Archive for 'Conservation'

Shinohara’s Boxing Painting Installation

Shinohara's boxing painting

Boxing Painting, 2009, by Ushio Shinohara (Japanese, b.1932). Acrylic on canvas.

The installation of Usion Shinohara’s Boxing Painting, 2009, now on view in the Japanese galleries, presented unique challenges.  The work is quite large (60in x 130in), and is painted on an unmounted piece of canvas. How does one convey the energy of making the piece through the presentation of the piece? The painting appears to be hanging by small wires, but that is not the case. Hidden behind the painting is an elaborate hanging mechanism, to  support the great length and weight of the canvas without a frame.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

The apparent simplicity of the mount is deceptive; its large size requires complex construction and planning. The goal of the design is to provide good support for the artwork, appear unintrusive, and install easily into the narrow glass cases.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

To ensure the safety of the piece four people were needed to support it during installation. Here, Shiho Sasaki carefully positions the rolled painting along the top of mount.

Installing the Shinohara Boxing Painting

Three assistants carefully unroll the painting as she secures it to the mount with Velcro. The work is slow and deliberate, to make sure the painting is level and secure.

Check the Asian Art Museum’s Conservation page to learn more about museum mounts.

It takes a village to create and install large paintings such as these. Shiho Sasaki (Conservator of Paintings), Marco Centin (Exhibition Designer), Evan Kierstead (Interim Head of Exhibitions), Vincent Avalos (Mountmaker), and Courtney Helion (Conservation Technician) collaborated on the concepts.  Shiho Sasaki created the final design and Courtney Helion built a series of maquette versions, as well as final design. Cathy Mano, Associate Head of Registration, assisted with the installation.

Horses in Ancient China

The Year of the Horse is fast approaching. What did the horse mean to people in the old days?

In ancient China, the horse provided fast transportation for noble and high ranking families and served a military function. This may be why the horse is associated now with leadership, freedom and energy. Chinese enthusiasm for horses dates back thousands of years, and as a result the museum contains many lovely examples of horse sculptures. Here, we take a really close look at some favorites.

Horse, Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Glazed with amber, green and white in the sancai (three-color) tradition, Tang ceramics of this type show splattered and dripped glazes full of energy and life. Here, the different and textures are used to highlight the bridle, mane and the horse’s flesh. Sancai colors are typically achieved using a combination of copper, iron, cobalt and manganese in a lead glaze.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Many horse figurines have been found in Tang dynasty tombs, and they are prized by collectors all over the world today. It follows that the figures are often heavily restored, sometimes invisibly so. This radiograph of a Tang dynasty horse figurine from the museum collection shows pins from old repairs in the legs and hooves.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1. Image processing by Courtney Helion

Look closely at this composite X-ray, and you can see reinforcing metal pins in each hoof, as well as major repairs in the back facing leg. This horse may look flawless on the outside, but she has seen a lot of changes!

The Blood-Sweating Horses of the Ferghana Valley

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

These two elegant red horse heads could be modeled after the famous Ferghana horses, sometimes called ‘blood sweating horses ‘(汗血馬) or ‘heavenly horses’ in Chinese literature. This unique breed – now extinct– is believed to come from the ancient kingdom of Dayuan in the Ferghana valley (modern day Uzbekistan). According to legend, these fast, powerful horses– whose red color was thought to be caused by sweating blood—were bred from heavenly stock and could even carry the rider to immortality.

According to some stories, in the second century BCE Han dynasty the Chinese Emperor Wudi sent an envoy and gifts westward into the Ferghana valley, hoping to acquire some of the heavenly horses. The Dayuan ruler refused, and ultimately the Chinese invaded. The Chinese defeated the Dayuan, and thus Emperor Wudi came into possession of some ‘heavenly horses’, receiving a small number each year as tribute.

What made these horses red?

There are a few theories concerning why the Ferghana horses to appeared to sweat blood. Some modern researchers believe that a parasite (the nematode, Parafilaria multipapillosaI), still common on the Central Asian steppe, is the cause. Others think that it is due to tiny blood vessels under the skin bursting after strenuous galloping and exercise. Blood would mix with the sweat around the horse’s neck, creating a pink foam.

The two horse heads from the museum’s collection do not sweat blood (so far), but owe their distinctive red color to the use of pigment made from red iron oxide (Fe2O3), also referred to as hematite. Under X-ray fluorescence analysis, both horses show very similar chemical profiles. Iron is the major element, with smaller quantities of titanium, zinc, mercury, manganese, and lead. Iron, mercury, and manganese all create reds and purples, and have been in use since ancient times. Titanium and zinc, used to make white, probably indicate later restoration.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15. Image by Courtney Helion.

