Museum Anatomy – Recreating Lost Paintings on a Human Body [Interview]
Chadwick Gray and Laura Spector are the masterminds of a complex project titled Museum Anatomy. By using Chadwick’s body as a human canvas, works from museums around the world are recreated into an unrecognizable human form and then documented through photography. The painting itself is very elaborate, and Chadwick’s position is a key element in the final form of the artwork. It takes lots of talent and a complex skill set to put up with this type of rather unusual art. So we got in touch with Laura Spector to discuss how this idea started and how it feels like to be part of such an interesting project.
The couple Chawick – Spector started working together for a long time now. Even the Museum Anatomy dates to 1995, when the team gained access to forgotten paintings from storage facilities of museums.
We started by doing outdoor street performances in San Francisco, in which the paintings on the body were site-specific to the areas where we were doing the performances. For example, Chadwick was painted as a BART ticket (Bay Area Rapid Transit), performing on the escalators of the Berkeley BART station, reading off the schedule as if it were his script. When we did a performance in the Castro District, (the gayborhood of San Francisco), he was painted as a rainbow flag. We created several of these site-specific performances in each section of the city.
During the Berkeley Art Museum M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition, we wanted to utilize the site-specific location of the museum. We were allowed access by the curator at the time, Larry Rinder, to view the storage facilities and use paintings that were rarely seen and not on exhibit to recreate onto the body. This is where Museum Anatomy began in 1995.
The Museum Anatomy requires a bigger overview of things, it’s not just recreating, it’s building a new form of art from scratch. Painting on a different medium can prove to be a challenging job, but having worked together previously in the past, the two can manage harmoniously.
I had been painting for a while in oils prior to collaborating with Chadwick on the San Francisco performances. The concept of painting is similar, using the value scale and knowing how to see shapes. The performance paintings on the body were much less detailed and were good practice. Part of recreating actual paintings came from wanting be more challenged with painting details. Painting takes a lot of practice, regardless of the paint, the more I do it, the better I get in all mediums. Sometimes times people ask if Chadwick paints. Yes, he does, beautifully.
Started as a specific project with the museum, Museum Anatomy is all about bringing the focus on forgotten paintings, paintings which are put aside in storage rooms or simply lost. It is expanding at a rapid pace.
Yes, Museum Anatomy began as a site-specific project with a museum, and we continue to collaborate with willing curators to share the paintings that lurk in their museum’s storage. We have branched out and are also interested in sharing paintings that have been stolen, destroyed, or are being restored, as well as those that are hidden out-of-sight in private collections. We like to bring attention to what is otherwise unseen and resurrect their hidden stories.
If you think that the project is elaborate, well, you might have to think again, because in fact it is very elaborate. The art group started with plain paintings, but then evolved to more complex body positions, taking sometime up to 72 hours to finish one piece. An impressive job of patience, talent and vision.
The process of Museum Anatomy has become more elaborate over time. At first we were trying to emulate the exact painting as we saw it. Which meant the first couple of paintings were very flat and on either the chest or back. This evolved into more contorted poses and finding coincidences between the portraiture, and the live human body. These paintings took anywhere from 8-15 hours in one sitting to create, before the final documentary photograph was taken.
In 2010, we started more elaborate paintings as we began experimenting with casting Chadwick’s body using plaster. These plaster body parts would then be added into the composition and painted during the same painting session. These paintings could sometimes take up to 16 or 17 hours. In the case of “Water, after Arcimboldo”, we had finished the painting, weren’t satisfied with it, and started it all over again in the same sitting. That was a seriously long day.
We have also created a single painting by splicing together multiple photographs from multiple sittings. “Cleaopatra’s Feast, after Jordeans”, was created from five different sittings. The total amount of time creating just the paintings onto the body came to about 72 hours.
Beyond the simple recreation of paintings, Laura and Chadwick have explored a multitude of themes in their works. Their journey through dusty museum storage rooms was interrupted at some point when most of the art was available on the internet.
The thesis of Museum Anatomy continues to evolve over time, as we continue to make new discoveries in the way that we document the work. The work currently consists of performance, painting, sculpture, digital media, photography and meditation; or, a retrospective view of art-making since tribal painting. (We recently learned that tribal paintings on the body pre-date cave paintings by thousands of years). At one point in time, our goal was to resurrect otherwise forgotten works of art from around the world; a type of world survey of what existed in museum storage facilities.
While we continued to create Museum Anatomy in Thailand, finances made it difficult to follow our usual route of traveling to museums. It just so happened that the Internet evolved simultaneous to our problem, so we evolved and we were able to find paintings of interest online for the cost of a connection fee.
Other deeper meanings to their art include the relationship female vs male, mediation or simply the joy of art and of creation an optical illusion which makes the viewer wonder of the meaning behind the artwork.
We have also explored the male vs. the female gaze. A female is recreating paintings of women created by men, onto a man’s body. The ephemeral vs. the permanent, which turns into a meditation.
Another is a simple idea of just making art fun to look at. To try and get viewers to figure out the puzzle of where the body is located, which takes longer than a few seconds to do, and makes the work interactive and engaging. Sometimes, we’ll see strangers having long dialogues and laughing while looking at the work, which brings us a lot of joy.
