications network, community of scholars associated with it. This is not the case with outsider art.
Recent researches researched by Davies and [?] around a definition of outsider art highlights the emerging nature of the sector. Indeed, Davies notes that although there is a growing curatorial interest in outsider art there has been no articles addressing this topic in either the British Journal of Aesthetics or the Journal of Aesthetics in Art Criticism over the past 25 years. Modern art appreciation is considerably more mature, and this has implications for conservers trying to develop and implementing proper treatment plans today.
In trying to adopt the model to guide outsider art interventions, what became apparent to us was there are two clear areas of difference. Firstly, the attribution of meaning to an object is not straightforward when dealing with outsider art, and secondly, there is rarely complete knowledge of the work being treated. A next step in trying to research a model governing outsider art intervention was to compare contemporary art or insider art as you’d call it in this light, and outsider art. Conservators are not interested in labels of certain types of art or artists, but rather with an understanding of detecting materials and how these are used to express their art and how that result articulates the meaning they are trying to communicate.
Figure 16 illustrates the difference in the literature and also the similarities of insider art versus outsider art. Indeed, the meaning of both types of art can be contrastingly similar and dissimilar at the same time. It is possible to have two similar appearing works of contemporary art image and an outsider artwork who are trying to communicate two very different messages. We came across an example of this with the Dixon. On the surface were some insects and the removal of these was considered. Curiously, they appeared to be imbedded within the pigment. Insects within frames are not uncommon in works of this period and particularly for works of art of this size. But the removal of the insects was questioned. Later it was discovered James Dixon created these works outdoors. The insects were more than likely to have been the end result of this. The removal of them would have been wrong as it would have removed something that was integral to the history of the images.
Another example we encountered within the literature was the works of James Hampton. As I’m sure you all know, Hampton was inspired to build a throne for the second coming of Christ. He gave it its proper title, The Throne of the Third Heaven with the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, and he dedicated 14 years of his life to its creation. Found after his death, it consisted of alters, pulpits, winged objects, and 25 heavenly crowns. But the thing that interested us in reading about the object in the literature was the 177 found objects which he wrapped in silver and gold foil recycled from disused wine bottles and included within the sculpture.
After it was found, the sculpture became entered into the collection of the Smithsonian Institute for the National Museums of America. What was critical to us was what happened to the sculpture after it had been acquired by the Smithsonian. Would the gold foil be replaced whenever it became tarnished or would it be preserved as it was when it was discovered? Either intervention is a valid conservation approach, but they depend on how the object is viewed, essentially the meaning that is attributed to it. Clearly, in both examples the meaning drives the condition. If the Dixon insects were regarded as having landed on the work when it was being created outdoors, they are an integral part of it, if not, then they are debris which can be removed. If the Hampton piece is viewed in a narrow conservation focus then the emphasis will be on preserving the current foil on the 177 objects. If a wider view is taken then it may be possible to remove the old tarnished foil and replace it with new or currently recycled foil. What is important here though, is the present and future condition of the object is dependent on the meaning attributed to the work. This has implications for its condition. Future condition is dependent on the meaning attributed it and this has implications for the model governing interventions.
Earlier we have seen that knowledge of materials and a category to which the materials being conserved belong to, is essential to conservation. A complete knowledge of the object may be the ideal but it rarely happens. Conservers rely on the knowledge of others of a range of allied professionals including curators, academics, owners, collectors, the artists, and friends of the artists to complete their knowledge. While faced with a deficit they will revert to their own instinct as conservers and their experience to enable the best decision for the care of the work to be made. The extent to which they would have to rely on this instinct is logically related to the level of maturity within the sector. Put simply, if there is a good school of scholarship, a network of communication and ability to find to new knowledge, then a conservers instinct should be relied upon less. This knowledge gap and conservers reliance on their own experience, is one of the key differences between the model for conserving contemporary art as opposed to outsider art. If it wasn’t known that the Dixons were painted outdoors, would the insects have been removed? Possibly. The one thing that might have caused us to question this was fact that the insects were somewhat imbedded within the pigment.
Conservers are conscious of this knowledge gap and it is reflected in the developing understanding and the continuing philosophical debate around the nature and appreciation of collections. Conservation ethics and theory have been challenged, questioned and reformed over the past decade. New ethos of common sense intervention has been promoted in the face of the growing realization that the old rules of intervention were lacking and inadequate when faced with rapidly developing conservation challenges.
And so to propose a decision making model. The argument that the meaning adopted by the conservers conserving outsider art objects has an impact on how the condition is determined must be reflective of the model. The meaning is more dominant and this has a direct inference on the assessed condition of the piece being treated. By adjusting the model and making it more linear, placing the meaning over the condition, this assumption can be incorporated within it. Meaning must come first for the condition of an object when treating an outsider work of art. Modern art model places the condition and meaning of an object on a similar plane giving each process the same value. Indeed, the working group of the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art noted in the original [?] model the emphasis on objects’ meaning is generally unambiguous. Perhaps there is a relationship there, as the outsider art sector continues to mature, the model that we propose could move to replicate the contemporary art model which in time may move to replicate the original [?] model.
