Photography Encouraged: WONDER at the Renwick Gallery

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On New Years day, I had the pleasure of visiting the newly reopened Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. This small museum—true design inspiration—is home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s contemporary craft and decorative art collection. The 1859 building by architect James Renwick, Jr. is a National Historic Landmark—across Pennsylvania Avenue from The White House. In its official statement, “The Renwick exhibits the most exciting works by artists exploring traditional and innovative approaches to making, emphasizing craft as an approach to living differently in the modern world. Collections, special exhibitions, and scholarship highlight how extraordinary handmade objects have shaped the American experience and continue to impact our lives.”

The current exhibition, WONDER, features environmental installations by nine important contemporary artists, each of whom was invited to select a gallery and create an installation inspired by the space. The result engages the senses: sight, smell, touch. No touching allowed, of course, but there’s a tactile quality to the materials—the wood, the rubber tires, the glass beads, the light. It’s an exhibition you interact with using your whole body: you lie down on the carpet and view the glowing, ever-changing woven sculpture above you, you walk around and through things, you experience ordinary materials, from tires to index cards, in surprising new ways.

You begin by walking up the staircase with Leo Villareal’s VOLUME over your head. It’s a chandelier. It’s a light sculpture. Its mechanics are hidden above the lights that illuminate the shimmering silvery wands suspended above you.

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“The hardware is a vehicle for the visual manifestation of code—an artist-written algorithm employing a binary system of 1s and 0s that tells each LED when to turn on and off and creates lighting sequences that never repeat exactly as before.” (All photos, except as noted, by Ellen Shapiro. Captions in Italics were edited from text in the exhibition website.)

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Upstairs, in the Grand Salon, you become part of 1.8 by Janet Echelman, an ever-changing, illuminated net suspended across the ceiling. Besides you and all the other visitors lounging and meditating the seating pieces and the carpet—which looks and feels like undulating sand dunes—there’s a piano, suggesting that the space is also used for performance art and concerts.

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“Echelman’s woven sculpture corresponds to a map of energy released across the Pacific during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, during which 100-foot waves ravaged the east coast of Japan, shifted the earth on its axis, and shortened the day, March 11, 2011, by 1.8 millionths of a second, lending this work its title. Photo by Nathan Sherman.

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In the room with Gabriel Dawe’s PLEXUS A1—thousands of handwoven strands of embroidery thread forming a moving prism of light—I began to realize that taking pictures with a phone-camera was the singular activity that engaged most of the visitors. Almost everyone was snapping pictures and taking videos of the art, taking selfies, and taking pictures of family and friends with the art.

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Then I focused on the sign on the wall: “Photography Encouraged.” How many museums post that? Last year, I took some blurry phone shots Julia Child’s kitchen on the “food” floor of the Smithsonian. Lots of people were taking pictures there. But at “art museums?” I checked the “plan your visit” pages for MoMA and The Met in New York. Both allow sketching with pencils on small pads, but say this about photography: “Still photography is permitted for private, noncommercial use only in the museum’s galleries devoted to the permanent collection. Photographs cannot be published, sold, reproduced, transferred, distributed, or otherwise commercially exploited in any manner whatsoever. Photography is not permitted in special exhibitions or areas designated as ‘No Photography’; works of art on loan from private collections or other institutions may not be photographed. The use of flash is prohibited at all times and in all galleries. Movie and video cameras are prohibited.

Nothing like that on the Renwick site. And in these days of nonstop sharing on Instagram and other sites, where do you draw the line between private, noncommercial use and other uses?

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And now we are in Patrick Dougherty’s SHINDIG INSTALLATION. He calls his astonishing structures of woven w
illow branches “stickwork.”

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“Dougherty has crisscrossed the world weaving sticks into marvelous architectures; the branches tell him which way they want to bend. Finding the right sticks remains a constant challenge.”

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MIDDLE FORK by John Grade is a tree, a giant, hollow, horizontal, gasp-inducing tree with neat rectangular cutouts punched through every surface.


“To commemorate the Renwick’s reopening, Grade selected a hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle that is approximately 150 years old – the same age as this building. His team created a plaster cast of the tree (without harming it), then used it as a mold to build a new tree out of a half-million segments of reclaimed cedar. Hundreds of volunteers assisted Grade, hand carving each piece to match the contours of the original tree. After the exhibition closes, ‘Middle Fork’ (Cascades) will be carried back to the hemlock’s location and left on the forest floor.”

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Jennifer Angus’s IN THE MIDNIGHT GARDEN is all about insects. A room of bugs. Dia de los Muertos masks fashioned from bugs, walls painted Mexico-coral-pink and decorated with bugs in geometric patterns, drawers full of bugs.

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“Yes, the insects are real, and no, she has not altered them in any way except to position their wings and legs. The species in this gallery are not endangered, but are quite abundant in regions of Asia where nature plays with greater freedom. The pink wash is derived from the cochineal insect living on cacti in Mexico, where it is prized as the best source red dye.”

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Rubber tires seem to never lose their odor, and this room, containing Chakaia Booker’s ANONYMOUS DONOR, smells like an auto repair shop. Booker wrote that she was inspired to explore tires as a material while walking the streets of New York in the 1980s, when retreads and melted pools of rubber from car fires littered the urban landscape. My phone-camera caught the head of “The Greek Slave” by Hiram Powers (a contemporary copy of the 1851, then-controversial work) peeking between bolted-together fragments of tires.


“By massing, slashing, and reworking a material we see daily yet never fully consider, she jolts us out of complacency to grasp this material for what it is.”

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UNTITLED. This eighth wonder of world geography by Tara Donovan is made of hundreds of thousands of index cards.

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“Employing mundane materials such as toothpicks, straws, Styrofoam cups, and scotch tape, Donovan gathers the things we think we know, transforming the familiar into the unrecognizable through accumulation. The resulting landscapes force us to wonder just what we are looking at and how to respond.”

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Maya Lin’s FOLDING THE CHESAPEAKE is a landscape the partially covers the floor of a square room and meanders up the walls and onto the ceiling, creating an indoor landscape of shimmering blue-green glass fields and branchlike river tributaries.

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“The marbles are the same industrial fiberglass product Lin’s father, Henry Huan Lin, and other glass-blowing pioneers experimented when she was growing up.”

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The Renwick Gallery is open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm. Free admission. The full WONDER exhibition will close on May 8. (Note: designers in the D.C. area are arguing about the insertion of “the future of” to the museum’s animated signage in a Comic-Sans-like typeface.)

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