Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Wonder and Wonderings at The Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery's inaugural exhibit following a major two year closure and renovation is aptly titled Wonder because, not only does each of the large room filling pieces inspire wonder from the viewer, but the exhibit as a whole makes one wonder what what the Renwick, the self described museum of American craft, is planning for the future.

In remodeling the interior space the Renwick seems to be remaking their entire image that includes being more visible and drawing larger crowds. As part of this process they have created signage that has been controversial and drawn the ire of the National Parks, National Capital Planning Commission, and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts who decry, ask for removal, and question its legality, particularly of the one on top-center of the building which reads, "Dedicated To ^ the future of ^ Art." 

Whether ugly or illegal, the sign has certainly done its implied purpose of drawing publicity to the institution. Personally, I don't have a problem with it. I like the contrast of old and new, and I like how it challenges stodgy attitudes toward design. Not everything has to "go with" everything around it. Shaking up the viewer and getting them out of their "safe place" is part of what art should do. 
New Renwick Gallery signage
Signage and controversy are useful only if there is substance inside the museum to back up the publicity. Fortunately, the Renwick has fulfilled this objective in spades with a block buster show. In it they have given nine artists an entire room to work, each in their own way inspiring wonder from the viewer. Interestingly, at the beginning of the exhibit there is a sign encouraging photography which further indicates how much the museum wants to raise their profile and engage with the public.
In the first room most visitors will encounter is an installation by blue chip artist Tara Donovan. She is a master of taking inexpensive everyday objects and turning them into something mysteriously organic.
styrene index cards, metal, wood, paint, glue
Tara Donovan
Courtesy of Pace Gallery
In this case she has used millions(?) of stacked paper 3" x 5" index cards to create stalagmite-like mounds. It is a great piece and a great draw to the rest of the show. 
Untitled (second view)
From this perspective the work is both jagged and soft, seemingly made by some sort of natural process. Only from a tight closeup is it clear that it is made from index cards.
Untitled (closeup)
Jennifer Angus's installation titled In The Midnight Garden evokes wonder with hundreds of dead insects pinned to the wall and a red dye wall wash made from the cochineal insect. Given the numerous skulls created in a ring around the room, the work seems to be a meditation on death. It is a great piece.
In The Midnight Garden
cochineal, various insects, mixed media 
Jennifer Agnus
Courtesy of Jennifer Agnus
It draws viewers in with a fascinating array of large, beautiful, and unusual insects; working on the macro- and micro-scale. And it guides viewers in thinking about life and impermanence, whether they realize it or not.
In The Midnight Garden (closeup)
In The Midnight Garden (second closeup)
Similarly, John Grade's piece, Middle Fork (Cascades), is a meditation on life and death. With it, he has cast and recreated the form of an actual tree (hemlock) in the Cascade mountains of Washington.
Middle Fork (Cascades), 2015
reclaimed old growth Western Red Cedar
John Grade
Courtesy of John Grade
It is built with thousands of blocks of reclaimed red cedar, evoking wonder about, amoung other things, its natural beauty and how it was re-created. It captures a moment in the life of the tree, like a photograph, and after the exhibit, it will be returned to the forest and allowed to decompose next to the tree that inspired it.
Middle Fork (Cascades), 2015 (second view)
Middle Fork (Cascades), 2015 (closeup)
Patrick Dougherty's Shindig is beautiful, and fascinating, but to me it feels cramped and out of place even with having been built in one of the largest rooms. The willow saplings, woven together, look as if they have come to life and are dancing, however. being placed indoors with a low ceiling, it is hard to see the full impact of the piece. 
Patrick Dougherty
willow saplings
Courtesy of Patrick Dougherty
Shindig (closeup)
Gabriel Dawes piece, Plexus A1, brilliantly creates the illusion of light passing through a prism using only colored thread.
Gabriel Dawes
Plexus A1
Courtesy of Conduit Gallery
There are many aspects of this piece that illicit "wonder," but one of them is the disbelief that it is really made with only thread. Well, here is a view of the ceiling to give a clearer understanding of how it is put together.
Plexus A1 (ceiling closeup)
In learning about this exhibit and seeing that Janet Echelman had a piece in it, I was excited to see it in person. I've seen numerous images of her floating "net" sculptures and wanted to experience one. And, judging from the crowd of people lying, looking, and relaxing underneath it, one could say it is clearly a success. For me, however, it felt like a bit of a let down. As with Patrick Dougherty's piece, it felt out of place, claustrophobic, and artificial being confined to a room, even if it is the largest room in the building. Regardless, I am excited that this (along with the printed textile flooring that Janet also created for the exhibit) will be permanently installed in this room. Perhaps my opinion will change over time as I repeatedly view it.
Janet Echelman
knotted and braided fiber with programmable lighting and wind movement 
above printed textile flooring
Courtesy of Janet Echelman, Inc.
One advantage of having the piece hang in a room, however, is the wonderful shadows it casts on the walls. 
Maya Lin is another "blue chip" artist most famous for her brilliant Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Her Folding the Chesapeake is installed on the second floor of the Renwick.
Maya Lin
Folding the Chesapeake
marbles and adhesive
Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio
The piece is a map of the Chesapeake Bay projected on to the walls, ceiling, and floor of the room and constructed out of large green fiberglass marbles, the same type of marble her father used in the 60's for glass blowing in the early days of the studio glass movement.
Folding the Chesapeake (closeup)
The work clearly has personal meaning for Maya in terms of the history and emotions associated with the marbles. The wall text also makes clear that she is trying to sharpen "our attention to the need for conservation" of the Chesapeake and other natural wonders; but for me there seems to be a disconnect between the material, the image, and the concept. The piece does induce "wonder" but the wonder that I am stuck on is "what is the connection between marbles and bay?" which ends up being a distraction and ultimately makes it less interesting than many of the other pieces in the show.
Folding the Chesapeake (second view)
Anonymous Donor by Chakaia Booker is an almost-maze-like structure made of rubber tires and, for me, seemed to be the least effective piece in the show. I tried, but I was not able to find the piece emotionally, conceptually, or aesthetically interesting. Even after reading the wall text, which attempts to guide our interpretation with the thought that "By massing, slashing, and reworking a material that we see daily but never fully consider, she jolts us out of complacency to grasp these materials for what they are: a natural resource marshaled through astonishingly complex channels into a product of great convenience and superabundance." Unfortunately, I can't say the piece makes me feel "jolted out of complacency," rather, I spend my time wondering what the connection is between her goals and the structure.
Chakaia Booker
Anonymous Donor
rubber tires and stainless steel
Courtesy of Chakaia Booker
The Leo Villareal chandelier is a permanent installation. It is made of hundreds of rods, each with dozens of LEDs and is programmed to flash in a way that the chandelier never illuminates that same way twice. I found this to be a confusing and disappointing selection for the space. He may be a great artist with many impressive installations, but this piece is so completely cold and impersonal I can't help but wonder why it was selected for permanent installation in what was once considered America's premier craft museum. Perhaps there is justification in association with the concept that it never illuminates the same way twice; and that idea probably represent individuality and the uniqueness of craft work, but looks very industrial and with just a single light color, all the different illuminations seem to be exactly the same, not matter that they are all said to be unique.
Leo Villareal
Volume (Renwick)
white LED, mirror finished stainless steel,
custom programmed software, electrical hardware
Leo Villareal, courtesy of Connersmith
At the end of the exhibit there was a nice video presentation of each of the artists talking about their process and the work exhibited.
End of exhibit video discussions
Typically this types of presentations are only given cursory viewing by audiences, so it is a testament to the quality of the show and the interest it has generated that so many people took the time to sit and watch it, often through completion.
Exhibit video audience
Overall, I was extremely impressed with the Renwick's inaugural show. It definitely met its goal of inducing wonder and the work is really top notch. However, I am also left with wonder about what the show means for the future of the Renwick's collection and its history as a "craft" museum. I believe that the term "craft" is very limiting and may have past its historical usefulness in situations where the artist's goal is to create art using "craft" materials, but I hope the museum maintained a historical connection to its past as a "museum of american craft." With the major exhibit before the renovation, 40 Under 40: Craft Futures, the Renwick did a remarkable job of balancing the past and future of art/craft. This one makes me wonder about the museum's future and whether it has decided to abandon its past in search of larger audiences.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Flag Series Revisited

