How closely do you look at works of art? Do you stare at details for minutes at a time, or shift around, searching for the ideal viewing distance? What do you look for—the use of dark and light, the flow of lines, the brush strokes?
If you’re collections technician Al Ness, you look for frass. That’s science-speak for insect feces. Like everyone on the museum’s collections team (and our docents), Ness has a highly trained eye for things amiss, like smudge marks, termite wings, and the sand-like frass excreted by woodborers. This March, he found a nearly imperceptible sprinkling of it around two of the museum’s most important pieces of Renaissance art—Jacopo di Cione’s Madonna and Child with Saints (1391) and Piero di Cosimo’s Saint John the Evangelist (1504-6).
“When we did a closer inspection of the St. John we found that there were powderpost beetles within it,” says curator of European and American art Theresa Papanikolas. And she means were, past tense, because the paintings were quickly placed in the care of local art conservators-cum-bug executioners Larry and Rie Pace.
The removal of di Cione’s triptych made space for Masami Teraoka’s provocative The Cloisters / Tsunami—a temporary intervention that is a curatorial stroke of genius or sacrilege, depending on your creed. While Teraoka’s piece turned heads in the gallery, the Paces, along with their regular collaborator Thor Minnick, started the process of healing the afflicted paintings. After four months down in the vaults—the paintings had to wait for their turn—the works were ready for an inspection by the Paces and Ness.
“This isn’t just standard plastic,” says Larry Pace, as he delicately snips open a bag enveloping the di Cosimo. “It’s called Escal. It’s got a ceramic coating on one side, which means that air can’t pass through. On the other side it melts so that we can seal it.”
His partner and wife Rie peels back a plastic flap, revealing a custom box containing the Italian masterpiece, and dozens of small packets similar to those little packs of silica gel found in some Japanese snack bags, only these are filled with an oxygen-leaching powder.
“We put those in and then do the final sealing,” Larry explains, “and we put these little indicators in that are purple at the beginning, and they turn pink when the oxygen is all out.”
After a few weeks the wood-munching interlopers effectively suffocate. With the bugs good and dead, Larry, who insists on working barehanded for a better grip, gingerly slides St. John out of his box and inspects the panel’s unusual crisscross wood backing that most people never see.
“Everything seemed to work as we planned, and we don’t see anything that’s radically changed. Everything looks the same,” he says. He sets it down, and Rie lightly dabs off a few particles of dust using the tip of her finger.
“Conservators do things that we would never think of doing, or that we discourage people from doing,” Papanikolas says, “but they handle paintings every day, and so they know what’s within the limits.” Some may recall when the Paces cleaned dirt off the large Morris Louis painting Turning using sponge-like pieces of bread they baked using a recipe perfected at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Wait—dirt? Bugs? What’s going on with the museum? In fact, both issues are normal occurrences that museums around the world deal with on a daily basis. In Hawai‘i, the tropical climate creates an influx of humidity and insects, exacerbated by an aging building envelope—challenges that HoMA staff and allies perpetually rise to meet.
“One of the big contradictions with art museums is that we are about stewardship, but we are also about access,” Papanikolas says. “As conservators, curators, anyone who works or volunteers at the museum, we have an obligation to store these pictures for generations to come. It’s not just for us to be able to enjoy them; it’s our responsibility to take care of them. I’m just a blip on the radar of the life of this historical object, but it’s an honor to be that blip.”
But how did it get bugs? “They can strike at random,” Papanikolas says. In spite of the museum’s major gallery renovation in 2005, which added climate control, insects could have come down from warmer attic spaces, or through a cracked door. Or maybe they hitched a ride when the work travelled to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and then on (home) to the Uffizi in Florence last year for the landmark exhibition Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence.
Lying on a table like a patient recovering from sedation, St. John looks up with his glowing brown eyes at his latest caregivers, Ness and the Paces, who are now members of a centuries-old club. As di Cosimo expert Dennis Geronimus recounts in his book Piero Di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange, which contains an x-ray image of the painting, the painting has endured a tumultuous history of cleaning and retouching—hence the “strangely swollen left hand.”
The Kress Foundation donated the painting to the museum in 1961 due to our lucky proximity to a Kress department store—founder Samuel Kress’s way of thanking the communities that funded his fortune and art collecting.
“When you think about how this is more than 500 years old, and the fact that it’s not only still around, but it’s still recognizable, and it’s in Hawai‘i. What a trip!” Larry says. “When this was made they didn’t even know these islands existed. It’s complete, wonderful, beautiful luck that it’s here, it’s safe, and so we have to take care of it.”
Ness shakes his head in awe. “If that thing could talk…”
Pictured at top, left to right: Rie Pace, Al Ness, and Larry Pace, in the vaults discussing conservation strategies.