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9 room-sized art installations: The Renwick goes big with “Wonder”

When the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery reopens on Friday after a two-year renovation, you might miss the updated paint job and newly gilded molding. But there’s one detail you’re sure to notice: One of the rooms is covered with bugs.

“At first, people get close to what they think is wallpaper and try to figure out what it’s made of, and then they jump back when they realize it’s real, giant, dried bugs,” says museum curator Nicholas Bell.

The bug room, officially called “In the Midnight Garden,” is one of nine installations Bell commissioned for the craft and decorative art museum’s new exhibit, “Wonder.” As the name implies, it aims to make even jaded museum-goers gape — and then take a selfie.

“When things are this significant in scale and oomph, you can’t just breeze by them,” Bell says. “You have to confront it and figure out what your relationship to it is.”

The breadth and impact of the exhibit, Bell says, hark back to the gallery’s original purpose — to underscore the importance of art in America. When William Corcoran commissioned the building in 1859 to house the Corcoran Gallery of Art, he hoped it would help spur the country into becoming a cultural, as well as an industrial, force.

“You don’t put a building across the street from the White House unless you’re trying to make a statement about American culture and values,” Bell says.

The Corcoran eventually moved out, and the structure became a courthouse. Increasingly dilapidated, it was slated for demolition in the 1950s, saved by Jackie Kennedy in 1962, then handed over to the Smithsonian and renamed for its architect, James Renwick Jr.

The reopening of the Renwick is a chance to rededicate the building to its first, broader mission, Bell says. That’s why “Wonder” is a departure from the gallery’s more typical exhibits of furniture and folk art.

“It’s important for people to see that handmade doesn’t just mean quilts and pottery but that these skills can be used to make really overwhelming, extraordinary art installations,” he says. “I want people coming here and think, ‘I can’t believe they did that. I can’t believe they took the time and patience to put something like that together.’ ”

Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Fri. through July 10, 2016, free.

‘In the Midnight Garden’

Jennifer Angus used 5,000 dead, dried insects to adorn the walls of a second-floor gallery, including some huge specimens from Thailand and Malaysia. Even the pink wash is made from bug, specifically a Mexican insect that lives on prickly pear cacti. Angus’ application of bugs as beautiful decoration makes us look at the animals with new appreciation, curator Nicholas Bell says.

‘Middle Fork’

To make this sculpture, John Grade and his assistants took a plaster cast of the bottom of a 160-year-old hemlock tree in Washington state. They then hand-carved a half-million segments of reclaimed cedar and linked them around the cast. The resulting sculpture, hung sideways, seems almost to levitate in the air.


Visitors are welcome to step into these willow pods created by North Carolina-based artist Patrick Dougherty as an ode to nature’s beauty. Dougherty began constructing small stick sculptures in 1982, but they have since grown — one recent work engulfed an entire house. “Shindig“ “makes me think of hobbit houses,” Bell says. “Children love peeking through the windows of these things.”

‘Plexus A1’

Mexican-born artist Gabriel Dawe took inspiration for this piece from light he saw in the skies over his childhood home. Working with two assistants, he suspended miles of embroidery string with geometrical precision to create shimmering planes of color.

‘Folding the Chesapeake’

Maya Lin and her assistants used 2,000 pounds of fiberglass beads to form a map of the Chesapeake Bay. The marbles, which snake up the gallery walls and across windows, were affixed using an ordinary glue gun, Bell says. “The beads are essentially an industrial product,” he says. “Usually, they are melted down and turned into things like air conditioners. You’d never know they were so beautiful.”

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