Artist Roman de Salvo branches out at Timken Museum of Art

Roman de Salvo, the artist-in-residence at the Timken Museum of Art, works on his “Electric Picnic” installation at the Balboa Park museum.
(Photo by Nancee E. Lewis)

The Timken Museum of Art has a strong history of juxtaposing interesting relationships. As an institution, it’s best known for its collection of European masters like Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s “Saint Bartholomew” (1657) and Francisco de Zubarán’s “Saint Francis in Meditation” (1635). Yet this seemingly conventional museum is housed within a sleek John Mock-designed mid-century modern building. And while the majority of museums around world appear to be getting larger in size and grander in style, the Timken Museum has remained a small, personal and welcoming place to visit.

So, it should come as no surprise that this progressive yet traditional museum would invite conceptual artist Roman de Salvo — a San Diego-based artist who exhibits internationally and is recognized for his sculpture and public works — to serve as an artist-in-residence this summer. This program asks contemporary artists to respond to works in the Timken’s collection through their own artistic practice.

Reflecting on the juxtaposition of de Salvo’s work and the museum’s collection, Timken executive director Megan Pogue says: “Accessibility is important because we are the only free museum in the park, so we are the only museum that some folks get to, so we want to make sure we are speaking to all audiences.”

In an effort to connect the past with the present, de Salvo chose to react to an 18th-century painting by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “Blindman’s Buff” (ca. 1775-80). De Salvo’s response to the centuries-old masterpiece includes constructing a site-specific installation in the middle of the museum’s main hall that connects each of the five galleries.

Rather than respond to the entire work of art, de Salvo is inspired by a detail within Fragonard’s painting. The work is mainly composed of loose brushstrokes that represent nature within a large open park. In comparison, the centrally located figures are all tightly rendered to draw the viewer’s eyes to their activities. Based on their clothing, the viewer can conclude that the figures are members of the French aristocracy. They are involved in a game that involves blindfolding a man.

Yet it was the tree that hangs over these characters that de Salvo was most interested in because it depicts a bifurcation structure: a pattern that divides each of the branches into two parts, getting smaller and smaller as they extend outward.

Immediately getting to work, de Salvo sought to build a similar structure in the museum.

“I looked for a way to build a tree sculpturally and decided to use y-adapters and slotted angle brackets,” he says. “They all have modular qualities that remind me of electric power transmission towers.”

The completed piece, titled “Electric Picnic,” will include a series of wooden benches and an erector set-like tree made from the brackets and adapters that protrudes from the bench and hangs over the common area. When complete, visitors can enter the installation and sit on the benches, essentially recreating the scene in the painting.

“Much of my work is systematic,” De Salvo says, “and it’s painstaking because trees are organic and modular construction is not.”

The transformation of how the organic becomes ordinary through de Salvo can be a metaphor for making the Timken’s collection accessible. While academic paintings can be intimidating, the garage door materials that de Salvo uses can be found at a hardware store and are part of our everyday lives. The tree becomes something that lives in our space and something we can physically relate to and draws visitors back into Fragonard’s painting, which is the key.

Analyzing the two trees furthers the enjoyment of both works of art. Fragonard’s tree frames the painting on one side, provides a foundation for the people within the painting to sit or stand, and hangs over them, offering respite and a comfortable space to play their game.

De Salvo’s installation makes these concepts real by physically creating a similar space for museum guests that is also asymmetrical by being weighted heavily on one side. The installation also breaks up the space above the viewer, like a chandelier hanging overhead. As the natural light fills the gallery, this constructed gathering area is essentially a place to discuss, or play, if you will, with works of art. The two works of art complement each other and force continued comparisons.

De Salvo’s installation forces the viewer to see the collection of the Timken in a new way. Even the trees and nature coming through the Timken’s large mid-century modern windows provide a wealth of juxtapositions. Too often, works of art hang on the walls of museums and almost demand a worship posture from visitors.

De Salvo challenges this expectation and emphasizes that his installation is “a place to discuss and connect.”

This is an excellent launching point when visiting the Timken because the installation is located in the lobby before walking into the galleries on either side, a kind of bifurcation that should alleviate fears and make visitors feel more comfortable.

Roman de Salvo

When: On display June 28 through Aug. 25

Where: Timken Museum of Art, Balboa Park

Tickets: Free

Phone: (619) 239-5548


Daichendt, dean of the colleges and professor of art history at Point Loma Nazarene University, is a freelance writer.