Artist Tara Donovan formed towers with stacked index cards in one of nine gallery-size art installations to mark the reopening of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Art and architecture critic

The newly renovated Renwick Gallery is determined to convince you that it is an exemplary 21st century addition to the Smithsonian franchise. Its Second Empire exterior has new signage, and the grand staircase is now dressed up with a red runner that eschews straight edges for funky curves. The inaugural exhibition is called “Wonder” and goes for the maximum sensory effect, with each gallery devoted to a single art work or installation. Several of these works are, by design, almost too large for the spaces they occupy, and thus invert the usual hierarchy of art and architecture: The building doesn’t play host to art, but has been occupied or invaded by it. The old brick-and-sandstone lady that sits catty-corner to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue is now nicely scrubbed and full to the bursting.

As Betsy Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said Tuesday, this is the third time in three different centuries that the Renwick building has opened as a museum. It was built by William W. Corcoran to house his collection in the middle of the 19th century. After the Corcoran Museum moved to a larger space, a few blocks away on 17th Street NW, its former home was repurposed and served for decades as the U.S. Court of Claims. Jackie Kennedy helped preserve it from demolition in the middle of the last century, and in 1972 it reopened as the Renwick Museum under the aegis of the Smithsonian. It is now a department of the American Art Museum with a focus on decorative arts and crafts.

This most recent renovation has improved the building’s systems and its energy efficiency, and reopened dramatic ceiling vaults on the second floor, enhancing the drama of its vertical spaces. There are new windows and LED lighting, repaired moldings and ornamentation, and even some tweaks to structural deficiencies uncovered during the $30 million renovation (overseen by the architectural firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky).

The interiors are refreshed and there are only a few missteps. A light sculpture by Leo Villareal dangles into the stairwell space, and although this is conceptually a good idea — bringing light to the building’s interior — the light itself is cold and clinical. The piece has been placed there as part of the “Wonder” exhibit, but the Renwick would like to acquire it. Making it a permanent fixture, however, would dampen the atmosphere on the second-floor landing, which is very chilly.

And for some reason the facade, which contains the motto “Dedicated to Art,” has been defaced with a silly addition, emending the words chiseled there about 150 years ago with: “Dedicated to the Future of Art.” It would be better to pursue that future with vigor and intelligence inside than to advertise it in vulgar fashion on the outside. This temporary addition needs to go, and fast.

The opening exhibition, however, is smart, although the works on display only hint at the detailed discussion of wonder, and its role in the museum, pursued by Nicholas Bell, the Renwick’s curator in charge, in the exhibition catalogue. Bell traces wonder back to Aristotle, and then Augustine and subsequent Christian authors, and finally the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers who helped shape not only our categories for knowledge, but the origins of the modern museum. For Aristotle, wonder is a primordial prompt to start thinking, a spur to philosophy, leading us to contemplate the greatest cosmological questions. By the time of Descartes, in the 17th century, wonder was suspect, or at least the tendency to “excessive wonder” was suspect. It was better for the mind to engage with and analyze the world than to gape at its strangeness and mystery.

There is a tension throughout Bell’s essay, as there is throughout the museum world today, between nostalgia for a simple, childlike, pre-rational sense of wonder — the “Oh, wow!” moment of looking at objects — and an acknowledgment that wonder can be very stupid and even dangerous. Everyone loves wonder, of course, but it is easily exploited, and often confused with the sensory stupefaction so easily manufactured by the commercial entertainment industry and political propaganda.

The wonder of the works on display is a matter of scale and the intensive labor required to make them. Most of these installations not only fill their spaces to overflowing but are built up of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of small pieces, carefully glued, fitted, affixed or placed together. Landscapes, or traces of landscapes, and maps are a recurring subject. Maya Lin has mapped the Chesapeake Bay using greenish glass marbles to represent the geographic contours of its watershed. But rather than simply scale the map so that it fits on the floor of the gallery, she has allowed it to overflow the floor and run up the walls. Much of what is laid on out on the walls represents rivers and small estuaries, spidery forms that look a bit like deep cracks and fissures in the plaster. And thus the fragility of this vast ecosystem is adumbrated by the suggestion of decay on the newly restored walls of the gallery.

