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Art Conservation: A Conversation with Ms Hera Chen of Yuan Heng Conservation

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Art Conservation: A Conversation with Ms Hera Chen of Yuan Heng Conservation
One of the conservators at Yuan Heng Conservation at work (Image courtesy of YH Conservation)

Yuan Heng Conservation is a conservation studio that was established early this year as a means to address the increasing demand for conservation and restoration services in Asia. Yuan Heng is part of the Conservation Center, set up in 2005 by Cheng Shiu University and managed by the Office of Arts and Culture. Managing 4 specialised laboratories in Singapore, it currently treats three major mediums including painting, paper and object. In addition to cleaning, professionals carry out scientific examination and analysis to aid in extending the lifespan and recover the appearance of artworks.

Yuan Heng Conservation deals in various mediums, including sculpture
Image courtesy of YH Conservation

Yuan Heng has served various private collectors, auction houses, foundations and public institutions, and has been entrusted with various conservation and restoration projects. It also holds various certifications for its laboratory and art collection management bank, including ISO 17025 and ISO 9001: 2008, from the International Standardisation Organisation that develops and publishes international standards.

 

We speak to the paintings conservator of Yuan Heng Conservation, Ms Hera Chen to find out more about the projects that she has worked on.

Ms Hera Chen of Yuan Heng Conservation at work
Image courtesy of YH Conservation

What is a typical day like for you at the studio?

It is difficult to describe a typical day in the conservation studio. Days could be spent in front of an easel re-touching a painting while the following days might be spent travelling to another city to survey a client’s collections. 

Daily activities revolve around examining works and photographing them, carrying out research of the artist oeuvre, documentation and filing in of reports, cleaning the paintings with solvent or other mechanical methods, consolidating paint layers, infilling paint losses and the remounting of canvas. Different methods and materials could be chosen for the same treatment, depending on the composition and existing condition of the work.  A conservator is akin to a doctor where every case requires individual diagnosis and treatments.

 

How did you ​begin your career in art restoration and conservation?

I was always interested in art & history even though my major in university was business administration. I learnt about art conservation funnily enough through a thriller movie. The protagonist  actress went under cover as an art conservator when investigating a crime and it piqued my curiosity.  I started reading up extensively on art conservation to find what this profession was about. It became a passion and I travelled to Italy to learn painting conservation from an established institution renowned for its art restoration work in Florence. I gained comprehensive conservation experience working in different studios in Florence and Milan.  

After numberous years, I returned to Taiwan where I joined the Conservation Center of Cheng Shiu University in their painting department.  I headed to Singapore when the YH Conservation partnership was forged between the Conservation Center and Helu-Trans, the leading arts handling, logistics and storage specialist in the region. 

I am one of the conservators based permanently in Singapore overseeing the paintings department. My other colleagues in the conservation house cover paper and objects.

An overview of the conservation studio at Yuan Heng Conservation
Image courtesy of YH Conservation

What is the most challenging project or artwork that you have worked on thus far?

The projects have been manageable, but what was needed for the job is an indefinite amount of patience. One of the more challenging projects I had worked on was a painting on canvas that had accumulated a thick layer of dirt and mold.  It was folded and rolled tightly, creating deep cracks. Parts of the paint layers adhered to the opposite side when it was folded before the colours were completely dry. I had to remove the affected stuck paint mechanically and with extreme care to avoid breaking them. Fitting the original pieces back was like playing the puzzle.

The restoration involved removing the mold and dirt. Next, I infilled all the paint losses and textured the surface to simulate the thick brush work, before retouching the infilled areas. These were basic treatments but it took an extended amount of time, attentiveness and patience due to the extreme state of the work.

Conservators never know what to expect. While the painting medium used by early century and modern masters is largely predictable, contemporary artists experiment with a wide range of mixed media. It is very challenging when we are asked to restore an artwork made of unusual materials.  I have worked on art pieces made with dried banana peel and that was special experience for me.

Yuan Heng Conservation offers scientific examination and analysis to aid in extending the lifespan and recover the appearance of artworks
Image courtesy of YH Conservation

Which has been your biggest art conservation or restoration project to date and what did you most enjoy about the project?

The largest and most meaningful art conservation project I have worked on was back in Milan.  My then studio was appointed to conserve and restore all the paintings of a renaissance church in Pavia. The dozens of paintings were executed on canvas of varying dimensions and displayed different degrees of flaking and missing paint. Some works had a very degraded canvas. Restoring their original gilded frames was a part of the scope as well.

All the works had an aged and discoloured layer of varnish which we painstakingly removed. This was the part of treatment I enjoyed because of the immense satisfaction seeing the splendid colours come alive after the old vanish came off.  One could appreciate the skill and dexterity of painting the natural skin tones and drapery of classic 16th or 17th century paintings. Restoration of some of the more fragile paintings were carried out in the Church where we converted a room into a temporary conservation studio.  It was a surreal and overpowering experience for me working inside a renaissance church, with its atmosphere imbued and heavy with history.

An outdoor sculpture that Yuan Heng Conservation worked on
Image courtesy of YH Conservation

Finally, is there any advice you can give someone buying their first ​art piece (whether it's a painting, print or sculpture), as to how to best protect it from future damage?

First of all, you are supposed to like the art piece you buy. Your home does not have to be set up like a museum, but you could avoid conditions that affect your work.

Light can be detrimental to paintings and works on paper, so keep them away from direct sunlight.  Avoid use of tracklights that emit excessive heat and use anti-UV plexiglass when framing works.  It costs more but saves your work and slows down fading.

Keep works away from the kitchen, bathroom, or any rooms where there is high humidity  and  fluctuations in temperature. Rough and improper handling causes stress on the art work. It is best to engage only professionals whether installing or restoring any work.

 

Yuan Heng Conservation is Helutrans Artmove’s latest addition to its portfolio of services, making it a one-stop service center. Partnering with Yuan Heng, Helutrans will introduce art conservation services in its Singapore office.

 

 


Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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