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Behind the Scenes: A Day At The Renwick Gallery



One of the great things about living in the MD/DC area is that there are SO many fantastic galleries in the area, so many chances to see stunning art. The Renwick Gallery in DC is a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and recently reopened after a two year renovation with the installment WONDER.

This is an installment that I have been dying to go experience. so when I was invited to view it on a date with a delightful guy, you know I jumped at it. And what a perfect date it was!


The first installation we saw was Tara Donovan’s Untitled.


Through the paper stacks, to the rainbow of thread. #renwickgallery #art #beautiful #perspective #allisart

A photo posted by Adam Curcio Armbrecht (@curtustheeagle) on

Donovan’s work focuses on the repetition of everyday objects, transforming them into something utterly different, monumental… elevating them from unremarkable to unforgettable. 

Walking around these towering sculptures was a little intimidating. The index cards used as a building medium was interesting – they were transformed to stalagmites, canyons, mountains.

You can see through the photo above the next work we moved towards, which was one of the pieces that had originally interested me in this exhibit: Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1. It is a rainbowy stream of threads from floor to ceiling to floor, in a dizzying array.


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Watching the video about how Dawe created this was gratifying, because I’d guessed that it was quite similar to warping a loom, and I was correct! What I couldn’t show you in this photo is how the light moves between the threads in a vertigo-inducing energy that also changes the color interplay in lovely ways. It’s a play between color and light that made me so happy.

One of the fun things that Christopher and I did was to speculate on how each piece was constructed. As artists, the construction was a fascinating aspect of the exhibit, and considering the way each piece might have been made really helped us to look at these works in an in-depth and different way.

When we got to Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig, we spent so much time looking at the way each willow hut was made!

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I love the movement in these, so much.

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Willow saplings make up this installment – woven together in a way that builds a strong wall that is still somehow whimsical and full of movement. They are made in a way that allows the observer to enter them, but the entrances are in the back, so you have to experience the entirety of each “hut” to get inside it. They are magical little constructs, inviting you in to peek out through rounded windows and imagine what you would see if they were in what you suppose is their natural habitat. They swoop up the walls and definitely give one the impression that they are dancing. I wanted to move into them immediately.

We then wandered into seeing a smaller work by John Grade, who has a large piece in this exhibit on the second floor. I unfortunately can’t remember the name of that piece and can’t find it to link, but we spent some time, again, speculating on how it was made, inspecting it’s details. And then we found the room with the artists’ statements about their pieces in short video segments – if you go to see these installations, do yourself a favor and sit through these videos. You won’t be disappointed. We learned that almost all of the works were assembled on site, in a long and very interesting process for each. We learned some of the background thoughts and inspirations for each piece from the artists, and that was fascinating. It even helped us appreciate some of the works we might have dismissed a bit more otherwise, because they weren’t really what we were there to see. I love that. 

After seeing the videos, we walked up the massive stairs with this over our head.



Volume (Renwick), Leo Villareal #art #lights #code #wonder #renwickgallery

A video posted by vernados (@vernados) on

Leo Villareal’s work would have been missed if not for those videos we watched. Volume (Renwick) is built as much around programming as it is around light, and I would not have appreciated it quite as much without hearing the backstory.


Another installation that I thought I wouldn’t appreciate – but was proven wrong upon entering the room where it was installed – was In The Midnight Garden by Jennifer Angus. This work is comprised of two elements: the walls painted in cochineal and covered with patterns built from insects; a cabinet in the center of the room with very intimate collections of curiosities and tableaux ensconced within, like little secret treasures.

Chakaia Booker #renwickgallery

A photo posted by @claireblechman on

[the caption on this Instagram photo is incorrect]

The next piece was from Chakaia Booker, ANONYMOUS DONOR. Truthfully, I felt that this piece spoke to me the least, and Christopher agreed. It had an interesting concept, being made from rubber tires, but it just didn’t capture my whimsy and wonder like the other works did.



Dope🎨 #renwickgallery

A photo posted by 6pac (@chezwitha6pack) on

Next was Maya Lin’s Folding The Chesapeake. Comprised of meticulously placed, hand blown glass marbles, it represents the Chesapeake Bay and its need for conservation. It owns the room in the same way that our estuary owns this region.



I loved how the piece climbed up the walls and windows.


The next room housed John Grade’s Middle Fork, which had been foreshadowed downstairs.

Words cannot express the majesty of this work. It is massive, complex, engaging… just lovely. It was created from the casting of a 150 year old hemlock tree, and when the installation is finished, the artist plans to take it to the forest where the original tree resides, for nature to quietly claim it as it’s own. Delightful.



Look up the trunk of a tree #scandalous #renwickgallery

A photo posted by J Visentin (@visentinator) on

There are so many angles you can experience this piece from, and they’re all so satisfying and interesting. We spent a lot of time here, before we moved on to the last work, and the second of the two I’d been interested in seeing from the start, both because I’m a Janet Echelman fan and a fiber artist. Little did I know how magical this would be…


Back at it. #renwickgallery #wonderexhibit

A photo posted by Shahana Lal (@lalanahahs) on

Janet Echelman’s 1.8 documents the event of Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which happened on March 11, 2011, and was so powerful that it shortened that day by 1.8 millionths of a second. The pattern of the netting represents the energy released. The rug underneath echoes those waves of energy, and there are floor pillows about that encourage you to lie there and slowly take in the work above you. Colored lights change the whole feeling and movement of the netting as they slowly shift shades and angles. It is sheer magic… and the best place ever to lose hours while holding hands with someone amazing, and discovering the wonder all around and also right next to you. WONDER, indeed.

My view from the floor. It can't really do it justice.

My view from the floor. It can’t really do it justice.


In summary: if you can get to the Renwick Gallery while this exhibition is installed, you absolutely should. You will not be disappointed. I came home inspired, excited, wowed. Huge thanks to Christopher, who suggested it and made the day even more wondrous.

The gallery is open every day and is free to visit.


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