I lay no claim to being an art expert, but trust me when I say that you simply must visit the Renwick Gallery to experience the amazing WONDER exhibit. I first saw a photo of one of the installations on a local blog I follow and I immediately made a mental note to take my four-year-old daughter. Then I began to see more and more posts about it, and finally, my daughter’s preschool teacher went and promptly posted the exhibit guide on the classroom door with a note saying that everyone should go. Who am I to deny my child a fabulous educational opportunity?
Things to know before you go: Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian and is therefore free. It’s easily accessible via the DC Metro’s Farragut West stop (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines) or Farragut North stop (Red line). No backpacks are allowed and strollers may be prohibited, depending on the crowds inside. For more information, you can visit the Renwick Gallery’s website.
How long should you plan to spend at the museum? We spent about an hour there. As an adult, I could have spent more time at the Renwick, but an hour was just enough time for a four-year-old to experience the art. (Unlike the labyrinthine National Portrait Gallery, we could actually get through the whole museum and see all the art with a young child in tow.) Friends have taken children of all ages, from elementary-aged to high school, as well as younger children like mine.
What is WONDER? After a two-year renovation, the Renwick Gallery has recently reopened. The building currently houses nine site-specific pieces of contemporary art, each one in a different gallery—and the pieces are huge! The size alone is awe-inspiring.
Four WONDER artworks are on display until May 8, 2016 (those by Jennifer Angus, Chakai Booker, John Grade, and Maya Lin), and three others are on display until July 10, 2016 (art by Gabriel Dawe, Patrick Dougherty, and Tara Donovan). The installation by Janet Echelman will be on display through 2016 and the Renwick has acquired the piece by Leo Villareal.
As I write this post, I wish I had more words to describe the art! It was amazing! I know my photos won’t do the pieces justice—they have to be seen in person. But I’ll try.
First up was Untitled by Tara Donovan. The visible part of the installation is made up of thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? millions?) of styrene cards, assembled in such a way that they look like natural rock formations. Oh, and I’ll warn you in advance: these installations are screaming to be touched, but no touching is allowed! My four-year-old and I were equally tempted the whole time we were admiring the art.
Next we saw Plexus A1, by Gabriel Dawe. This is the piece I saw a photo of on that very first blog and that I thought my daughter would love. I was right. When I shared photos on Facebook, people thought the rainbow was made by some kind of prism, but the rainbow is constructed of miles of thread. The whole thing. People, I’m pretty sure I just found the Rainbow Connection.
The next room we entered contained pods made of willow saplings. Shindig by Patrick Dougherty was comprised of multiple pods that guests could enter. The intricacy of the weaving and the shapes that were created were simply beautiful.
Next, we went upstairs to the second floor. On the way, we stopped to check out Leo Villareal’s light sculpture. It’s entrancing looking from the bottom up, as well as from the second floor where it can be viewed straight-on. This piece, Volume (Renwick), has been acquired by the museum, which is wonderful because I can’t imagine the staircase without it.
The staircase ends directly in front of the Grand Salon, which currently houses Janet Echelman’s work, 1.8. This sculpture is made of waves of netting lit with programmable lights that change the color (and thus the shape, look, and feeling) of the net. On the floor is a printed carpet that reminds me of a topographical map. The net is intended to be viewed by guests lying on the floor and looking up. And for what it’s worth, I want this set up in my house. My daughter was thisclose to a meltdown, and once we convinced her to lie down, we stayed in the room for a good ten minutes, just watching the light change. She was in a really good place when we moved on to the next artwork.
The next piece we saw was Middle Fork (Cascades) by John Grade. I’m going to quote the Renwick’s guide here because I can’t come up with a better description in my own words! “John Grade found a 160-year-old hemlock in the Cascade Mountains, made a plaster cast of it, and then invited hundreds of volunteers to re-create the tree in recycled cedar strips—a tribute to the 160-year-old Renwick building.” At first, I was completely horrified about the destruction of a 160-year-old tree, but the plaque at the exhibit noted that, not only was the tree not harmed in the making of the cast, the entire cedar piece will be returned to the location of the hemlock tree to “return to the earth.” Whoa.
Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake doesn’t look like much in the photo, but it was beautiful. It’s a map of the Chesapeake Bay made up of industrial fiberglass marbles; the map winds up the walls, over vents, onto the windows, and underneath the window shades. The marbles appeared to be textured, as opposed to perfectly smooth and round. This was my daughter’s favorite installation. (When she went to school a couple days later, her teacher asked, “What did you do this weekend?” My daughter’s response: “We went to the museum and saw marbles!”) PS, they sell the marbles in the gift shop.
The next installation was certainly the most fragrant! Chakaia Booker’s ANONYMOUS DONOR was created using hundreds of old rubber tires! My daughter enjoyed exploring this maze-like piece. And it’s amazing the kind of textures an artist can create with tire scraps.
When I told a friend we were heading to Renwick to check out WONDER, she asked, “Oh, is that the one with the bugs?” I said, “Uh…It’s the one with the rainbow thing?” She replied, “Yup. The one with the bugs.” Well, she was totally right.
There is a room that is painted with dye made from the cochineal (bug) and wallpapered in gorgeous patterns made of gorgeous…bugs. Huh. When we entered the room containing In the Midnight Garden by Jennifer Angus, I fully expected to be creeped out. I was not! The patterns are beautiful, as are the insects used to create them. It was absolutely amazing. This was the only room where my daughter asked for the plaque describing the piece to be read to her.
Between the life-sized—and larger-than-life—displays, and the sheer variety of style and material on exhibit, WONDER really is wonderful! And fantastic, incredible, marvelous, surprising, and awe-inspiring! (Thank you Thesaurus.com!) If you’re going to be in the DC area, make the time to go to the Renwick Gallery. You’ll be glad you did.
National Archives Museum.
National Museum of Natural History.
National Art Gallery.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
National Museum of African Art.
National Museum of American History.
The Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
National Museum of the American Indian.
National Air and Space Museum
U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden