WASHINGTON D.C. – The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery” is an exhibit showcasing many different modes of art, with a unique twist.
Instead of ordering the art pieces by medium, artist, or time period into their own separate areas, “Connections” places the art randomly throughout the halls and connects each art piece with another through a common idea.
For example, next to the description of Viktor Schreckengost’s “Apocalypse ‘42”, a terracotta caricature of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini riding a berserk horse is a small icon of another art piece, “Batman 2”.
A dotted line leads to the “Batman” art in question: a full-body, knit costume by Mark Newport parodying Hollywood’s traditional view of the masculine superhero.
In addition to the yarn and buttons instead of leather and metal for the costume’s material, the oversized proportions, limp posture, and mitten-like stockings for the feet turn the hyper-masculinity of the character into a representation of the insecurities these unrealistic ideals may cause in society.
Another dotted line leads from “Batman 2” to a different art piece that shares a similar idea, and so on, until visitors are skipping around the gallery, looking at many unique genres of art.
It’s likely that “Apocalypse ‘42” and “Batman 2” are connected through the idea of parody; however, it is up to the visitor to decide how they connect, and more importantly, why the art interests them in the first place.
The inspiration for this idea of going from one artwork to the next without constraints of classification comes from the internet’s influence on modern thinking.
According to the exhibit’s description, the internet has allowed us to “see our world through an infinite web of ‘hyperlinked’ ideas.” Thinking has become preoccupied with connection as we place more emphasis on relationships and patterns over accumulating data.
Like someone clicking from one internet link to another, “Connections” gives visitors the opportunity to navigate art like a website, learning about genres and connecting ideas at whim.
As one navigates the gallery, following the dots (or not) and watching others, young and old, taking pictures of their favorite art and calling their friends over to look at an art piece, an amazing thing happens.
The spectators of the art become the spectated; in essence, the gallery and its visitors become its own living work of art.
There was one more thing at the bottom of the exhibit’s description: “This installation encourages multiple overlapping interpretations and emphasizes the objects’ contemporary relevance, allowing them to speak across time.”
The focus on personal relevance rather than correct classification allows visitors to transcend their own barriers of age or background so that they all come to the same place to find what interests them.
As a testament to this idea, nearly every person in the gallery was taking pictures of their favorite art so they could take a copy home with them and remember the ideas that an art piece evoked.
A viewer’s fascination with a particular artwork is a reflection of their own interests, effectively allowing them to observe themselves through the art. This in turn makes the viewer their own work of art.
In tune with this observation, a quotation by Anais Nin is aptly put at the end of the exhibit: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
Interestingly, most, if not all the artworks are sculptures or mediums that are more three-dimensional than paintings or drawings.
These sculptures, which range from beautifully-crafted glassworks to woodcuts to marble carvings all emphasize form.
In other words, the textural quality of the artworks serve to further attract the visitors so that they focus on the feeling that they get from the art.
In “Connections”, it is not about the author, the genre, or the time period as much as it is about the viewer.
Although it may seem like the art pieces are the ones being exhibited, the viewer’s personal reasons for their attraction to an artwork is what is truly on display.
The last room of the exhibit features a huge fishing net that hangs like a canopy over the dimly-lit hall, turning colors as it catches the illumination of color-changing spotlights.
As visitors sit, chat, lie-down, or even nap on a comfortable area rug, they can gaze up at the fishing net to contemplate its symbolism for the interconnectivity of ideas.
“Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery” is located on the 2nd floor of the Renwick Gallery, located at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street N.W.
(Note: the Renwick Gallery is a separate building from the main SAAM museum.)
The exhibit debuted July 1, 2016 and is ongoing.
Renwick Gallery hours: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.