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a view of UMMA's collection

UMMA Collection Ensemble

A feast of hors d'oeuvres

by Jenn McKee

From the October, 2019 issue

Imagine an "art potluck," wherein forty-one attendees are deployed to different parts of a museum to select one piece and bring it back, creating an eclectic mix of items from various lands and time periods to showcase side by side.

The result would likely resemble the Collection Ensemble, an installation (which debuted in April) housed in the U-M Museum of Art Apse.

The austere, curved white space--with its elegant skylight and Greek columns--previously displayed a tasteful (if staid) group of American and European paintings from the last two centuries. It's now home to a far broader range of media, organized into nine groupings.

The "Water Protocols" grouping, for instance, places American artist Jenny Holzer's 1983 Selections from Truisms--an electronic scrolling message board that spouts statements like "People are boring unless they're extremists" and "Resolutions serve to ease your conscience"--beneath fellow American Robert Hopkin's traditional nautical oil painting Chasing a Slave (1880), and near Frenchman Bernard Picart's early eighteenth-century etching Night Scene from Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux's "The Lectern," inspired by Boileau's 1674 mock heroic poem.

I couldn't always make sense of the grouping titles. Holzer's messages appear in a constant, water-like flow, and they could be viewed as rules, so "Water Protocols" could maybe apply--but then, what on earth do I make of the inclusion of Christo's 1968 plastic, aptly named Wrapped Roses?

When the grouping titles do work, though, they add an interesting twist. One of my favorite pieces, Jordan Eagles' TSBC3 (2011), consists of dark splatters of blood, UV resin, and copper on plexiglass, and it's part of a group called "The Cosmos + Me." The piece indeed resembles deep space images captured by the likes of the Hubble telescope, though it was instead created by mingling substances from bodies and the earth, reminding me of Carl Sagan's famous quote, "We are made of star stuff."

The collection's sometimes jarring artistic leaps in time and style left me scrambling to make (or see) connections, but the tension and energy

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inherent in that natural, sense-seeking process make the installation a grab-you-by-the-lapels art-viewing experience. Thanks to the surprising, unconventional curation, the collection seems to say, "Don't just stand back and admire. Look closer. Think harder."

If nothing else, it's fun to get a sense of the breadth of the museum's collection in a single space; it feels like an art overture or a feast of hors d'oeuvres.

Is a deeper sense of cultural context lost in regard to each individual piece? Inevitably. But it's also kind of nice to have your typical, stiffly reverent museum experience goosed and thus rendered almost new again.

The collection is on view indefinitely.     (end of article)


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