By: Caroline Thomas
Photos by: Caroline Thomas
The reopening of the mansion-like gallery that was once called “the American Louvre,” that later served as a civil-war era military warehouse, and was then saved from demolition by Jackie Kennedy, was sure to be spectacular. Decades of culture have been housed in the Renwick Gallery, which, after a tumultuous history, was commissioned in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson to be transformed into a museum dedicated to contemporary American decorative and craft art. The ornate building, located just blocks from the White House, reopened to the public last Tuesday after two full years of renovation and reconstruction.
The current exhibition is titled “WONDER,” and that is precisely the emotion I felt regarding “decorative arts and crafts.” I had no idea what to expect from an exhibit that is characterized by the use of unconventional mediums in the fine arts; and I certainly wasn’t expecting a room full of life-sized birds’ nests that any visitor can walk through and sit in. The Renwick Gallery is not a traditional museum experience – there are no stern crowds hovering around esteemed paintings, no movement sensors surrounding art pieces, and photography is encouraged.
The pieces in “WONDER” make up the decoration of the museum. The incredible chandelier by Seattle-based glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, whose elaborate glass pieces can be found in both the Victoria & Albert in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, hangs in an upstairs room. Pieces like the chandelier are so integrated into the design of the museum that they hardly resonate as exhibits and instead lend a fully immersive atmosphere to the gallery.
Many of the works were similar to Chihuly’s, incorporating light and craft to define the atmosphere of the room in which they are exhibited. Gabriel Dawe, whose display includes miles of illuminated rainbow thread creating the illusion of a floating prism, integrates light into his craft masterfully.
“WONDER” is overwhelming in the best way possible. The new collection at the Renwick seeks to highlight the extreme craftsmanship of fine art with pieces immense in scale and complexity. Miles of string, one million index cards, and hundreds of dried insects are just some of the unconventional materials and mediums used in “WONDER” to call attention to the incredible vision and intricate labor of contemporary artists. As the Renwick is an extension of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, admission is free, and I would take the encouragement of the gallery to heart and bring a camera.