Jim Cogswell's ode to U-M artifacts
by Lindsay-Jean Hard
From the September, 2017 issue
You may have noticed the colorful window installations at the U-M Museum of Art and the U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. With imagery that's both familiar and otherworldly, the vivid, playful works, part of the current Cosmogonic Tattoos exhibit, seem like they could have come from the pages of an enchanting children's picture book.
When I visited, I started at UMMA and wandered around the outside, entranced by the fanciful vinyl cutouts tattooing the windows. If you get deja vu looking at these cutouts, that's likely because you've seen U-M art and design professor Jim Cogswell's vinyl mural work before--his piece, Enchanted Beanstalk, covers eight floors of windows on the Mott Children's Hospital. A sense of wonder stuck with me days after I'd viewed the installation, and I kept puzzling over parts of it--what was the thing that looked like a traffic cone? A seemingly modern shape, it kept popping up among other images, which appeared to come from long ago and far away.
The exhibit is intriguing enough to be enjoyed at the surface level, but the more you learn about the installation, the more you'll appreciate it. The Kelsey Museum houses Cogswell's preliminary paintings that shaped the installations, and seeing them helps put the pieces into place.
A docent in the Kelsey mentioned that this project took Cogswell five years to complete. I initially found the length of time staggering, but less so as I absorbed the volume of preliminary work surrounding me: one wall covered with paintings--colorful shellac swirling on Mylar--and another with walnut ink drawings in muted brown tones that are less flashy but just as intriguing. Cogswell did hundreds of these paintings, all representations of artifacts in the museums, mainly the Kelsey.
Once you see the preliminary works, you start to recognize pieces that have been transformed: a statue of Aphrodite, a glass flask, a conical oil lamp. The last, tipped on its end and colored orange, just so happens to resemble a pylon, one of Michigan's unofficial signs of summer. And just as summer days are now fleeting, so is the interior portion of this exhibit--it ends September 10. The window displays will remain in place until December 17--allowing more time to be transported by the ways Cogswell's work evokes fragments of our histories and the stories we create from them
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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