I live only two neighborhoods away from the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, and I realized this assignment could be a wonderful excuse to learn more about the contemporary art that is right down the block. The Renwick is a free Smithsonian art museum that was completely renovated in 2015 specifically to accommodate rotating exhibitions by contemporary artists, featuring site-specific installations that last around 6 months to a year each. I think the diversity of the pieces, both across the range of the five exhibitions I’ve seen and also within each exhibit, characterizes contemporary art in general.
The opening exhibit, WONDER, featured nine contemporary artists whose works spanned the spectrum of art. Still, the word “wonder” is an excellent description of the feeling that tied all of them together, from the bright rainbow of light from Gabriel Dawe’s woven installation to Maya Lin’s tentacles of glass marble that crept along the walls and floor of the next room over. Other artists used stacks of paper, old tires, and even colorful bugs. It was amazing to me how each artist was able to inspire such intense emotions of amazement with such seemingly simple mediums. Together, the show really emphasized the point that there is art in everything. One artist, Patrick Dougherty, actually installed the stick sculpture in the middle of the duke gardens, “The Big Easy”, which was just taken down in August.
The installations and sculptures were not just intended to look pretty. Most of them had very specific inspirations and messages. Janet Echelman installed a huge woven piece that hung from the ceiling based off of the energy map from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, intending to demonstrate “that what is wondrous can equally be dangerous”. Leo Villareal hung hundreds of flashing lights from the ceiling that display patterns corresponding to code that he wrote based on the binary number system. These examples of contemporary art put a lot of emphasis on representation and explore the ways in which information and ideas can be expressed and interpreted by a wide audience. One thing about the WONDER exhibit that I especially loved was that pictures and videos of the pieces were all over the Instagrams and Snapchats of everyone in my high school. The Renwick had successfully made contemporary art more accessible to young people.
In the past three years since WONDER, the Renwick has featured Rick Araluce’s model life-size subway station entitled “The Final Stop”, Frances Glessner Lee’s collection of miniature doll house crime scene recreations, and several other exhibits. During the hurricane I had the opportunity to see the current collection, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man”, featuring works from over fifteen artists and archival materials from the Nevada Museum of Art. The exhibit also extends outside the gallery itself with six additional outdoor installations in the neighborhood in downtown DC. The Burning Man festival itself really characterizes contemporary art with its balance between incorporation of new technologies and ideas (what used to be fire is often now using LEDs and computers!) and the preservation of an annual cultural event that has been so impactful.
I think overall what I’ve learned from visiting the Renwick Gallery for the past few years, and researching the artists these past few days, is that contemporary art is broad and allows artists to take liberties that older genres of art didn’t allow for. Still, really great contemporary art is tied together through intentional, emotion-provoking undertones that capture the attention of very specific audiences. One thing I need to work on in my art is being more deliberate about what I want my art to say and who it is intended for.
 Visit the Renwick Gallery.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/visit/Renwick .
 “WONDER.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/wonder.
 “‘The Big Easy.’” About Duke Gardens | Duke Gardens, gardens.duke.edu/Dougherty .
 “Janet Echelman.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/wonder/janet-echelman.
 “Leo Villareal.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/wonder/leo-villareal.
 “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/burning-man.
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