The Renwick Gallery is often overlooked in the kaleidoscope of DC’s free museums. The historic building, the first in the United States designed expressly to be an art museum, usually hosts crafts and decorative art collections for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I must admit that I made it here a grand total of once or twice in the past decade and remember it as charming but old-fashioned, dated. Well, none of that now. The gallery just reopened after an extensive renovation, and the results are stunning.
Perhaps to signal this new energy, the entire space is devoted to nine installations, created specifically for the occasion. WONDER, the exhibit is called. As you walk through the space, that word does come to mind. Plus, photography is encouraged–it’s an Instagram heaven.
Here are some images from our visit.
Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 is a jolt of color: Sixty miles of embroidery string (the medium is a tribute to the Mexican artist’s grandmother) transformed into airy walls of rainbow. Even on a dark, grey morning the hallway brimmed with light, a sensation of breath embroidered.
Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig is a mad dance of swirling willow pods. I first saw one of Dougherty’s twig statues in the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks in DC, quite a spectacle. Here, like with other installations at Renwick, you can walk through the artwork, an absorbing experience.
Janet Echelman’s 1.8 is the largest of Renwick’s inhabitants. I lay under its billows of changing colors for a while, mesmerized. Like Dougherty’s Shindig, this would be more at home outside, where wind could animate the mesh — many of Echelman’s installations do hang above cityscapes. Still, the gallery was a quiet, meditative place (especially after I heard the artist speak about what the title references), the undisputed highlight of the afternoon for me.
John Grade’s Middle Fork is a floating cast of a 160-year-old hemlock that still grows in Washington state, brought to life with half-a-million hand-carved reclaimed ceder segments linked around the tree’s ghost form. I loved watching the sun shine through the trunk, the ghost tree’s life force visualized. After the exhibit, the cast and the tree will be reunited, the former allowed to moss over and vanish at the hemlock’s base.
Maya Lin’s Folding of the Chesapeake is another meditation on nature and conservation: Thousands of fiberglass beads spill into a map of the Chesapeake Bay, assembled with help of NASA satellite images. The map claims the floor and seeps up the walls and the ceiling, each bead a representation of both individual species inhabiting the Bay and the shadow of human activity. Not far from Renwick is Lin’s remarkable Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which she designed as a 21-year-old.
Don’t miss the video in the middle of the first floor. Each of the artists talks about his or her work, and you get a glimpse of how some of the installations took shape.
All nine works are impressive, thought-provoking, or just plain cool. See this. As soon as you can.