To reveal areas of previous restoration the horse heads were viewed under ultraviolet light. Restoration paints often appear as a velvety purple under ultraviolet light (as on the bridle, on the upper horse).

Read more about these horse heads at our online collection.


Winter, John. East Asian Paintings: Materials, Structures and Deterioration Mechanisms. London: Archetype Publications, 2008. Print.

Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History: Exhibition Catalog. Lexington, KY: Kentucky Horse Park, 2000. Print.

Gettens, Rutherford J., and George L. Stout. Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.

Designing “Out of Character”

Wen Peng Thousand Character Essay Installed

Strong visual impact was a primary goal for our exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.  This is not always easy to accomplish in an art form often intended for private viewings by small groups or individuals.  An example is Thousand Character Classic by Wen Peng (1498-1573), an album of 85 double leaves.  The album is a format that is meant to be viewed page by page, but we asked Marco Centin, our exhibition designer, Shiho Sasaki, our paper conservator, and Vincent Avalos, our mount maker to come up with a way to show all 85 leaves and the cover on a large curved wall.  As shown in the photograph here, their solution is ingenious and the result is stunning and magical.  It took almost the entire summer for the team to make this happen!

Installing Calligraphy

Curators Michael and Joseph in front of the installation of Wen Peng's Thousand Character Essay

Curators Michael and Joseph in front of the installation of Wen Peng’s “Thousand Character Essay”. Photo courtesy of Jerry Yang.

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy opens next week, and installation is in full swing. This is always a frantic, stressful, and exciting time for us, especially for the people at the coal face: curators, registrars, conservators and the preparations team.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to walk past one of the galleries while the team was installing. I felt compelled to press my face against the tinted glass doors to try to get a better look. Although unfinished, the display in the galleries is breathtaking. I must confess, I had trouble getting excited about an exhibition of calligraphy at first. But having seen the exhibition take shape over the past few months, I can’t wait for it to open. It’s going to be amazing.

Luckily for you, our photographer has been snapping some images of the installation, so you can have your own sneak peek on Flickr. Out of Character opens on October 5, but we’re kicking off with artist Xu Bing and collector Jerry Yang in conversation with museum director Jay Xu on October 4. See you there.




Bathing Lions

Lions awaiting cleaning

Recently, this pair of monumental bronze Japanese lions was cleaned in preparation for display.  The lions are a recent gift to the museum.  This coming winter they will be repaired and pedestals constructed.  Look for them outside the museum in May 2013.

Lion being delivered by forklift

One bronze lion arriving at the bath-house.

One of the pair before being unpacked.

These guys are heavy. The bronze lions are also rarer than their stone cousins.

Lion being hosed

Looks like he enjoys a shower.

Close-up of lion head

Ready for your close-up, Mr Lion?


Art and Science: Shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

We tend to think we see everything about an object when we look at it with our naked eyes. This gem-encrusted shrine from Nepal is a great example. Above, you see the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in a miniature shrine, with two attendants on either side. From amidst a sea of swirling filigree elements, they emerge from two dimensions into three as bodhisattvas literally made from gems.

At first you might think that the large colored stones might be rubies or sapphires. But the color of many of these stones is an illusion—they are simply transparent quartz crystals with colored foil placed behind them. And if you look at the shrine from the side, you can see how the illusion works.

However, the redness of the many small ruby-like stones on the plaque is no illusion. But are they really rubies? Ultraviolet photography reveals the truth: many of them glow yellow instead of red, which shows that they are foil-backed crystal. The real rubies glow red under UV light, and as you can see these gemstones have been strategically placed in the crowns of the two side figures. There are also real rubies in the parasol at the center of the shrine, and in the eyes of the makara, or mystic crocodile, who occupies the summit of the shrine. The rest are just rock crystal.

UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Exactly why the artist chose rubies in certain locations and crystal in others remains a mystery. Were these side figures more ‘sacred’ than the others? Or was the artist concerned with symmetry rather than any specific meaning?

While we can’t be sure about the rubies, we do know something about some of the other stones here. Red coral, for example, symbolizes the sun, and it turns lavender under UV light. Turquoise, for its part, turns pale blue under the UV light; in Tibetan medicine, this stone is thought to purify the blood and remove toxins from the liver. It is also seen as an index of health: the bluer and clearer a piece of turquoise, the better the health of its wearer. From this perspective, the shrine incorporates medical powers into its structure. And why not? After all, the central figure is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist figure who protects believers from all fears.

As museum researchers continue to examine this shrine and others like it in the collection, we’ll share our findings with you. But in the meantime, stop by the museum and examine this shrine in person. Who knows what details you’ll discover.

