The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the Renwick Gallery, four artists conjure Mother Nature out of fabric, metal, glass and paper

“Ai no Keshiki — Indigo Views,” by Rowland Ricketts, features 450 indigo-dyed cloth panels (and a tinkly score by sound artist Norbert Herber). (Rowland Ricketts/Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)
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From roses on teacups to berries on wallpaper, natural motifs are common in the decorative arts. But there’s nothing dainty or domestic about the works on view in “Forces of Nature,” the Renwick Gallery’s ninth biennial exhibition of contemporary craft. The four invited artists use traditional techniques to make pieces that are distinctive, timely and way too big to fit in the pantry.

“Forces of Nature” actually debuted last year in mid-October, but coronavirus concerns closed the Renwick’s doors a month later. The museum reopens May 14.

The show begins with Rowland Ricketts’s “Ai no Keshiki — Indigo Views,” an installation that’s both gossamer and imposing. The room-filling construction is a sort of dome built from 450 squares of cloth, hand-woven and hand-dyed in various shades of indigo. (In Japanese, “ai” can mean indigo or — when written with a different character — love.) Before being assembled, each artfully weathered piece of fabric was given to an individual, who agreed to live with the length of cloth for a time, symbolizing such ideas as cooperation, everyday life and the passage of time.

As the squares are hung at the Renwick, their subtle blues seem to shift in the ambient light. The artwork’s ephemerality is underscored by the algorithm-generated score devised by sound artist Norbert Herber. The tinkly sound emanates from small speaker cabinets made from boxes that were previously used to fade the cloth.

Ricketts grows indigo for dying fabric, a process he calls “farm-to-gallery” agriculture. The installation has a Japanese name because it was first staged in Tokushima, a mostly rustic prefecture that’s Japan’s indigo capital. (The local professional baseball team is called the Indigo Socks.) Ricketts learned his craft there, and his wispy artwork feels more of Japan than Indiana, where he and Herber work. The erratically faded bits of cloth are as evocative of nature as a wobbly old cup prized for a Kyoto tea ceremony.

The phenomena represented in the next gallery include rain, clouds and a comet, each even more fleeting than indigo dye. But Maine artist Lauren Fensterstock built her site-specific tableau, “The totality of time lusters the dusk,” from such hard-edge stuff as metal and glass. The latter is mostly black, reflecting dark glimmers that amplify the eeriness of the piece’s dramatically lit artificial landscape, which is made partly of quilled paper.

Because it conjures a sense of impending ecological destruction, the artist’s craft-gone-Goth creation prompts thoughts of global climate change. The artist’s inspiration, however, is not current. She took a page (or more) from the Augsburg “Book of Miracles,” a 16th-century German illuminated manuscript that chronicles apocryphal, historical and prophesied cataclysms. Dominating the room in which it’s installed, the aptly titled “Totality” reveals a vision as exceptional as Fensterstock’s skills.

To make flowering trees from glass, Debora Moore practices a sort of alchemy similar to Fensterstock’s. The Seattle glass artist’s “Arboria” is a quartet of gnarled trees whose exquisitely rendered petals and fruits appear as delicate as the real thing, although in reality they’re as rigid as the actual stones that serve as the bases for the sculptures.

Moore is the first woman — and the first African American — to have a residency at Abate Zanetti, a glass school in Venice’s Murano glass-blowing district. She’s known for glass renditions of orchids, and the elegance of that work continues in “Arboria.” The trees from her series, “Wisteria,” “Magnolia,” “Cherry” and “Winter Plum,” represent the four seasons, each blooming from rocky ground. This annual sequence, it seems, is a triumph over barrenness.

Of the four artists, the one most detached from nature might seem to be Timothy Horn, who offers work from two distinct projects. His style emulates the ornate designs of centuries-old earrings, carriages and candlesticks. Yet the metal-and-glass pieces in his “Tree of Heaven 7,” which look like oversize jewelry, echo the forms of lichen and coral. This piece alludes to the environmentally threatened Great Barrier Reef, a particular concern for the Massachusetts artist, who was born in Australia.

The other pieces were made for a San Francisco art museum in commemoration of a major benefactor, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Her family fortune derived from sugar, so Horn replicated objects from her extravagant life and covered them in orange-brown crystallized rock sugar. The artworks pay no homage to nature, yet they’re made of a vulnerably organic material. They’re a reminder that one of the powerful forces of nature is decay.

Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020

Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW.

Dates: May 14 through Aug. 15.

Admission: Free, timed-entry passes required.