Challenging preconceived perceptions through artwork

GVL/Marissa Dillon
- Jim Cogswells Art Prize entry, Eberhard Center, Downtown Grand Rapids, MI

GVL/Marissa Dillon – Jim Cogswell’s Art Prize entry, Eberhard Center, Downtown Grand Rapids, MI

Ben Glick

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the latest installation on the Pew Campus may be worth more than that.

“River Tattoo” is the latest artistic acquisition for Grand Valley State University, and now its most anticipated. The creation of University of Michigan Art Professor Jim Cogswell, the work is being hosted at the Eberhard Center and is an entry in this year’s ArtPrize.

Stacey Tvedten is the program coordinator for the GVSU Art Gallery and worked closely with Cogswell and two others on the project.

“We were excited, and he was excited to do a collaborative project between both universities, and we also thought it’d be interesting to do it as an ArtPrize entry so the public would be able to see it,” she said.

GVSU has a history of hosting artists and their entries for ArtPrize, with past years supporting 30 different works at a time.

“This year we’re focusing exclusively on ‘River Tattoo,’” Tvedten said.

Cogswell’s piece certainly required the attention it received. The mural-like composition is collected and arranged from thousands of pieces of vinyl cuts made by Cogswell in Ann Arbor and assembled in Grand Rapids on the windows of the Eberhard Center. The work spans 85 feet of the building’s windows. 

Tvedten explains the complex process that went into making this immense project come to life.

“It’s a machine-cut process where he goes cutting up shapes of multi-colored ink drawings… creates digital renderings of his photography and drawings, turns those into vector files and then the vinyl is machine cut into all its individual pieces,” she said. “Each color is a separate piece and there’s pieces in this work that are under a square inch to some pieces that are probably more like a foot, and I don’t know how many thousands of pieces there.”

However, Tvedten said that it was due to Cogswell’s expertise that the work was done with such ease.

“It’s actually a pretty complex project, but he’s made it seem incredibly simple,” she said. “We’re lucky that Jim’s an exceptional planner.”

Cogswell joined the University of Michigan School of Art & Design faculty in 1990, where he focused on teaching, painting and drawing. During the 1992-93 academic year, he was awarded the Charles P. Brauer Faculty Fellowship at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities.

Born and raised in Japan, Cogswell has a taste for the esoteric and strives to challenge preconceived perceptions through his work.

“I’m inspired by the mystery of who we are, how we acquire information through our senses and then what we do with it… I am curious about where meaning comes from, and suspicious of what we ignore in our desperate need to comprehend the significance of objects and experiences,” he said.

The misleadingly abstract nature of the work may lead many to overlook the forest in the trees perhaps, but Cogswell said he tries to challenge perceptive biases and then ask why.

“My work explores sequence and pattern as triggers for cognitive processes that enable us, as humans, to perpetually reinvent our sense of the world, immediate and recalled,” he said. “For me, the unexplained is always most compelling.”

Cogswell’s pieces have become fixtures throughout the country, and have been featured in museums, civic buildings, universities and purchased by several companies.

The University of New Mexico alumnus has had a number of solo exhibitions and lectures at colleges and universities around the country. He has also been invited to speak on his work at conferences in Japan, Ireland, Hungary, France and Israel.

However, it’s the homage to the city of Grand Rapids – its local history and symbolism in “River Tattoo” – that made it a singular and celebrated piece even as it was being constructed, Tvedten said.

“When you first walk up to it, you see all this amazing light and color and reflection. If you take some time to look at it, you start to see kind of more stories and individual shapes,” she said. “It’s a sequence of images that runs across the piece, and it’s actually in direct response to the blue bridge, the Grand River, as well as the city around it. It has elements of botanical life as well as history and references to the river. Actually, the river runs through the whole piece, you can see it.”

From his main website, Cogswell said his main source for inspiration for this and other works is how we see and perceive light and dark.

“Dawn, dusk and starlight are magical for me,” he said. “In the half-light, my perceptions go on full alert. I struggle to make sense of partially perceived forms, silhouettes, muted contrasts, distorted spaces, unexpected glimmers. If there is a time of day that prompted the emergence of human imagination, it was certainly not the clarity of high noon but more likely the dimly comprehended lusciousness of half-light tangled in shadows.”

Despite its recent debut, “River Tattoo” has been highly praised by students and faculty.

“We’ve got such a lot of great feedback… People are starting to pick up on the shapes and the stories that go along with it in relation to the river, and the blue bridge and the history of Grand Rapids. But most of all, it’s just breathtaking. I think people walk in and they’re overcome by the size and the color,” Tvedten said.

The artwork is on loan and at this point will remain at GVSU for three years, but Tvedten said that the work might stay longer than that. She hopes that Cogswell’s work will remain in Eberhard to inspire future students.

“We want to have music students, poetry students, dance (and) writing do different interpretations of the artwork while it’s here,” she said. “It’s a really cool kick-off to something Grand Valley students and faculty will get to use for several years to come.”

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