Art Heists True and False: Lyndon Barrois Jr. at Carnegie Museum of Art

The show explores historical and cultural understandings of the extraction of resources, labor, visual culture and life from Africa by European nations and private firms.

Lyndon Barrois Jr. is writing a movie script, but you’ll never see the film in theaters. The script is a laboratory where Barrois Jr. tests out interactions between two of his interests, art forgery and the museum heist film genre. Partial results of those tests are currently on display at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art in the form of half-duplicated paintings, borrowed art shipping crates, printed herbarium samples and other objects of questionable authenticity. The show, Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette, gives material form to the script’s central question: What is the relationship between the image, the museum and value?

Installation view of Lyndon Barrois Jr., Guardians Gate (Farfanicchio), 2022, and Masters of Fine Arts, 2011/2022. Photo: Filip Wolak, courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art

Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette offers viewers multiple elements of the story. As you enter the museum’s Forum gallery, you see a conservator’s table, complete with brush, goggles, objets and a microscope hooked up to a computer monitor. A partially-painted canvas rests under the microscope, presumably mid-forgery. Standing here, you might be “Lumière,” the film script’s conservator-turned-possible-forger. To your right is a case of minerals and small sculptures, each in its own padded storage box and tilted 45-degrees towards the viewer. The case has the un-ornamented look of museum storage, but the arrangement of objects gives a film-ready quality. When you stand in front of the case, you might fall into the role of a visiting researcher or an unpaid intern seeking a quiet place to text. (No judgment. I’ve been that intern.) Turn around and you’ll see two paintings-as-prints advertising Barrois Jr.’s fictional film. Perhaps you’re a movie-goer, a memorabilia collector or an early-2000s film bootlegger with a digital video camera in their pocket.

Wherever you stand in Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette, the artist asks you to consider the value of the objects you see and how that value is generated. More specifically, the show aims to take part in historical and cultural understandings of the extraction of resources, labor, visual culture and life from the Democratic Republic of Congo—and Africa more generally—by European nations and private firms. As Liz Park, the museum’s Richard Armstrong Curator of Contemporary Art, writes, the “rubber vine-like and elephantine shapes” of the Belgian Art Nouveau “recall the colonial roots of these forms.” Just as rubber and ivory were taken from Africa to become goods on a global market, so too were visual forms and styles taken. While this setup included European artists copying African art, it also included explorers, anthropologists and others raiding the material legacy of Africa to stock their mantelpieces, country estates, university offices and—eventually—public museums with objects derisively labeled ‘primitive.’ It is a system that turns living people into images of an unsalvageable past.

A highlight from ‘Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette’. CPhoto: Filip Wolak, courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art

Pittsburgh residents might also place Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette in another, hyper-local context—the 1992-2017 theft of $8 million worth of book plates, maps and photographic prints from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s neighbor, the Carnegie Public Library of Pittsburgh. For 25 years, Greg Priore, manager of the library’s rare books collection, extracted valuable elements from prized books and sold them. His partner in this criminal endeavor was John Schulman, former proprietor of Caliban Book Shop, located just a minute’s walk from the museum. Schulman passed the stolen goods along to unsuspecting buyers, including other library systems. When a 2017 audit of the library’s collection revealed the theft, it rocked public confidence in an otherwise reliable public institution. The very person intended to protect, care for and provide access to these invaluable objects was the one literally ripping them from their binding and selling them up the block and around the country.

With two conservators at the center of his script, Barrois Jr. brilliantly animates both of these historical contexts. The script’s main characters, Lumière and her new colleague, Seon-Min, work in a Belgian museum conserving art and African antiquities. As conservators, they’re entrusted with maintaining objects brought into Europe by colonial agents through theft or other ethically-questionable means of acquisition. Lumière, the script hints, might want to do more than just conserve. Barrois Jr. doesn’t specify exactly what Lumière will do and, in that way, prompts the viewer to speculate—to judge rather than simply watch.

Here, I’ll stick my neck out and guess that Lumière might want to send artifacts and artwork back to their global origins and leave the Belgian museum stocked with high-quality, impressively-crafted and good-as-old dupes. She might want to send some European works elsewhere, too. If that’s the case, Lumière’s plan is reminiscent of recent calls to decolonize museums. Definitions of “decolonization” in the museum field vary, but the term usually telegraphs a few things: narrating objects from indigenous perspectives, displaying indigenous objects with proper respect for relevant cultural norms, paying indigenous interlocutors to facilitate this work and repatriating objects to the cultures of their origins.

