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Lenka Clayton, Object Temporarily Removed (detail), 2016

How Artist Lenka Clayton Captures Essential Truths about the Museum

Since 2012, Pittsburgh-based artist Lenka Clayton has been producing poetic drawings using only the keys of her 1957 Smith Corona Skyriter typewriter. Last year, Eric Crosby, curator of modern and contemporary art at CMOA, invited her to visit the museum and produce a body of work based on snapshots taken in galleries and behind-the-scenes spaces. The museum acquired 16 of these drawings, titled Dispatches from the Museum. Each work in the series shows her technical virtuosity with the machine, as well as an imaginative wit.

To create the works, Clayton roamed the galleries and the offices and spoke with staff members about their experiences working in a museum, snapping photographs along the way. Interested in the inner workings of the museum, Clayton conducted multiple trips to photograph and capture overlooked aspects and idiosyncrasies of the 121-year-old institution. She visited with conservation, registration, security, archives, and curatorial departments, and poked around in the staff kitchen, storage closets, and conservation lab.

Clayton’s work represents both reality as well as imagined aspects of the museum, often blending the two. In this intersection, we start to see the most interesting aspects of her practice, giving us a peek into the artist’s perspective about a place.

The Back of the Painting, for example is a straight copy. Registrar Elizabeth Tufts-Brown even recognized her own handwriting in the “12.2” written on the back of the painting. Clayton made a particular effort to faithfully reproduce (by typing dozens of periods close together) the distinct markings that CMOA, and other institutions, have contributed to this work. In the most direct sense, she was “drawing” with the machine.

Lenka Clayton, The Back of the Painting, 2016, Carnegie Museum of Art, Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art

“In stark contrast to the front, the back of the painting is an accidental collaborative work that has been slowly accumulating since the painting left the studio,” Clayton says. “The framer, the conservator, the registrar, the curator, the preparator and the archivist all assiduously carrying out their specific duties, leave special marks on the frame that form beautiful and informative compositions.”

Lenka Clayton's drawing titled "A Three Hundred Year Old Pot Glanced at for Two Seconds."
Lenka Clayton, A Three Hundred Year Old Pot Glanced at for Two Seconds, 2016, Carnegie Museum of Art, Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art

“This pot was one of four that are oddly presented in a precarious little parade perched on a high wooden case in the gallery,” Clayton says. “I didn’t realize I’d seen it until a few moments afterwards when its afterimage asked me to draw it.”

Lenka Clayton's drawing titled "Dead Flowers in the Conservation Department."
Lenka Clayton, Dead Flowers in the Conservation Department, 2016, Carnegie Museum of Art, Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art

“In the conservation department,” Clayton says, “very careful attention is directed to preserving certain objects while others watch and slowly decay.”

The Keys to Every Door in the Museum, meanwhile, is fictionalized and merely embodies what can and does exist at the museum.

Lenka Clayton's drawing titled "All the Keys to All the Doors"
Lenka Clayton, All the Keys to All the Doors, 2016, Carnegie Museum of Art, Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art

“There is a cupboard in the museum that contains every key to every door in the building,” Clayton says. “It’s so highly guarded that I had to promise to make my drawing of specific keys inaccurate in case it got into the wrong hands. Promise kept.”

Lenka Clayton's drawing titled "Painting at the Carnegie Museum of Art."
Lenka Clayton, Painting at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 2016, Carnegie Museum of Art, Tillie and Alexander C. Speyer Fund for Contemporary Art

“This was the first drawing I did in the museum, and it sparked the whole series,” Clayton says. “Typing up this painting, one of my favorites in the collection, was a way to walk out of the building with it.”

Lenka Clayton is an artist and founder of An Artist Residency in Motherhood. Her interdisciplinary work considers, exaggerates, and alters the accepted rules of everyday life, extending the familiar into the realms of the poetic and absurd. With collaborator Jon Rubin, she debuted a major new work …circle through New York at the Guggenheim Museum this month, which takes place onsite as well as five locations in a circle throughout the city. Her solo show at the Fabric Workshop, Object Temporarily Removed, runs through July.

To learn more about Lenka Clayton’s artistic practice, read our Studio Visit with the artist from November of 2014.