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The art of the feather (and the downside)

October 14, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

ONE of the most dazzling tidbits in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's big show "The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820" is enshrined in a gallery devoted to silver. A richly ornamented chalice made in Mexico City around 1575 and given to the museum by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1948, it stands a mere 13 inches tall. But in terms of 16th century Mexican silver, the chalice has everything: silver gilt, rock crystal, boxwood and hummingbird feathers.

Hummingbird feathers?

They're not easy to see. In a mind-boggling marriage of European and Latin American artistic traditions, an anonymous Mexican craftsman used snippets of colorful plumage to fill the background of tiny boxwood carvings on the chalice's base and stem. The featherwork has been badly damaged over the years -- probably long before Hearst's purchase. But sharp-eyed visitors who examine the carvings of Christ's apostles and other figures can glimpse pinpoints of brilliant turquoise on what remains of the feathers.

"The chalice has all the bells and whistles of its type," LACMA's head objects conservator John Hirx says. And that made it an obvious choice for the major traveling exhibition of Spanish Colonial art, which opened last fall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, traveled to the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City and runs through Oct. 28 in Los Angeles.

But LACMA's little tour de force did not go to Philadelphia or Mexico City. No one was willing to risk more damage to the feathers.

"If I have anything to say about it, it will never travel," Hirx says. "People who want to see it can come to Los Angeles."

In the world of art, feathers are regarded with a special kind of dread. Collected from a wide variety of birds, they are prized for their color and delicate beauty, and incorporated into a surprising range of objects. But they are, in every sense of the phrase, high maintenance. They fade in improper light. They lose iridescence when their structure breaks down. They get brittle and break if the temperature or humidity doesn't agree with them. They attract insects -- as well as tough scrutiny from import/export inspectors and cultural watchdogs. And if they fall apart, they can't be put back together.

Inevitably, they bedevil conservators and curators. And no one knows that better than an intrepid three-person team that's organizing a landmark exhibition of feather art, opening at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Mexico City in November 2009.

"There's something I would almost call a fear of feathers out there," says Diana Fane, curator emerita at the Brooklyn Museum, who is working on the show with Alessandra Russo, an Italian art historian who teaches at Columbia University, and Gerhard Wolf, a German scholar who directs the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, Italy.

"People tell us we can't possibly do a show," Fane says. "No one will lend the objects. We will never get the proper mounts for them. They are in too bad condition. Nobody knows how to conserve them. People automatically assume that feathers have to be kept in certain light levels, so you have to grope through the dark to protect them."

Some of the fear comes from a lack of knowledge about a material more familiar to natural history museums than art institutions. But there's no denying that feathers are trouble.

At the Fowler Museum at UCLA, a spectacular New Caledonian mask with a body-enveloping cascade of dark gray feathers grabs attention in "Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives," an exhibition drawn from the museum's global collections of ethnographic objects. But in the storage vaults, curator Roy Hamilton pulls out drawer after drawer of Maori feather cloaks that probably will never appear in the galleries. The sensitivity of the material isn't the only problem, he says. Maori people must be involved with any public display of the cloaks, and that would require sorting out differences of opinion among factions of the Maori and dealing with governmental bureaucracies.

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Highland Park -- which has one of the nation's largest collections of Native American art and operates under the umbrella of the Autry National Center in Griffith Park -- has had a different feather problem. Chronically underfunded and housed in a woefully porous historic building, the museum has been infested by insects that graze on feathers and other organic materials. The problem is under control, thanks to a massive cleaning and conservation project that includes freezing hundreds of feathered headdresses, ceremonial objects and kachinas to rid them of pests.

"When we take things out of the freezer and see carcasses, we know how important it is to do this," conservator Angela McGrew says.

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