Repatriation is contentious, as it calls for museums to relinquish objects as well the cultural caché that comes with having, granting or denying access to and caring for those objects. Mary Wilcop, Senior Manager of Conservation at the Carnegie Museum of Art, says that, “conservation and conservation ethics have been leaned on for a long time to argue against repatriation.” Meanwhile, Sarah Jilani summarizes the anti-repatriation conservation argument this way: “those of us not from the ‘universal’ place and race cannot be trusted to preserve our own heritage, and must instead view it under close surveillance, in someone else’s house.” With decolonization in mind, Lumière’s potential actions model a question Barrois Jr. asked during a recent public conversation with Park and Wilcop: “What are the kinds of crimes that could happen for the right reason?”

When you hear a question like that, it’s easy to bark out a commandment: “Thou shalt not steal from museums.” The Priore-Schulman debacle that bookends the Carnegie Museum of Art seems evidence enough—$8 million worth of important, beautiful artwork was taken from a rustbelt institution and scattered in private and public hands elsewhere. I would make the case, however, that Priore-Schulman’s parallel isn’t the fictional conservator Lumière (who, I remind you, hasn’t even committed a crime yet; I’m the one fantasizing about the crimes). I think Priore-Schulman have more in common with the art museum in general.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences reports that only 24% of Americans visited an art museum in 2016. Objects brought into museums through colonial extraction, especially objects sitting in research collections and un-exhibited, are accessible only to the museum-going minority and the even smaller group researching the objects behind locked doors. It’s a consolidation of culture that restricts access to objects and their value. This isn’t a general condemnation of museums but rather a specific inquiry: Is it better for an object to be locked in storage (or displayed with limited context) than to have it circulating among the people for whom it is already meaningful?

Installation view of ‘ Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette’. Photo: Filip Wolak, courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art

The characters in Barrois Jr.’s script aren’t planning to do what Priore-Schulman did. They aren’t planning to restrict access to only those who can afford to buy a rare work. Instead, if I’m daydreaming on their behalf correctly, they’re interested in duplicating works and disseminating them. As a result, more people will see an image or object and more people will encounter art. Authenticity, in this scenario, is less about the ‘hand of the artist’ and more about tracking—transparently and curiously—what each copy in each museum means, and how and why their values differ. The prompt Barrois Jr. posits through his characters requires delicate consideration, no doubt. Duplicating works might not make sense for every object, every medium or every practice. However, if we shut down even this hypothetical scenario, we’ve given up on addressing the creation and maintenance of value in museums. The strength of Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette is in its unflinching insistence that the viewer come up with answers, even if they’re not the right ones.

In the back left corner of Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette is a set of shipping crates painted with the Carnegie Museum’s signature red. These are actual crates used by the museum, carrying the tracking stickers of their trips—to Venice, to D.C., to Germany and back. Barrois Jr. borrowed these crates into his show from museum storage, as he did with magnification equipment, several mineral samples and small works of art. While the technological gizmos invoke the conservator’s lab, the crates bring to mind the workers who often go unseen in museums—registrars, administrative assistants, accountants, scientists, educators, art handlers and even janitors. Many of those workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh (a system that includes the Carnegie Museum of Art) recently unionized, and the United Museum Workers union signed its first contract with the museum system in May of this year. Still, not every worker feels they benefit from the value art museums generate, which is the value Barrois Jr.’s show tracks.

One anonymous museum employee told me, “I do think the department I work for does much to ensure as accessible an environment as possible, and I admire the people I work with beyond measure. However, it goes without saying that $16 per hour is still not a living wage, and the museum purposefully keeps us part time so we cannot receive benefits. The museums could show solidarity with workers by valuing our livelihood in a real way.”

Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette asks when it’s right to duplicate, important to steal or worthwhile to destabilize value. It’s a thought experiment that might lead us to other possibilities of living with art, but only if we’re willing to actually do something.

Lyndon Barrois Jr.: Rosette is on view at Carnegie Museum of Art through August 27.

Art Heists True and False: Lyndon Barrois Jr. at Carnegie Museum of Art