‘Wonder’ at the Renewed Renwick Gallery

Let’s cut to the chase: “Wonder,” the inaugural exhibition at the Smithsonian’s newly reopened Renwick Gallery, is the greatest experience you will have at a Washington museum this year.

It is a show about experiencing, about feeling, about living and engaging in the 21st century. Its lifeblood is the sort of here-and-now splendor that is a hallmark of this generation — for better and for worse — and certainly an example of all that is right about those attitudes. So I won’t play the usual game of art historical connect-the-dots, because in this context it really does not matter.

“Wonder” is the kind of cultural event that leaves rapturous feelings and surges of ecstatic words crackling in your mind like Pop Rocks, the kind of exhibition that at once caused my pen to ramble and my words to fail. I want urgently to say something grand, to alert others to share in this experience, but what foams up from my larynx is just a swooning, breathless yawp.

In short, this is a marvelous achievement, a contemporary tour de force of which I don’t think any of us figured the Smithsonian was capable. It shines a light into the future of contemporary art in Washington and brings our fair, lumbering city finally into the throws of the cultural conversation.

Walking into the newly renovated Renwick, you are greeted by a grand staircase with a swirl of red carpet that courses through its center like a winding river. Above hangs a new chandelier by Leo Villareal, the light artist who illuminated the moving walkway between the National Gallery’s East and West buildings like an astronomic vortex. You are tempted to take the stairs, but beyond them — down a narrow corridor and peeking through a small door — there is an enormous twist of reeds that seems to sprout like Jack’s beanstalk through the floorboards.

As you approach, the smell hits you before you see it: hemp, earth, the sweet smoke of a wet forest floor. Then you walk into a wonderland.

Tornadoes of sapling branches vault, swirl and contort all around you. The room itself is a forest of monumental, woven woodland spirals, like architectural tumbleweeds or the fantastical aftermath of a Seussical hurricane. Artist Patrick Dougherty has created a homespun vehicle of imagination and earthly whimsy, as if Andy Goldsworthy constructed the set of a fairytale.

Compared to the rustic tactility of Dougherty’s work, Gabriel Dawe’s installation in the conjoining gallery is ethereal. While made up of floss-thin string, the rainbow structure that vaults overhead in a threaded rainbow from floor to ceiling makes you feel caught in the split of a light spectrum. The installation is so fleeting and divine that it becomes hard to believe it is made of any physical material, as it pleasantly confounds your sense of space and perspective. (Just don’t bump into it.)

Tara Donovan’s Post-it Note stalagmites take the notion of material to the next level, recreating a landscape of the Badlands from office supplies. It takes mass-produced materials and creates something undeniably organic.

John Grade’s installation, “Middle Fork (Cascades),” plays similarly with our understanding of what is or isn’t natural. A full-sized hemlock tree hangs on its side, floating from suspensions in the middle of the room. However, it is not a real tree, but a tree constructed in a Jacob’s-ladder pattern out of small off-cuts of reclaimed old-growth Western cedar. Having made a plaster cast of the original tree, he built this model from the mold. If this is difficult to envision, then you better come revel in it for yourself.

There are too many great works to name them all, but I would be personally remiss if I didn’t make mention of Jennifer Angus’s gaspingly lovely “In the Midnight Garden.” It is basically a giant pink room covered with preserved insects that are arranged in patterns like Día de Muertos wallpaper. It is certainly peculiar, but I am curiously hard-pressed to remember anything I have found more beautiful or enchanting. I think Henri Matisse would have loved it.
Utilizing the works of these artists, this exhibition shows us what a contemporary museum should be: fun, beautiful, provocative, searching, mysterious and yet inviting, imploring you to think, explore and experience. It is very exciting to have this in our city.

Art has always had its own language, and a hallmark of modernity — the revelatory force that pushed us into the realm of abstraction — is our recognition and implementation of this phenomenon. Work like that in “Wonder” takes this idea to the next level, creating a bridge to connect the art with the very space we occupy, so that we are not just looking at something, but wrapping ourselves in it, truly existing in and as a part of the work.

The artwork in this exhibition is also extraordinarily attuned to the architectural space of the beautifully renovated galleries. They crawl up the walls, they hang from the ceilings, they spring up around you from the floor, they float.

Perhaps most importantly, this work is of today. Most of these artists would not have been able to conceive their installations without the help of computer design programs and digital renderings, and yet they are all singularly made craft objects built with human hands and using many traditional art processes. It is a seamless braid of digital influence and traditional craft, in many ways a laudable definition of today’s best contemporary art.

And it certainly does provoke a sense of wonder. This is a gut-check of a show. Do yourself a favor and go see it, for it will remind you of what you loved about art in the first place: that it made you feel and it showed you something you could never have imagined.

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