Renwick Curator Nicholas Bell on WONDER

Installation shot of Maya Lin's Folding the Chesapeake for WONDER at the Renwick Gallery.

Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake, 2015. Photo by Ron Blunt

Nicholas Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge at the Renwick Gallery, spoke the other day about the exhibition WONDER, what led to its creation, the commonalities and differences among the artists, and how "wonder" has always been a part of the DNA of the museum and the works on view.

Speaking before a packed house in the Renwick's Grand Salon, Bell began with a brief history of the building, from its roots as the "American Louvre," its unfortunate interlude as a courthouse, and its rebirth as part of the Smithsonian in 1972. The reopening of the Renwick last month marks the third time that the building has opened as an art museum in three centuries: 1874, 1972, 2015. While the building was being prepared for the most recent set of renovations a few years back, and the museum was empty of objects, Bell realized the possibility for an exhibition of large-scale installations. As he told us, "We can have a place to wonder and experience what is unknown to us....To push us out of our comfort zone to the true value of the world outside."

Bell was looking for three qualities when searching for artists for the project. They'd have to be sensitive to architectural space; passionate about making and materials; and be able to imbue their work with a sense of wonder and awe.

Together, the works form an interesting portrait of the natural world, from Maya Lin's Folding the Chesapeake to Janet Echelman's 1.8 to John Grade's Middle Fork, the last being derived from a plaster-cast model of a hemlock tree from the Cascades. Despite the variety of media used throughout, Bell reminded us that the artists shared a common theme of "small things becoming large," (think of the half million pieces of wood to recreate the hemlock), all the artists have an interest in the natural world, "our relationship with the earth and a commitment to finding new ways to change our perspective a little bit."

WONDER is best experienced in person. The exhibition remains on view through the spring. If you can't make it to the Renwick, take a look all the works in our exhibition slide show.

This Saturday, December 19 at 2 p.m., come hear artist Chakaia Booker talk about Anonymous Donor, her contribution to WONDER.