After a three year hiatus of working on my flag series, I have been re-inspired to revisit them because the presidential election season is well on its way and I am constantly reminded why I started -- to honor our country by promoting a non-dogmatic patriotism that helps create space for an honest, non-partisan dialog about national issues.

I believe the quality of political discourse in this country is embarrassing, dangerous, and disingenuous. I realize solutions are hard to find, as discussed by Maria Konnikova in this New Yorker article, once someone's world view is tied to an issue, facts are no longer capable of changing minds -- data is rejected and discounted. Because political dialog is inherently tied to personal identity, it is particularly difficult to change. 

But I believe that art has a special ability to open minds because it doesn't use facts, it can enter the mind visually and challenge preconceptions in ways that words can't. I believe that art can make a difference and my flag series is an attempt to do something -- no matter how quixotic -- to address an issue that disturbs me. 

Below is the ninth in the series. I started it in 2013 but was never completely happy with the results so I put it into storage. Thankfully, my new work with diagonal acrylic stripes gave me a path for finishing it.
 Three Year Flag
acrylic, milk paint, and shellac on board
38" x 49"
I like how smudging of the blue stripes creates a shadow effect that gives the work depth. 
Three Year Flag (closeup)
I completed my first flag in 2009 but have refused to sell any until I can show them all together in one venue. My goal is to have at least thirteen for the show and will focus on completing several more this year. I think they have a much greater impact and create a greater opportunity for dialog as a group. I also think they are individually interesting but I especially like the opportunity of seeing the historical progress of my work in them. If you would like to see the previous eight there are images on my website here