An exhibit of natural ‘Wonder’

Gwen Woolf

Jennifer Angus Renwick Wonder


When was the last time you saw 5,000 insects on the wall and thought it was wonderful? WONDER is the title for the new exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum that recently reopened after a two-year renovation. Each of the galleries will elicit a gasp or a “Wow!” followed by “How’d they do that?”

Jennifer Angus Renwick Wonder
Jennifer Angus presents a variety of works featuring insects as part of the Wonder exhibition at the Renwick Gallery.

Jennifer Angus is the Wisconsin-based artist behind the startling collection of cochineal, a variety of insects, and mixed media that await you in her installation, In the Midnight Garden.

The eye-opening, pink-magenta walls (a wash made from cochineal extract) display a profusion of dried insects. Some are placed in orderly lines, while others appear in beautiful designs and swirls, showing the exuberance of nature. Skull designs seem to serve as poison warning signs. In the middle of the room is a 98-drawer cabinet with many more specimens.

Angus says the work calls attention to the importance of insects in the environment and mankind’s attempt to control nature — often to the detriment of both.

They are real insects, she says as she answers a frequent question — and don’t call them bugs. It seems bugs are just one type of insect. The specimens were collected, though not by her personally, in Malaysia, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea, where they are abundant.

The nine contemporary artists selected for the exhibition hail from around the country. Other galleries include: a depiction of the Chesapeake Bay region created in green marbles on the floor and walls; an other-worldly scene of stalactite-type towers made of styrene index cards; willow saplings woven into giant pods that bring birds’ nests to mind; a maze created from rubber tires and stainless steel; thousands of hand-hung embroidery threads evoking light and color; a tree cast from a 150-year-old hemlock and remade with a half million segments of reclaimed cedar; a suspended sculpture of fibers with programmable lighting and wind movement; and a sparkling chandelier of white LEDs with non-repeating lighting variations.

Each gallery has a quote that seeks to characterize the concept of wonder.

The museum’s Nicholas R. Bell says adults, unlike children, often stop paying attention to ordinary objects and fail to see how “amazing” the world can be.

A new installation of 90 artworks from the permanent collection will open July1.

About the gallery

The Renwick Gallery, which is devoted to crafts and decorative arts, is wondrous in itself.

The handsome red brick building at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street in northwest Washington, D.C., was built in 1859 in Second Empire architectural style by architect James Renwick Jr., who also designed the Smithsonian “castle.” Inspired by the Louvre in Paris, the museum was originally constructed to house the collection of William Corcoran and was the first museum in America devoted solely to art.

The museum has undergone
three renovations in three centuries. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy saved the building from demolition in the 1960s.

The latest incarnation included infrastructure upgrades, installation of LED lighting, restoration of historic features, and a new red carpet on the grand staircase. Previously covered vaulted ceilings and windows were opened up and the wall paint colors were lightened, giving the museum interior a grand, airy feel. Admission is free, and there’s also a museum shop.

Along with the renovation, museum officials are rethinking what a craft museum should be in a digital age. The original inscription chipped in stone over the exterior entrance, “Dedicated to Art,” has an addition inserted in red letters. Now it reads, “Dedicated to the Future of Art.”

Many faces of Rodin

Another new exhibition that’s also worthy of wonder is Rodin: Evolution of a Genius, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

More than 200 objects from the Musée Rodin in Paris and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts explore the master sculptor’s creative process.

Experimentation is evident. Some of the same works, or fragments of works, show up in different versions and materials, such as plaster, marble, ceramics, and bronze. Auguste Rodin was the mastermind behind the original designs and supervised his studio assistants in executing the pieces.

Rodin’s more well-known works are represented, including The Thinker, The Kiss, and The Burghers of Calais. Visitors are invited to
have fun taking selfies in “Thinker” pose.

The show runs through March 13.

Learn more:

Renwick Gallery:

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:

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