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At the Renwick Gallery, craft that captures our polarized times

A major craft survey, ‘This Present Moment,’ engages the culture wars on every front

Alicia Eggert’s neon installation “This Present Moment” is the inspiration for the title of the Renwick Gallery’s latest exhibition of contemporary craft. (Albert Ting)
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At a glance, there’s nothing partisan about the life-size glass statue of a woman on view at the Renwick Gallery.

Graceful and enigmatic, “Vestige (Pleated Dress)” is a 2000 work by artist Karen LaMonte. Cast in glass, the hollow statue depicts a woman, headless, her figure wrapped in a vintage gown. Every detail of the fabric’s folds is rendered in frozen form. The sculpture can’t help but inspire awe at its masterful craftsmanship.

Yet in the context of the latest Renwick show — and a raft of decisions over the summer by the U.S. Supreme Court that have transformed American society — “Vestige” looks not just poetic but prophetic. The eerie absence of the woman from her own statue, reduced to the trappings of her old-fashioned dress, comes to the fore amid a raging public debate over the agency of people who could become pregnant following the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s just one piece that looks newly polarized in “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World,” a major craft survey on view at the Renwick. Featuring 171 works, the exhibition engages the culture wars on every front, a decidedly confrontational display for the historically staid craft museum. The show touches on so many political fault lines — such as the border, the climate crisis and the future of democracy — that it feels as if it could have been juried by the Supreme Court itself.

In Washington, protests over Roe and other momentous decisions continue: Late in July, a number of Democratic lawmakers were arrested at a rally outside the Supreme Court, including Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.). Yet the most powerful demonstrations about the future of the country may be found at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue — the once-modest Renwick, cater-cornered from the White House.

Consider “Bad Ombrés v.2” (2017), a set of ceramic vases by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, 3D-printed using clay drawn from each side of the U.S.-Mexico border. Or there’s “Otro Mundo Es Posible” (2017), a textile banner designed by Aram Han Sifuentes to protest the Trump administration’s attempt to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. (Borrowers can check out this flag from the Protest Banner Lending Library in Chicago.) These works are ripped from headlines that are still breaking. In June, the Supreme Court addressed the former president’s “remain in Mexico” policy on refugees; a decision on DACA is likely in the court’s next term.

Still another piece on view, Sonya Clark’s “Monumental” (2019) — a 30-foot-long re-creation of the white tea towel waved by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to surrender to Union forces at Appomattox — uses symbol and scale to unpack problems that have plagued the nation since Reconstruction. Chawne Kimber’s “Still Not” (2019) combines denim patches with other cotton fabrics to form a quilt that reads in part, “I am still not free.” While voting rights weren’t on the court’s docket this term, the justices did hear a case stemming from the events of Jan. 6, the gravest insurrection since the start of the Civil War.

The Renwick show is named after “This Present Moment” (2019-2020), an installation by Alicia Eggert. Pink neon tubes spell out a wall-sized aphorism: “This moment used to be the future.” Two more words blink off and on to raise the stakes — “This present moment used to be the unimaginable future” — a shift from a slogan fit for a T-shirt to a dramatic bit of doomcasting about the climate. (Or any other number of crises, really.)

Such political themes have a rocky history at Smithsonian museums. In 1995, the National Air and Space Museum canceled an exhibition on the atomic bomb that veterans groups and other critics worried would be too critical of the U.S. role in World War II. In 2010, the Smithsonian censored an artwork in an LGBTQ exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery that conservative commentators deemed to be anti-Christian — a decision that resulted in a rare rebuke for the Smithsonian secretary who pulled the piece.

“This Present Moment” — curated by Mary Savig, with support from Nora Atkinson, Anya Montiel and Elana Hain — is a measure of how far craft as a movement has pushed to embrace contemporary concepts about identity and storytelling. It’s also a mile marker for adventurous social commentary by a museum affiliated with the Castle.

And in this particular present moment, the show indirectly registers how far the Supreme Court has tacked to the right on some of the most personal and divisive debates that Americans face. For every challenging artwork on view, it almost seems, there’s a recent court decision on the matter.

The parallel is intriguing in part because the Renwick, too, seeks to settle a debate, albeit a narrower one, about the state of craft.

“I would like to put this question to bed once and for all,” writes Atkinson, curator-in-charge at the Renwick, in the exhibition catalogue. “The studio craft movement was a discrete time in American history, now past.”

No longer confined to traditional formats or techniques, this post-craft era has opened the Renwick’s doors to contemporary art, with works spanning installation, conceptual and even performance art. In that sense, “This Present Moment” is a sequel to “Wonder,” a blockbuster 2015 exhibition that drew lines out the door to see a host of room-sized, Instagram-friendly sculptures.

That’s not to say that the Renwick has overturned every precedent in craft. James C. Watkins’s “Communion” (1998), an achingly expressive ebony cauldron, beckons to the artist’s upbringing in small-town Alabama, where cast-iron pots were markers of domestic life. “Initiate” (2020), another ceramic piece, this one by Donté K. Hayes, celebrates forms from across the African diaspora without settling on any one.

If there is a post-craft moment taking shape, it appears to involve embracing community and regionalism while jettisoning the strict utility associated with vessels or textiles. Shan Goshorn’s “Song of Sorrow” (2015), a woven basket, for example, includes snippets of Kaw, Lakota and Navajo prayers juxtaposed with the violent lyrics of a children’s rhyme (“Ten Little Indians”).

There’s a Supreme Court decision to go with this piece, too: In Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, five conservative justices expanded the authority of state law enforcement agencies to prosecute crimes committed by non-Natives against Natives in Indian Country, a sweeping change for tribal sovereignty and federal Indian law.

For Indigenous viewers, this artwork — in the wake of that decision — may feel like a gut punch. For better or worse, “This Present Moment” offers that feeling in spades.

If you go

This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World

Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW. americanart.si.edu.

Dates: Through April 2.

Admission: Free.

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