Jagannath Panda: Not Just Paint


Cristina and Katie with Jagannath Panda's The Cult of Appearance III

There are some very diverse contemporary pieces in the Phantoms of Asia exhibition. There is one that I especially like, The Cult of Appearance III, by South Asian artist Jagannath Panda. It is in two sections and the interesting thing—especially from the perspective of our exhibitions team installing the works—is that there are some separate elements that get attached to the painting.

Above is a photo of Assistant Registrar Cristina Lichauco helping our Head of Conservation Katie Holbrow during the installation. Katie is attaching a fabric and ribbon laden element to the piece.

One of the exciting things about contemporary art is that its meaning has not been fixed by scholarship. I cannot tell you that much about the painting or the artist’s intentions, but if you read his bio on our website it might give you more insight. You can also join us this Thursday night, May 17, for an after-hours preview of the exhibition and decide for yourself what it all means.

Newly on View: Chinese ink paintings

This is the first in an ongoing series in which our curators introduce artworks that have recently gone on display.

The strength of the Chinese painting collection in the Asian Art Museum lies in modern and contemporary ink painting. To complement the special contemporary exhibition Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past (May 18–October 14), I have selected from the collection representative ink paintings ranging in date from 1965 to 2011.

Lui Shoukun, Chinese, Chan painting, 1974, ink and color on paper.

Lui Shou-kwan, Chan painting, 1974, ink and color on paper.

The group of ink paintings on view in the Chinese painting gallery represents several major trends and artists, including:

  • Modern Chinese ink painting movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong from the mid-1950s to the 1970s;
  • 1980s new ink painting;
  • 1990s experimental ink painting in China; and
  • Works by overseas Chinese ink painters in the last several decades.

Two monumental paintings are on view for the first time: Chan (1974) by Lui Shou-kwan of Hong Kong, and Ended Season by local painter Zheng Chongbin, which is the first contemporary Chinese art work commissioned by the Asian Art Museum (on display beginning mid-March).

The paintings are on view in the Chinese painting gallery on the second floor.

Why do we always have new art on display?

There’s a scientific reason: organic materials such as silks and natural dyes are extremely vulnerable to fading and damage. To protect these light-sensitive artworks, we display them under low lighting only, for a 6-month period every 5 years.

There’s also another reason: we have so many treasures in storage that sometimes it’s just fun to put them on display for our visitors. So please enjoy!

Curator Joseph ChangCurator Joseph Chang is the Senior Research Fellow, Chinese Painting and Calligraphy in the museum’s Research Institute.





See it now: Japanese Armor Rotation

This weekend is your last chance to see our Japanese armor for a while. But don’t despair – next week there will be a new one to enjoy. If you want to catch both, you’ll have to drop in twice.

XRay of a pre-Meiji set of samurai armor.

XRay of a pre-Meiji set of samurai armor.

So why are we taking this armor off view? Well, armor may look tough, but some of its components are surprisingly fragile. While steel, leather, and wood are used to create the protective plating, these are laced together with leather or silk cord. After several centuries, these materials may not be strong enough to hold the weight of the armor for extended periods. Materials can also be damaged by prolonged exposure to light, meaning that the armor needs to be rested periodically.

Our conservation center has written an article on how we look after our Japanese armor, and there are more images on Flickr.

Our conservation team has also been working to prepare the new set of armor, which is on loan from a private collection. In these pictures you can see Katherine Holbrow, our head of conservation, using a spectrometer to determine what metals are present in the samurai helmet.

Samurai helmet

Samurai helmet undergoing spectrometry. Helmet from Private Collection.

Head of conservation Katherine Holbrow adjusting the helmet.

Head of conservation Katherine Holbrow adjusting the equipment.

We rotate many of the pieces in this collection, not just armor. Over the next few months we will be doing several gallery rotations, many in preparation for Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past. Keep an eye on the blog to hear about what’s coming down and what we’re replacing it with. We’ll try to make sure you don’t miss a thing.


Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get Those…

A journalist asked us today about the enamel eyes sported by our Vishnu and Lakshmi sculpture in Sanjay Patel’s Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches.

Enamel eyes for deity statues

One of our conservators with some ready-made enamel eyes.

This sculpture was originally intended to have eyes like these. There are carved depressions in the stone for them, as you can see from the picture below. We don’t know whether the sculpture never got its eyes, or lost them at some point.  Years ago we made a mold of the eye depressions, and I gave the mold to an artisan in India who makes such eyes. The artisan then created a pair for us from enameled metal, as is traditional.

Sculpture of Vishnu and Lakshmi.

Vishnu and Lakshmi in their former, eyeless state.

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