Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Craft of Imitation: Restoring and Copying

If you walk through the gardens at the Huntington in San Marino, you will inevitably get to the faux-wood railings in the Japanese garden or to a long arbor made of artificial trees. The trees were made of reinforced concrete, created originally in the 1920s by an undocumented craftsman. Due to air pockets between the metal and the cement, water was able to seep in and create rust and decay. These "faux bois" (false wood) arbors in 2012 are surrounded by low wooden scaffolding on which a man in white and gray sits with his mortar and cement, his brushes and bags and nails and tools. If you ask, the man says he is a sculptor and restorer, and he is happy to tell his story. His business card affirms his narrative, adds his name—Terry Eagan—and carries a web address, where you can read about how he came to work in the gardens and see more pictures. Eagan takes his job seriously. He does not try to update, improve the work, or put his own original stamp on it, he wants to restore the sculptures to the undocumented craftsman's original intent.

When I read about the art forger Ken Perenyi, in the New York Times recently I thought about restoring and copying and imitations. The intention behind the copying is important. Perenyi used to pass off his paintings as originals by famous artists and could get $700,000, according to the article. While he was suspected but never arrested, he eventually altered his plans and now sells the works as copies for around $5,000. He got a certain thrill from the deception, and now he has written a book about it, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.  It does make a good transgressive story, but a perplexing one about a canny criminal and con man. A review of the book suggests that the story is also a fake, or an embroidered tale. I have not read the book. For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that what Perenyi wrote was a confession.

While Perenyi might be working aesthetically with the artist's original intent, and while he may be extraordinary skilled, he is not creating anything new. Eagan is copying what already exists, but the restoration is what he has been hired and trusted to do. He is making whole what is broken. There is no moral issue. I find myself interested in Eagan's honest process: his obvious attention to details and love and pride for a craft, even though it may not bring him great wealth or a movie deal. He was so engaged in his work he was nearly invisible; I almost walked past him.

So, if you ever wander through the Huntington Gardens, be on the lookout for Terry Eagan. Ask him about his work.

No comments: