Critics’ Picks

Gabriel Dawe, Plexus A1, 2015, thread, wood, hooks, steel, 19 x 48 x 12'.

Washington, DC

“WONDER”

Renwick Gallery
1661 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
November 13 - July 10

The nine large-scale installations for this show prompt us to “wonder” at the alchemical transformation of fairly quotidian materials into art. Though the labor of producing these works leaves a few visible traces, the emphasis here is less on process than on the result: a conversion of the Renwick’s galleries into sensual environments.

It’s a fitting way to reopen this museum, which houses the Smithsonian’s craft and decorative arts collection, after a two-year renovation. In the first gallery, Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 (all works 2015)—two ethereal planes of rainbow-colored thread—hang between stark-white Corinthian columns. Nearby, Leo Villareal’s Volume (Renwick), a twinkling galaxy of 23,000 computer-controlled LED lights, illuminates the freshly gilded grand staircase. These approximations of natural phenomena are consistent with the show’s preoccupation with the anthropogenic environment. Further, Chakaia Booker offers a labyrinth of recycled rubber in Anonymous Donor, while Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, an installation of thousands of green fiberglass marbles, suggests the fragility of topographic forms.

The imbrication of the natural and the technological signals that for today’s artists craft is not a retreat from technology but a means to “live differently in the modern world,” as the show’s curator, Nicholas Bell, puts it. Judging by the works here, living differently means responding to even low-tech, handmade forms with the same sense of wonder that typically greets new technologies. But perhaps living differently might also mean wondering if our insatiable appetite for amazement is as innocent as it seems. At first glance, Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig, a room full of towering, nest-like forms of molded tree saplings, invites us to play; its vertiginous curves and arabesques exhilarate the eye (and elude the camera). But the work also is imbued with the tension of the struggle between man and nature, and its shadows are a nightmarish thicket. Like wonder itself, it entices but threatens entrapment.