*View of “Marianne Mueller,” 2011.

*View of “Marianne Mueller,” 2011.

Marianne Mueller

*View of “Marianne Mueller,” 2011.

The popular strategy of inviting artists to interact with a museum’s collections has clear benefits for the institution, creating new and potentially unexpected juxtapositions among objects, and encouraging an audience for contemporary art to engage with historical holdings. It is also a situation in which an institution’s eccentricities become a virtue. Marianne Mueller’s sojourn at the Peabody Essex Museum gave her the opportunity to craft an installation in response to a collection that dates back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the East India Marine Society began to assemble natural and artificial curiosities derived from maritime trade, including a diverse array of ship models and logs, furniture, decorative artworks, paintings, and photographs, in the context of a collection rich in both Americana and international material created for export markets.

Invited to carry out the second iteration of what the PEM calls its FreePort series, Mueller combined objects from the museum storerooms with selections from her own highly diverse archive, which contains every image she’s ever made. Surrounded by the museum’s decorative arts displays, a tiered, Tatlinesque tower rises into the center of the gallery’s double-height space. The sculpture is dressed with a dense array of photos—some by Mueller, others selected from the PEM’s extensive holdings—and leads the eye toward the four-sided balcony that Mueller has outfitted with various arrangements of objects selected from the institution’s permanent collection, together with more of her own photographs. Interspersed with these groupings are three of the artist’s video portraits, two made during her time in Salem while preparing for this show. The sitters assume static poses, their self-conscious demeanor reminiscent of early photography’s long exposure times and Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. The final element is the balcony gallery wall area, which Mueller has segmented into different color zones based on historic house-paint colors, as well as a few brighter contemporary Pantone hues.

Some connections between collection pieces and Mueller’s photos are readily apparent, such as a blue Samuel McIntire sofa positioned beneath her photograph of the same object shown from the back. Other parallels turn out to be more complicated than they first appear, including the relationship between the artist’s photographs and an array of shoes ranging from impossibly small nineteenth-century specimens to more familiar, recent fashions. Directly above these objects one encounters a row of photographic vignettes of shoes, some inhabited, some on their own, and above that, three larger black-and-white photos showing fragments of bodies in action. In one instance, Mueller’s photo of a pair of gold boots on a pedestal looks as if it could be documenting a piece from the PEM collection. But here, as elsewhere, further examination reveals a more layered backstory. Not only does the image date to 2006, but it has been circulated before, having appeared in the context of the first volume of Mueller’s “The Newspaper Project,” a series of tabloid-format photo booklets that she began issuing in 2007.

The footwear evokes a much earlier entry in this history: Warhol’s 1970 “Raid the Icebox 1” at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art, where the list of objects that he temporary liberated from the storerooms included, among other things, a case filled with shoes (both the storage case and its contents were brought into the gallery). Yet Mueller adds an important dimension to the now-popular strategy of inviting artists to root around in a collection: Her project involves not just the reordering of one schema, but the overlay of two archival structures—that of the museum, with its rigid system of classification, and her own open-ended visual document.

Martha Buskirk