Art Museums often have the “permanent collection” which you see the same pieces with each visit and it’s the temporary exhibits that draw you back to discover or re-discover an artist and their work. For my Art Weekend in Washington, D.C. I would discover many new (to me) American artists in the Decorative Arts. My brain actually got a work out trying to take it all in and process because The Renwick Gallery, one museum of many in the Smithsonian collection, had three temporary exhibits and one small permanent collection to experience.
The Renwick Gallery is located diagonal from the White House at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue (Pennsylvania at 17th Street N.W.) in a stunning historic building built in 1858 to be an art museum, the first of its kind. So if you are in D.C. to visit the White House, you have no excuses not to pop into The Renwick as it’s not only free admission but a small footprint so unlike many other museums, it is not overwhelming to the art lover and your family & friends who are not into art or museums. You can convince them to explore with you.
Expecting crafts works in ceramics, glass, basket weaving, I was pleasantly surprised by the additional temporary exhibits and the unique and varied permanent collection.
The Renwick Gallery – Arrival
The Renwick Gallery is located over two floors and is easy to navigate (they have an elevator too). If you choose to visit both floors, I would allow about two hours. If you are a drive by art fan then you can do it in under an hour but you will be deprived of getting to know more about the artist and their works (just saying….stay longer).
When you arrive, the guard will do a bag check before you can explore but then you are free to wander about. The displays are nicely set up to allow for people to move around and on the day of my visit, a women in a wheelchair was easily able to navigate in the rooms. The main stairs welcomed visitors with unexpected art to walk all over – the red carpet shaped in a wavy form and part of the lighting exhibit at the top of stairs hanging from the ceiling. An LED lighting display that never shows the same pattern twice. It was sparkling and momentarily cool.
Parallax Gap at the Renwick Gallery
I was at the Renwick Gallery for the first time to view the Parallax Gap installation (on display until February 11, 2018 so you have time to go) in the Grand Salon on the 2nd floor. The installation was commissioned for the large ceiling space and is a collection of nine iconic ceilings around the U.S. imagined and intertwined in a visual art display. The vantage points of the space seem fixed but as you move about the room, the perspective seems to change. The layers of color and materials make each point of view unique in my opinion. The design was created by an architecture firm, FreelandBuck, and installed in layers based on the time lapse video. The fact that designs are displayed on different shelves and heights adds to the depth and experience – what do you see? Do you see a shape or design you know or is it all new? You and I could take millions of photos and video and see the art differently.
People were walking around the space to photo the Parallax Gap at different angles with a few choosing to lay on the floor to experience one or more of the iconic ceilings. Two of those ceilings are from Philadelphia City Hall, which itself is an iconic building full of unique architecture in my hometown. I’ve seen both ceilings that inspired the designers and it’s interesting to see how the architects see the ceiling vs. what I see.
June Schwarcz – Invention & Variation
I’ve never heard of American Artist, June Schwarcz, who is known for her enamel work. Her exhibit, Invention & Variation, was a retrospective of her life’s work including some pieces from her personal collection never seen before (sadly the show ended on August 20th).
Her career was fascinating as it spanned over sixty years and she was a trailblazer in her craft. Shown on the 1st floor in two rooms, the strong colors and unique talent were on display in over fifty pieces. In addition to enamel work, she utilized electroplating and other metal works, which for her time, was significant achievement in the art world. This was the first time in over 15 years her work was on display. It was beautiful.
Peter Voulkos – The Breakthrough Years
Another artist I wasn’t aware of, this time in the ceramics field. His early career, 1953-1968, is curated in over thirty pieces in the exhibit, again many not seen in years (over 40 years!). I was drawn to the shapes to the abstracts to the uniqueness of it all. How lovely to discover an artist whose work seems so contemporary and find out when he conceived and created it was before you were born. So the art world gets to re-discover his works while I get a fresh perspective and discover the work.
Connections: Contemporary Crafts at the Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery permanent collection of over eighty works including new acquisitions and old favorites arrived back at the gallery in the summer. The works are set to stay indefinitely on the second level when the space is free. The collection is called “Connections” as the curators have set up the art in ways that they may be connected over time. Each piece tells a story. Just like the arts & crafts in your home which each have their own unique stories and are blended into the rooms as you create a unique look and feel to your home. The look and feel in Connections was openness in space and art with a bit of latitude for the artwork.
Rather than travel through time in a linear way, you can see a modern Chihuly glass chandelier in the same room with mixed media and historic works. For me, it made for an interesting visit and at times as with all modern art a few “seriously, how is that museum worthy art?” I’m still waiting on a museum to call me about my Sony Walkman after my V&A visit in London. But alas, I digress into my love/hate relationship with modern art that was re-ignited at the Chicago Art Institute, years ago. There were a few pieces were I didn’t use my inside voice and you heard a “seriously?” (sorry). But that’s the fun with art – to spark a conversation about your experience.
At the Renwick Gallery, I had a few favorite pieces –
This was my favorite, Vase with Landscape and Dinosaur, 2014, by Steven Young Lee. At first with the lighting casting a shadow it appeared to be a creature and I thought that was the dinosaur part of the piece until I looked on the back to see the landscape and dinosaur. The beauty of the broken-ness of the piece is haunting. I know that it is deconstruction and meant to be this way but its imperfections make it gorgeous to me.
That shovels on the wall “The Craftsman Series: Shovels” by Stacey Lee Webber are another story and definitely in my “seriously?” bucket. I have the shovel on the right in my shed now and no musuem is after to me to acquire it thus the conundrum of art.
The intricate detail and patience to create this forest out of a McDonalds Happy Meal bag was unique. Imagine trying to turn your slices of paper into this and having such a small work space. Notice – Forest (Autumn), 2002, was created by Yuken Teruya. He definitely knows how to make the most of his happy meal and recycling materials. (sorry about the glare, this delicate work was under glass)
Overall Impression of The Renwick Gallery
I’m pretty glad we kicked off the D.C. Art Weekend at The Renwick Gallery as it set a high bar for the other art galleries and installations. The gallery is easy to visit and should be added to your next D.C. itinerary. It’s free! We all love free and we all love discovering something new.
Upcoming Art Exhibit at The Renwick Gallery
Next Year’s anticipated exhibit is “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” will take over the entire gallery from March 30, 2018 – September 16, 2018. It will bring the maker culture of the Burning Man event to D.C. and showcase the spirit of the festival in jewelry, art, clothes and more. That’s a bold choice to shake up what you think of the American Decorative Arts and that’s pretty awesome to make the art accessible to everyone without waiting for decades to put it in glass as a piece of history – history is being made now in all that we do, see, wear and experience.