Monday, November 4, 2013

Farewell to the Renwick

I said goodbye to the Renwick Gallery today.  Not forever, I'm happy to say, but for about three years, which is bad enough.  They're doing some major renovations (which I have no doubt are necessary), and that means the building will be closed to visitors, beginning in December and continuing until 2016.  I'm just hoping the construction stays on schedule, and I won't be waiting even longer to return to one of my favorite Smithsonian museums.

If you've not been to the Renwick, run right out and see it before early December when it closes.  It's off the beaten track, as far as museums go.  It's across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, next to Blair House.  It's part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and focuses on American craft.  Currently, there are two rotating exhibit spaces on the main floor and the permanent collection (which closed on October 1, before I could get over there - another reason to detest the government shutdown) on the upper floor.

The permanent collection has already been removed.  I don't know whether they'll try to find room for some or all of the pieces elsewhere - maybe at the American Art Museum? - or if they'll simply put the items in storage.  Maybe things will rotate between storage and display?  Maybe they'll put some things in the Castle?  If only the Arts and Industries Building was open, they could set up shop there.  Oh well, they'll re-open in time, no matter what they do with their collection now.  Here's what I saw today before the doors close for the present:

Grand Salon Installation: Paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through November 11, 2013

If you want to have a look at the Salon arrangement of paintings, hurry over, as it closes on Monday.  As I mentioned in one of my recent posts, I just don't like this style of presentation.  Today's visit did nothing to change my mind.  I find that I can't really concentrate on any one painting, as I'm being constantly distracted by something else.  I tried to determine why the paintings had been hung as they had, but, although some of the pieces did seem to go together, I found myself shaking my head in confusion a good bit.

It's also hard to see the paintings.  I was craning my neck trying to see the things hung at the top, which does not make for a comfortable way to pass the time.  The room itself is lovely, and a great space for this type of display; it's just not to my taste.

I was happy to see several pieces by Romaine Brooks.  One of them, her "Self Portrait" had been featured in the National Portrait Gallery's Hide/Seek.  I recognized it immediately (which is always an ego boost), and was happy to see other of her works.  She has a definite style to her work, so once you've picked up on it, you can see others quite quickly.  It was nice to see the piece again, rather like running into an old friend unexpectedly.

Verdict: If you like the salon style of display, don't miss this opportunity to see what I suppose is an excellent example of it.

Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby

When: through December 8, 2013

I was unfamiliar with the work of Wayne Higby before I saw this exhibit, and I'm glad I made time to have a look.  His stuff is very interesting and unlike anything else I've seen.  To say his ceramics are three-dimensional doesn't really do them justice.  They are commonly interpreted as 3D landscapes, and I see what the people who describe his work this way mean.  It's as if a landscape painting has leapt off the page and emerged as an topographical object.  It's hard to describe, but very neat to see.  Higby doesn't care for this description, as he finds it too limiting.  He likes to say that the viewer can imagine an infinite expanse in his ceramics; that they are limited only by their own imaginations.  I confess, the 3D landscape description is the best I can come up with!

Higby has also done work in tiles.  His pieces tend to be major installations in public buildings and corporate headquarters; no small scale stuff here.  Obviously, only a sampling of his work is on display, but between that and the photographs of the full works, you get a sense of what he's doing.  I'd very much like to see one of his full works; they looked very impressive.

Although Higby is from Colorado and much of his work has a decidedly Western feel to it, one of his series of bowls was inspired by his trip to the Maine coast.  It's always nice to see something with a Maine connection (I've spent many happy days in the state, visiting friends), and these were very fine pieces.

Verdict: Don't miss this show if you like ceramics; Higby's work is fantastic.

A Measure of Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets

When: through December 8, 2013

I ended my visit to the Renwick with a look at this lovely show on American baskets.  Steven Cole and Martha Ware have given the Renwick a wonderful collection, all of which are functional, made from natural materials harvested by the basket makers.  People making baskets this way live a life that is far removed from urban or suburban America.  Their lives are lived in rural communities, where they can find their raw materials easily, or else they are spent seeking out raw materials.  In either case, their lives are a journey of collection and creation.

Theirs is also a dying art, as most people purchase cheap plastic baskets when they need them.  Even in the heyday of basket making, it never paid well, and when people no longer had to make baskets, they stopped and turned to more lucrative pursuits.  The only exception to this rule is the seagrass baskets in South Carolina, where the craft is passed down from one generation to another within families, and the tourists are happy to purchase them.  I particularly liked the baskets made by Darryl and Karen Arawjo (not sure if they're a married couple, or brother and sister or what).  Also, Jeffrey Gale's baskets reminded my very strongly of baskets I've seen at the local craft fair year after year.

The other great thing about this exhibit is the "hands on gallery."  You can actually touch the baskets, which is a great way to appreciate and understand the craftsmanship.  I only wish more museums would try to incorporate more things you can touch.

Verdict: A great show, especially if you like basketry.

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