What if there is no meaning or what if meaning in relation to an outsider art piece being conserved, is ambiguous? Then clearly there is a knowledge gap, and this knowledge gap will be assessed by the conserver, and the conserver will rely upon their own knowledge and instinct, their experience, to formulate a sufficient and right policy for the conservation of that work of art in that instance, being conscious that the meaning may emerge in time, or the meaning may never be determined but their experience would be relied upon in this instance. And we have put knowledge gap into one of the discrepancies, and we feel that it is a key factor in considering decisions and making decisions but intervening to conserve outsider works of art as opposed to the contemporary field where the knowledge is far greater.
And so to our conclusions and recommendations. The main conclusion we would have will be that the area is a fascinating one for research, which holds huge prospect for topics and for advancement. We found it wonderfully enjoyable working within the area, and it has forced us to question not just how we intervene for outsider art but also how we treat more traditional works of art on paper, be it contemporary art or traditional works. Our recommendation would be to use the model. I would be delighted for any feedback you may have in relation to this. Outsider art seems to be an area which is growing and which is growing interest in. We hope that the model can contribute in some way to that development. Any feedback you may have we would be grateful to receive. My name, Patrick McBride and my contact detail is up there on screen currently, as is my colleague, Rebecca deBut.
Before I finish, I’d like to say a very big thank you to Jason Church for all his efforts in relation to organizing today. It was an inspired choice for a conference, and I hope you are all reaping the rewards and the benefit of that idea and of his efforts. From my point of view and my colleague Rebecca, we’d like to say a very big thank you to Jason.
Thank you for listening this afternoon, it’s been a very strange experience dictating this and seeing it travel across the Atlantic via the internet to then possibly hear your voice on the other end as we listen to this again later on today. But we trust you have enjoyed it and thank you for your time and attention.
What’s In and What’s Out
James Dixon (1887- 1970) was a primitive landscape painter from Tory Island an island off the north west corner of Ireland. He began painting very late in life at the age of 72, having viewed an exhibition of the artist Derek Hill. He was the forerunner of what has become known as the Tory school of painting which is active to the present day. When viewed within the context of Irish and European art Dixon is firmly rooted in the non traditional approach as is reflected in his choice of materials, technique and artistic vision.Dixon painted his environment in a traditional way but with very untraditional materials reflected by the additions on the surface. His materials involved the combination of paint layers and ethnographic objects found on the island. His technique often complemented the natural surface of the island using the materials such as earth mixed with a paint layer to give the texture of sand on coastal regions of his paintings. The paper support was manipulated to create grooves as found in a ploughed field. These techniques and materials create a degree of difficulty in making choices about the conservation of the work.
The Paper Conservation Studio was commissioned in late 2010 to conserve two large island paintings by Dixon. What became apparent with the works upon an initial examination was that the problems with this work were threefold and related to the chosen support, media and technique.
The support consists of six sheets of paper joined together at regular intervals to make one oversized sheet measuring 102cm x 366cm, which is inappropriate for the various paint layers. The heavy impasto paint layer and multiple types of paint have cracked and in some cases flaked away from the surface of the support allowing for severe losses in some areas. The artists’ unique approach resulted in all sorts of different materials being added to his work such as local straw, (see figure 3) wool, soil, hair, insects and newspapers, see figure 4.
This multitude of techniques and materials led to much debate as to the artists intention.. Dixons untraditional materials are representative of the Tory Island school of painting and their inclusion and maintenance is paramount to his work. At times it was difficult to determine the artist’s intent from deterioration within the object. The ability to discuss the artist intention was not available as he was deceased, and very little information was available about the works. This leads to a dilemma in trying to determine what the natural deterioration within the object was and what the artist intention was. The combination of materials, and their ongoing relationship since the work was created, further confuses this situation. Addressing this confusion was central to the conservation decisions made about the treatment of this work and the overall conservation programme devised and implemented.This paper will explore the dynamics of this debate and will highlight the difficulties in trying to determine the original intention of the artist, the combination of the materials and the natural life cycle of the work. It will ultimately propose a set of criteria which might be applicable when conserving folk and outsider art. This would be a useful tool to conservators working in this field at present and in the future.
Pat McBride established the Paper Conservation Studio in 1985 upon completion of a training course in the National Gallery of Ireland. Since then he has received commissions from numerous individuals and institutions both from within and outside Ireland.
Rebecca de Bút is a recent graduate of the Masters of Fine Art on Paper from Northumbria University. Primarily based in Ireland she has worked on many preservation and conservation projects both in Ireland and abroad.