Sometimes we get so “tied” up at McKay Lodge Conservation Lab located just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, we forget to tell you about the little things like our recent objects conservation treatment of Red Tie, 1992 by artist Rachel Lachowicz in the collection of the Akron Art Museum.
The object is composed of a cloth necktie which has been coated in a mixture of vibrant red lipstick and wax creating a colorful and rigid form. The tie has a single, even knot, and it is presented as if around the neck of a person. A small metal eye screw located on the reverse of knot allows the object to be suspended during installation.
The wax tie was assessed and examined by Christina L. Simms, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture.
The object was in unstable condition before treatment. A crack existed on the proper right side where the top of the knot and collar connect. The type of crack was likely due to the tie being flexed at some point in its history, not stress from display. Several other small cracks were observed on the tie, but they did not appear to have any structural or significant visual impact.
Some level of cracking can be expected from the wax mixture, especially with age. There were also several minor dents (less than ¼ inch in size) on the surface, mostly notably is an impression in the wax layer on the bottom reverse of the tie.
Dents marring the wax are located below the eye screw. Since the minor condition issues are not considered either visually or structurally an issue, it was determined to leave them as is.
A visible layer of grime was also present on the object, especially the upward facing surfaces.
The piece is by the California-based artist, Rachel Lachowicz. As described in the artist’s online biography, Lachowicz explores “the relationship of identity and the politics of mark making, predominately through the use of cosmetics”. The term Lipstick Feminism, which grew from philosophies in the 1980s and 1990s, was used to describe her work and a few other artists at the time. She works in a wide range of materials, often re-purposing found objects. She also works in a variety of scale, creating small art objects to large installations.
The artist Rachel Lachowicz was contacted before treatment regarding the condition and treatment of Red Tie. It was confirmed by the artist that a mixture of lipstick and wax was used to coat the tie. In addition, the issue of cracks is not atypical for this type of object, and the problem has occurred in other similar works. The cracks are generally removed with heated tools, reforming the wax mixture to eliminate the cracks. According to the artist, no original material or recipe information could be provided.
For the Lachowicz conservation treatment of the lipstick wax tie, Conservator Simms wanted to keep the artist’s repair technique in mind, but the crack appeared too large to properly reform it with heat alone because an unsightly recessed area would likely occur. Also, in heat treatment of wax, flame polishing (or creating a shiny surface after heat treatment) was something to consider.
But this did not mean that our hands were tied for the treatment of the wax object, it simply meant that a little more research was needed.
Conservator Simms first removed the dust layer with a soft-bristle brush and vacuum. The next step was treating the large crack in the neck section of the tie. She considered several fill materials before settling on a micro-crystalline wax bulked with dry pigments. First, the wax was melted in an aluminum pan on a hot plate. Once the wax was completely melted, pigment was mixed in the wax until it was fully wetted.
Different ratios of micro-crystalline wax to pigment were tested to find the right hardness, in that the fill material retained some flexibility, but it was not too sticky at room temperature. Once the right ratio was determined, the color was tweaked with different red pigments.
This process is often called “mock-ups” in art conservation, and it is a way for a conservator to perfect, as much as possible, a fill or repair before applying it to an actual art object.
The wax mixture was softened with solvent so it was easier to apply. The softened mixture was then pressed into the aperture of the crack. The fill was built even with the surface and shaped. It was further toned with acrylic paints, and the sheen was matched with a layer of unpigmented micro-crystalline wax and left unbuffed.
Unlike reshaping the area with heat, this repair is reversible, and after treatment, the area of damage is no longer apparent at a normal viewing distance.