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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wonder, Awe and a Great Escape at the Renwick


Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2014
One afternoon last month I suddenly arrived in Cappadocia, or least that's what it seemed.  I didn't actually go there, nor have I ever been there except through pictures of that ancient Turkish landscape.  However, I spent my time going to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery which had just re-opened with an exhibition entitled Wonder.

Gabriel Dawe, Plexus 1A
The works speak for themselves, as they're huge installations that recall the wonders of the natural world in a beautiful 19th century building that recently underwent restoration.

Tara Donovan's construction is made of styrene index cards, toothpicks and glue.  As an artist, she may not have been thinking of the same aspects of nature that evoked a response in me.  According to Donovan, "It's not like I'm trying to simulate nature. It's more of a mimicking of the way of nature." On the nearby wall, a label quotes Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It's the fundamental emotion in which starts the cradle of true art and true science."

Then a rainbow of colors invited me into the next room.  Plexus 1A is miles of strings that weave prisms of color into the monumental architecture. Gabriel Dawe is the artist.  His design recalls the colors and embroideries of his early life in Mexico City and current home in East Texas. Viewers are invited to take their own photographs. It's appropriate that the Renwick is a building dedicated to the contemporary crafts, since each of these works of art focuses on the materials and the tremendous time, skill and dedication required for fine art crafts.

Dawe, Plexus1A
Continuing back on the left side of the building, viewers come into a grandiose room with giant stick weavings by Patrick Daugherty. (A photo of Shindig is on bottom. See the previous blog about one of his interactive and impermanent environmental installations, in Reston, VA)

The Renwick invited nine well-known artists to celebrate the re-opening with works for this exhibition.  Each artist was given an entire room for a comprehensive creation, many of them recreating the natural world in a way that helps us understand it better.

John Grade,  Middle Fork (interior view)   Another view is directly below.

Upstairs is one of the true giants of nature, a tree. You look at it from the outside or take in the interior view.  Artist John Grade, a resident of the Pacific Northwest, engaged an army of volunteers. First, Grade made a cast of a 150-year-old hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains. Then he reassembled the shape with half a million segments of reclaimed cedar and separated it into sections.  Named after the tree's location in the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River, the tree cast as Middle Fork (Cascades) is 85 feet long. 

As you might expect, visitors walk all around the giant tree perched on its side.  When the exhibition is over, this "natural" model will be put back in nature, back to the area from which it comes.  The artist says the impermanence makes it poignant, since it will eventually decompose.




Quotes are sprinkled on labels throughout the exhibition.  Taking her cue from the local area, well-known sculptor Maya Lin (architect of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial) used fiberglass marbles to recreate the Chesapeake Bay.  There are thousands of tine blue-green marbles running floor to ceiling in the entire room.  Lin is a geographical artist, and I was reminded her provocative exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art a few years back.  Here she has recreated the many estuaries of the bay, which crawl in spider-like patterns up the walls. She re-used the glass her father and other artists had used in Ohio before the glass-making technology improved. The branches of the waterway are delicate and fragile, reminding us that nature itself is fragile, too. 
Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake
   

The Renwick itself is important historically, as it was originally home to the oldest art museum in the District of Columbia, the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The building was almost destroyed.   When Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady, she recognized the building's significance and used her influence to save the building from the wrecker's ball.

Jennifer Angus, detail of  In the Midnight Garden

Wonder really hit me in the last room I saw of the exhibition.  Artist Jennifer Angus created a beautiful structural design of insects in room covered in vivid, vibrant pink.  In The Midnight Garden" forms several different patterns on walls stained with cochineal.  Using 5,000 insects, she made mandalas on the wall and interspersed them with skulls, reminders of death.  "It is not understanding but familiarity that destroys wonder," is quoted by John Stuart Mill on the wall of another room. In an article I read about the artist, Angus freely admitted that she is no longer  in awe of the subject (too much familiarity) but wishes for her viewers to experience the wonder.  Throughout the exhibition, words of the philosophers -- ancient to modern -- makes us stop to ponder.
Jennifer Angus  In the Midnight Garden



One quote really hit me. Ranulf Higden of the 14th century said: "At the farthest reaches of the world often occur new marvels and wonders, as though Nature plays with greater freedom secretly at the edges of the world than she does openly and near us in the middle of it."  For a few short hours, I had escaped to the edges, to the edges of wonder.  Locals and visitors in Washington, DC, please go to the Renwick and spend some time in Wonder.  Second floor galleries close May 8, 2016, but the 1st floor galleries stay up until July 10, 2016.  Leo Villareal, Janet Echelman and Chakaia Booker also have large installations in the show. 
Patrick Dougherty, Shindig


While the art inside of the building continuously amazes, it's ironic that the wonder and beauty of the building is marred on the outside by a neon sign: "Dedicated to Art."  There's no need to be so banal since art speaks for itself. (When Philip Kennicott wrote a review for the the Washington Post, he said the neon sign had to go; I wonder if it has been taken down yet.)

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