Most recently, we’ve been exploring the impermanence of our actions within our lifetime or, the speed of life evolving around us.
For the most part, the painting on the body has remained constant. The type of paint we use, and how it’s applied has been the same since the start. However, the way the work is documented has changed significantly over the past two decades. We started out using a Mamyia RZ67 medium format camera with slide positive film, (which left us not knowing whether or not the images would actually turn out). Now, we use a DSLR camera and can see the images instantly. Before, we used actual slides to project through a projector, now we use an opaque projector, which saves money and time. As far as creating frames for the paintings, (which are also customized photographs of the original frames of the paintings we use), we were limited to enormous ink jet architectural plotter printers, but they can now be printed out just like photographs on archival paper in any finish we like. Technology keeps progressing and Museum Anatomy engages with technological advances as it evolves.
Something that we never thought about at the beginning of the project is how the human body ages. And, now after working together for 20 years, we have a documentation of Chadwick’s body slowly aging over time. As our youth fades our skills advance in an elegant documented transition.
The group’s latest recreation brings a bit of mystery into the scene as they are working on a stolen painting of El Greco. Working for such long hours made even their lights explode.
We are currently working on recreating a painting by El Greco, which was stolen and still hasn’t been found. This particular painting is being created in two sittings. We have already created the first sitting that takes place on the torso from head-to-waist while holding a plaster cast. That session took 10 hours. We had to re-order lighting equipment after ours exploded due to a voltage change. When we have our new lights, we’ll resume and do the second half of the painting on Chadwick’s back.
Even documenting the photo is a very complex process, as the model’s position is essential to the final result. Unlike the painting, which washes off, their photos are printed on a special paper which is supposed to last 500 years.
Although it’s temporary, it takes hundreds of photographs to find the “finished one”, since the slightest movement or breath can completely change the context of a painting. While the performative aspect of the painting is temporary, a lot of the work comes after the painting is washed off, in deciding which image to use for the final photographic print, which we were told is an archival print that will last up to 500 years.
As a side note, after completing a painting, setting up lights, taking a series of photos and dismantling our set up, we are so exhausted we don’t mind washing off the painting to go to sleep.
Surprisingly, the artists feel relief after washing away their work. There’s something wonderful in the digital aspect of today’s artworks.
It’s actually a relief for the paintings to be washed away. We don’t have to store them and take up space, much like a Tibetan sand mandala.
As Chadwick’s position in the photo is vital, envisioning the work on a human canvas is also a lengthy process. Their creative process involves lots of discussion, observation but also vision.
First, we find paintings we have an immediate Gestalt feeling about, images we immediately connect with. Not all images we try to paint actually work. Once we have the image, we discuss ideas as to how it might work best on the body. We then project the image and look for coincidences in the anatomy of the painting and Chadwick’s body. Chadwick is also often looking in a mirror during this process. We photograph the faint projection to get different perspectives that we can discuss after this process. Once we decide on where it’s going to be painted, we book a date on the calendar and show up to create the work.
Prior to showing up to create the work, Chadwick will shave relevant body parts, I’ll find and match the color palette, we’ll get all the photography gear prepared and we’ll either print out an image of the artwork to work from, or download it on the iPad.
Unfortunately, having day jobs and working so many hours is affecting their creativity, so the art group is looking forward to focus solely on their art in the future.
As we get older, it becomes more exhausting. The 18-20 hour paintings take several days to recover from. Also, having day jobs to contend with eats up a significant amount of time that we would prefer using for research and creation. We’re totally open to the idea of art sponsors so we can make art full-time. The moments when we make breakthrough discoveries on any project is when we’re focused solely on art-making for months at a time.
Also, the instability of technology, which is what we utilize to store our most recent images.
Aside the Museum Anatomy, the group also has two other projects, one involving painting, the other a range of materials:
We have two other fully-realized bodies of artwork.
“Pop Nouveau Posters”, are paintings inspired by vintage French advertising posters mixed with cultural icons during our travels. They’re colorful and fun.
“Wall Sculptures”, were initially based on mandalas and Chinese lattice work. They’re more sculptural and use dozens of materials such as: sand, gold leaf, aluminum, stones, enamel, tile, pottery, bamboo, pastel, oil and acrylic paints. These works experiment with texture. Some of them ended up as digitized portraits, which fuse into photo real images with the use of a digital camera, making earthen materials interactive with technology.
You can see more selections of Museum Anatomy below and for upcoming exhibitions. To purchase Museum Anatomy merchandise or to help keep the project moving forward just visit their website.
Photos are used with permission of Chadwick Gray and Laura Spector/Exclusive interview for Mole Empire
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About Le Mole: Adela or Le Mole explores the unknown paths of the internet on her journey of discovering new interesting art talents worth mentioning. She tries to be inspiring to inspire others, interesting to make readers interested. All kinds of art, lifestyle, food concepts, fashion, social media but mostly underground art or artists who deserve to be mentioned is what she enjoys writing about.