Tara Donovan has created a landscape of stubby pillars that slightly resemble the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon in Utah, filling the room with a surreal topography of sedimentary forms. They are constructed from styrene index cards, layered and glued by the thousands. Jennifer Angus has filled a room with insects, carefully affixed to the walls to suggest at first glance some weird wallpaper pattern. John Grade has made a plaster cast of a giant hemlock tree, then re-created it with half a million small wooden pieces meticulously glued together to fashion a spectral echo of the original organism. And Janet Echelman has taken over the Grand Salon with an installation suspended from the ceiling, a mesh of fabric that reproduces the energy levels released across the Pacific Ocean by the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake (which led to the devastating Japanese tsunami and Fukushima nuclear power disaster). Echelman’s piece uses 50 miles of string and about 500,000 knots.

Grade’s giant hemlock tree is so large that it forces visitors to the edge of the room while making them aware of the fragility of the fallen behemoth that confronts them. The deeper sense of fragility suggested by Lin’s map of the Chesapeake is never far from the surface of the show. Ultimately, this is an exhibition that wants to be about the environment and the terrifying current moment in our long and now fraught relationship to it. Chakaia Booker’s sculpture “Anonymous Donor” touches most directly on the issue: Using scraps of tires, she has formed dark, undulating walls, which still stink faintly of the junkyard. The forms remind one a bit of sculptures by Richard Serra, but they lack Serra’s brute celebration of strength, suggesting the shabbiness and decay of industry rather than its militant force.

The quantity of human labor and investment embodied in these large-scale works, so painstakingly built up from small bits and pieces, may leave you wondering: Is this a productive use of time? Artists and craftsmen will bristle at the question. If you have to ask it, you’ve failed to see what’s wonderful about a great painting, or the thousands of hours woven into a rug, or the centuries of community toil embodied in a great European cathedral. But if we live on a dying planet, the question becomes very different. Is there something futile and even decadent in the amount of human energy we invest in trying to fit a representation of nature into a gallery space, while that same world heats up, desiccates and shrivels away before our eyes?

We may think of the current environmental moment embodied in this exhibition as akin to placing animals in zoos, or making ethnographic museums about people who are disappearing through disease, displacement and genocide. We bring the fragile subject into the museum when we fear it is no longer viable in the world.

In that sense, this exhibition is more deeply connected to the history of wonder and its role in the museum. As Bell demonstrates in his essay, bringing the natural world — its vastness and variegation — into the museum is as old as the cabinets of curiosity from which the modern museum emerged. So the darker feelings inspired by this contemporary display of curiosities — even the doubt about the merits of the entire project — are part of the exhibition’s strength. And given those doubts, given the unsettling feeling that in a time of emergency, art must work harder to justify its purpose and role in the world, some of these works will feel more substantial than others.

Rather than merely marvel at the drama of fitting big, complicated objects into small rooms, one wants to be led back out to the world. So works such as Echelman’s “1.8,” which references a catastrophic real-world event and functions both as visual spectacle and somber requiem, makes a strong claim on our attention, as does Angus’s use of dead insects and reference to the history of museums in “In the Midnight Garden.” One wants more than whimsy, and these works provide.

Like too many exhibitions, however, this one invites the visitor to treat it superficially. Wall texts too often lapse into generic, user-friendly art speak, and contain little of the substantial thought and context that Bell outlines in the catalogue. That’s too bad, because in most other ways, this exhibition is a promising start to a new chapter in the history of one of this city’s underappreciated museums.

“Wonder” opened Friday at the newly renovated Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more information visit renwick.americanart.si.edu.