Unpainting: Using a Doll's House as a Conceptual Art Work
by Veronica Tonge
I would like to share with you something of my practice as an artist, doll’s house enthusiast and collector on a learning curve, which I find both creative and exciting. Originally a fine arts graduate, I additionally gained specialist qualifications in museum and gallery curation, earning my living for over 30 years in my local museum. The wonderful and wide ranging collections there just happened to contain several interesting doll’s houses from the 19th and 20th centuries, and I found them fascinating from day one.
Exhibiting regularly with professional artist groups means that some of my textile and assemblage works have found their way into both private and public collections, but the sort of art I make is “conceptual”. This is a type of contemporary art where the idea behind the work, together with the method or activity of producing it becomes as important (and sometimes more so) than the finished work. For an artist, making this sort of work is an interesting challenge and involves taking a risk – will it work out and communicate something new? The viewer is also challenged to understand and appreciate the complex, many layered meaning of the art work.
My art practice uses ‘found objects’, things appropriated from popular culture that intrigue me, so this is where the doll’s houses come in. I need to mention here that appropriation of readymade objects as art was first made by the early 20th Century Surrealists, who were great supporters of chance happenings, subconscious meanings and the overturning of conventional preconceptions about creative acts. The famous example is Duchamp’s Fountain, which was an ordinary ceramic urinal signed with the pseudonym ‘R.Mutt’, then sent to a serious New York exhibition of 1917. An art world storm erupted when it was rejected, but definitions of “art” were changed forever.
The doll’s house artwork I made, with the title Unpainting, was for an exhibition in June 2013 at a newly opened contemporary gallery, Below 65, in Maidstone, Kent. Showcasing Maidstone Visual Artists Network, a large group of local artists, both professionally trained and self taught, it was curated under the heading of “Personal Journeys.’’ The exhibition featured a wide variety of exhibits illustrating the theme, including paintings, prints, photographs, jewelry, textiles and sculpture. My piece was a personal journey starting with a discarded and crudely made over Gee Bee Swiss Cottage. This is the information I provided with my work in the exhibition, which I hope will communicate what I was attempting to do…
UNPAINTING: The House
This doll’s house was manufactured in the mid to late 1960s by Gee Bees of Hull. It was hand assembled from machined softwood and hardboard, colour sprayed and hand painted with enamel paint on a toy factory assembly line by skilled workers. Stylistically, it is modern Swedish chalet, crossed with traditional British cottage style - part of the aspirational early to late 20th Century lower middle class idea of what would perfect to live in away from the drudgery of city office or factory.
Photograph of front of Unpainting by Veronica Tonge © Sheilagh Dyson
This “personal journey” of this house started about 40 years ago, when it was sold through a local toyshop, maybe as a child’s special birthday or Christmas present. It would have contained furniture, again mass-produced from wood and plastic, for a generic kitchen, sitting room and two bedrooms; four-roomed doll’s houses often had no bathroom.
I bought it from a charity shop several years ago. It was dirty and damaged and crudely applied pumpkin yellow and tan brown vinyl or acrylic paint completely obliterated most of the original external paint finish. Inside, It had been daubed with other coloured paint and every part of it had been collaged with enthusiasm (around the 1990s, I estimated) by someone with no artistic skill. It had original windows and doors, which alone had survived the repaint.
Perhaps the child who had originally owned this house in the 1960s passed it on to her own child, for a “makeover”. Abandoned, it found itself in a charity shop and not a wheelie bin simply because old doll’s houses are now regarded as desirable vintage items, regardless of condition.
Temptation to “restore” it was strong, but the house had been changed forever. The outside walls, originally pale yellow with factory applied “foliage” would have been only partially cleanable. The upper veranda had brown paint absolutely welded to the glue layer that remained from the crazy paving paper originally there. Similarly, would the original maroon wall entirely give up its layer of vinyl brown? The gable front could have been resurfaced with contemporary wood grain paper but never quite like the original. The rooms, originally white, could have been painted in acrylic primer but their texture would never look as new. All the surfaces were now a hybrid of mass-produced manufacture and a child’s playful use of paint.
UNPAINTING: The Artwork
The concept of the artwork was the removal of the added surface, rather than restoration by adding new paint. This laborious process took several months.
Photograph of back of Unpainting by Veronica Tonge © Sheilagh Dyson
After days of effort sandpapering the interior hard (and washing with scouring pads), the inside papers, plus bits of plastic and card decorations that had been stuck with permanent glue, were finally mostly removed. The two bedrooms were still a messy lavender and cornflower blue and a vinyl tile in miscellaneous brown wood effect print was permanently stuck to the kitchen floor.
Outside, strong solvents were not an option, as the original paint finish underneath would have been dissolved. I experimented using cream cleaner, with “micro particles”. Medium to hard friction dissolved the acrylic without removing the factory finish enamel paint, but it was not possible to remove all the later acrylic without over cleaning.
As I persistently scrubbed away, the house began to reclaim its original atmosphere, but not as new, as the house had knocks and scrapes before the “make over”. As the main external walls revealed the original hand applied splashes of decorative green and red foliage, it became as exciting as an archaeological dig!
Weeks later, I had spent a couple of hours trying to remove the brown paint layer on the roof with damp cotton buds using mainly friction. What I achieved was a patch of original shiny red roof paint; a few inches square, costing me aching knee joints (I work standing up) very sore fingers and a sense that this was not going to be worth the pain. I switched to using dry sandpaper with broad sweeps, and got a subtle, scratchy slightly red-flecked surface that could be ‘polished’ to a unique surface made up of added and very slightly revealed original paint. Suddenly it ceased to be about the process of removing someone else’s layer of paint and genuinely about the process of creating a new artwork by “abrasion”, which became both the medium, and the method used to make the work.
I approached it, from my standpoint as a conceptual artist, to develop a different sort of painted surface. Past and present were fused together, making a new art work that was about “paint removed” as well as “paint partly removed” or “paint impossible to remove”, which became a personal journey of experimentation, risk taking, judgment and finally acceptance.