Most art exhibits begin with a theme and then seek out works that fit under that unifying umbrella. At first glance, “40 Under 40,” the new Renwick Gallery exhibition, opening Friday, July 20, to commemorate the museum’s 40th anniversary, seems to defy that convention. Exhibit director Nicholas R. Bell says, “No themes were planned. Instead, themes emerged organically.”
The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the ways in which craft has changed in the past 40 years, and how young artists have interpreted those changes. “We are trying to create a visceral feel in these works,” Bell continues, “So that you can walk into Nick Dong’s Enlightenment Room, and you can touch Christy Matson’s Sonic Structure .”
The featured artisans were all born between 1972, when the gallery was founded, and 1984. The works experiment with new and traditional media, and many re-purpose materials with an eye to conservation and sustainability.
Brooklyn-based artists William Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath recycled the wood from the Coney Island boardwalk into their piece
“Uhuru,” “Cyclone Lounger,” a long, curvy chair that is both beautiful and practical. “We’re interested in the dying art of storytelling,” says Hilgendorf. “When objects have stories behind them, that makes them more valuable to you, because you want to tell those stories. You want to keep the objects for a long time, so they don’t just end up in a landfill.”
The artists are joined together by age, a unifier that means a great deal in the post-9/ll world of financial crises, environmental fears and global security woes. There is an air of caution and irony that tinges even the most delightful pieces (a teapot, for example, that is really a gun), just as there is an air of playfulness that reigns in the most caustic.
Artist Mia Pearlman walked into the Renwick’s gallery space last year and knew exactly what she would create for the exhibit. “Normally,” she says, “you walk into a square, white room. But here, there are tiled floors and arching windows.” Her piece features two entire walls in the museum. On one side, gray and white paper rains down from ceiling to floor. On the other, white, airy paper floats upwards from floor to ceiling. “In this age of uncertainty, we try to put order to chaos. We have wonderful things and we have tragic things and we are trying to have a conversation with both. We are caught in this larger thing that is both light and dark,” she says.
This dichotomy of light and dark, pretty yet painful, is consistent throughout the various media the exhibit highlights. Jeffrey Clancy’s Collection of Curious Spoons reminds us of the delicate, aristocratic silver spoon held by the most fortunate. But these silver spoons are large and unruly. They are clunky, and, in the words of the artist, “look like something was just dug up.” They are beautiful in their grotesqueness, and mock the dainty, traditional silver spoons that inspired them. One particularly jarring piece, Lauren Kalman’s Hard Wear, displays pearls on a thin gold wire, wrapped around each tooth of the photographed woman. The pearls are exquisite, yet the sight of wire in between a woman’s teeth is disturbing and unnatural.
Although a general sense of unease sneaks into many of the pieces featured in “40 Under 40,” many of the works also share the mere love of craft. Gabriel Craig, an artist based in Detroit, Michigan, sets up “The Pro-Bono Jeweler” in cities around the country, allowing passersby to make whatever their hearts desire out of colorful clays. “The important thing is the outreach,” he says. “I like to remind people that things can be made by hand.”
Join the curator for a discussion at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed by an open house in which you can speak with many of the artists, July 20 12:00-2:30 p.m.