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Right in the middle of Jennifer Angus’ “In the Midnight Garden” is an octagonal cabinet. It’s an odd vintage find, but viewers might look right past it. It’s surrounded by a swarm: an installation of more than 5,000 insects pinned along the walls of the gallery. Glorious stag beetles, iridescent weevils, and sleek black cicadas line the room in bedazzling patterns that marry Arts and Crafts–era wallpapers with Día de los Muertos sugar skulls. The walls are dyed carmine, a pigment also known as cochineal, a red reduction of boiled beetles.
“In the Midnight Garden” recalls the naturalist origins of encyclopedic art collections even as it summons the hallucinatory visions of Fred Tomaselli and Damien Hirst. The meticulous magic on the walls seems to explode outward from the catalog drawers in the center of the room. That old bolt-and-screw cabinet is the realest thing on view in “Wonder,” a welcome-back party for the Renwick Gallery, now open to the public after an extensive two-year restoration. It’s one of a few details that feels right at home here.
“Wonder” assembles nine contemporary artists for a sprawling exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. It’s a false start, a one-time special exhibition before the permanent collection is re-installed, in stages, in 2016. Someone who’d never stepped foot in the museum before would think it was a kunsthalle, a temporary project space devoted to anything-goes artworks. But the Renwick holds to a more archaic mission: showcasing the best of American craft and decorative arts. No, the museum’s curator-in-charge, Nicholas Bell, hasn’t taken leave of his senses. “Craft” just doesn’t really mean anything.
Consider Tara Donovan’s “Untitled,” another one of the nine gallery-sized installations. This one is made from styrene index cards stacked by the thousands into towers that resemble the exotic dirt stalagmites made by mound-building termites. Donovan’s generative sculptures are built by a small army of assistants; read one way, her organic forms are a metaphor for the labor structure of the contemporary art world (albeit an unintentional one). The fact that the queen’s work is done by drones matters less (or not at all) in other contexts. But for an art museum devoted to a traditional vision of craft, Donovan is a peculiar choice. What she does is the opposite of that.
Gabriel Dawe’s “Plexus A1” is another installation that conflates the natural with the artificial (a theme throughout “Wonder”). The piece is a hand-woven rainbow that evokes the textile arts without drawing on any specific fabric tradition. While there may be some satisfaction to be had in knowing that “Plexus A1” is not machine manufactured, it nevertheless reads as digital, not analog—wondrous, but not warm. Leo Villareal’s “Volume (Renwick)”— a custom LED installation that replaces the chandelier that normally hangs in pride of place at the Renwick—is, well, a chandelier.
It’s tempting to say that “Wonder” does something subversive by breaking with a traditional understanding of craft, a label too often reserved for works made by women or non-whites (namely textiles, ceramics, glass, and woodwork and metalwork). “Wonder” is rebellious in the sense that the exhibit confirms that craft is not a meaningful category for art. Yet the show means to uphold the museum’s decorative-arts standard, not do away with it. One bit of evidence is the smattering of uplifting quotes from historical figures (Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, John Stuart Mill) that appears throughout the museum. Dorky inspirational messaging is something the Renwick learned from its institutional big sister, the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s a sign that the Renwick Gallery still embraces an outmoded, affirmative concept of “craft,” expanding its definition just far enough to admit Instagram-ready spectacles from the over- stock catalog for tepid post-minimalism.
“Wonder” is fantastically scaled, from the six tons of willow saplings that make up Patrick Dougherty’s sprawling “Shindig” to the half-million pieces of reclaimed old-growth western red cedar used to replicate a hemlock tree for John Grade’s “Middle Fork (Cascades).” The show’s great strength is in finding diverse works that form monoliths from smaller bits. The one work that isn’t made of particles is, fittingly, a wave—a monumental fabric installation by Janet Echelman. The piece, “1.8”—the title refers to the 1.8 millionths of a second that the Earth’s 24-hour rotation lost from the impact of the 2011 quake that prompted the tsunami that shook Japan—is a stunning woven canopy, a soaring seismographic reading suspended over the Grand Salon. It is awesome, but it is not moving. While almost every work in “Wonder” is sized to match the grandeur of the Second Empire–style building, few of them show any heart.
Even though Maya Lin’s “Folding the Chesapeake” also fills its appointed gallery, her piece feels lighter. Maybe it’s because the industrial fiberglass marbles that Lin uses to trace local waterways along the floor and walls manage to occupy the space comfortably. It’s tough to read her installation as a map of any place in particular, even though it was drawn from NASA satellite imagery, but that frees up the viewer to imagine it as a simple, vaguely eco-supportive abstract drawing. Lin’s work and Chakaia Booker’s “ANONYMOUS DONOR” offer the most ambiguity in an otherwise didactic show.
After the party’s over, the Renwick Gallery will never look the same again. The museum seems to have leapt on the opportunity to defy all expectations and shake off its sometimes fusty reputation. Co-opting the crispest and cleanest contemporary art spectacles will definitely draw the crowds, and to be sure, Director Betsy Broun deserves them for marshaling a $30 million tip-to-tail restoration, half of it privately funded, for the building that once served as America’s first museum. Even if she did hang some obnoxious LED signs on the front of the building.
But as a novel argument about craft? This warm-up exercise misses the mark. “Wonder” is clinical, anodyne, ordered, sterile, inoffensive, antiseptic, market-ready, and safe, safe, safe.
1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free. (202) 633-7970. renwick.americanart.si.edu