Shine on! The friction about polishing high gloss synthetic surfaces

Hedwig Braam, Evelyne Snijders, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Abrasions on artworks of synthetic resin with a high gloss surfaces, or so-called ‘finish fetish’ artworks, are a challenging problem in contemporary art conservation. This is especially challenging because the impeccable high gloss surface is essential to the artwork. An example is the work by German artist Thomas Rentmeister (1964). Abrasions on these high gloss surfaces have a major impact on the appearance where any abrasions in the pristine finish greatly affect the intended appearance by distinctly showing up different in gloss and color.

Polishing treatment is a possible solution to diminish abrasions. Although effective for aesthetic results, there is controversy about polishing in the field of conservation. An online survey about polishing plastics among conservation communities illustrated the friction surrounding this topic. Whereas some conservators would execute these treatments regularly, others strongly refuse to use polishing products because of the fact that they can remove original material as well as add irreversible non-original material. In addition, long-term effect of these commercial polishing materials is unknown.

To make the decision for or against polishing treatment, the effect of polishing pastes should be carefully evaluated. However, to be able to evaluate ‘effectiveness’ and ‘invasiveness’, the conservator might want to take other factors into account than the mere material effect. In this research the concept of polishing will be related to the context of the artwork: the concept, the artist’s intention and the highly labor-intensive making process of these pristine high-gloss surfaces. This is done by an artist interview with Thomas Rentmeister in his studio as well as the preparation of high-gloss test samples and executing a test-series with polishing pastes which are evaluated by microscopy and gloss measurement. The focus will be on the link between ethical considerations and practical polishing tests, and connections will be made to practices in other conservation disciplines and alternative treatment options. By giving insight into the ethical and material gains and losses of polishing treatments, this research aims to answer the question whether polishing can be a suitable strategy to treat abraded high gloss synthetic sculptures and aid conservators in weighing the decision.