Yet against the backdrop of Renwick’s latest show — and a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings this summer that have transformed American society — “Vestige” feels not just poetic but prophetic. The woman’s disturbing absence from her own statue, reduced to the trappings of her old-fashioned dress, comes to the fore amid a raging public debate over the agency of who might become pregnant as a result of the court’s decision to set aside Roe vs. Wade.
It’s just a piece that seems newly polarized in ‘This Now: Creating a Better World’, a major survey of craftsmanship on view at Renwick. Featuring 171 works, the exhibit engages the culture wars on all fronts, a decidedly divisive display for the historic craft museum. The show touches on so many different political fault lines – such as the border, the climate crisis and the future of democracy – that it feels like it could have been judged by the Supreme Court itself .
In Washington, protests against Roe and other landmark decisions continue: In late July, a number of Democratic lawmakers were arrested at a rally outside the Supreme Court, including Representatives Cori Bush (Mo.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio. -Cortez (New York). Yet the most powerful protests about the country’s future are at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue – the once modest Renwick, cornered in the White House.
Consider “Bad Ombrés v.2” (2017), a set of ceramic vases by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, 3D printed using clay pulled from either side of the US-Mexico border. Where there is “Otro Mundo Es Possible” (2017), a textile banner designed by Aram Han Sifuentes to protest the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. (Borrowers can view this flag from the Chicago Protest Banner Lending Library.) These works are ripped from still raging headlines. In June, the Supreme Court considered the former president’s “stay in Mexico” policy on refugees; a decision on DACA is likely in the next term of the court.
Yet another piece on view, Sonya Clark’s “Monumental” (2019) – a 30-foot-long recreation of the white cloth waving by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to surrender to Union forces at Appomattox – uses the symbol and the scale to solve the problems that have plagued the nation since reconstruction. ‘Still Not’ (2019) by Chawne Kimber combines denim patches with other cotton fabrics to form a quilt that reads in part: ‘I’m still not free’. Although the right to vote was not on the court docket this quarter, the judges heard a case arising from the events of January 6, the worst insurrection since the start of the civil war.
Renwick’s show is called “This Present Moment” (2019-2020), an installation by Alicia Eggert. Pink neon lights spell out a wall-sized aphorism: “This moment was the future.” Two more words flash to up the ante – “This present moment was once an unimaginable future” – a shift from a t-shirt worthy slogan to a climate doomcasting drama. (Or any other number of seizures, really.)
These political themes have a checkered history in Smithsonian museums. In 1995, the National Air and Space Museum canceled an exhibit on the atomic bomb that veterans groups and other critics feared would be too critical of the United States’ role in World War II. In 2010, the Smithsonian censored artwork in an LGBTQ exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery that conservative commentators deemed anti-Christian – a move that resulted in a rare rebuke for the Smithsonian secretary who removed the artwork .
“This Present Moment” – curated by Mary Savig, with support from Nora Atkinson, Anya Montiel and Elana Hain – is a measure of the extent to which craft as a movement has pushed to embrace contemporary concepts about identity and storytelling. It is also a landmark for adventurous social commentary from a castle-affiliated museum.
And in this particular present moment, the show indirectly records how far the Supreme Court has veered to the right on some of the most personal and contentious debates facing Americans. For every difficult piece of art on display, it almost seems like there’s a recent court ruling about it.
The parallel is intriguing in part because the Renwick also seeks to settle a debate, albeit narrower, about the state of craftsmanship.
“I would like to put this question to bed once and for all,” writes Atkinson, curator in charge at Renwick, in the catalog for the exhibition. “The studio craft movement was a low-key period in American history, now over.”
No longer confined to traditional formats or techniques, this post-craft era has opened Renwick’s doors to contemporary art, with works spanning installation, conceptual art and even performance art. In that sense, “This Present Moment” is a sequel to “Wonder,” a hit 2015 exhibition that saw queues to see a host of room-sized, Instagram-friendly sculptures.
That’s not to say the Renwick has overturned all precedents for craftsmanship. “Communion” (1998) by James C. Watkins, an ebony cauldron of aching expressiveness, recalls the artist’s upbringing in small town Alabama, where cast iron pots were markers of life domestic. “Initiate” (2020), another ceramic piece, this one by Donté K. Hayes, celebrates the forms of the entire African diaspora without stopping at any one.
If there is a post-craft moment emerging, it seems to involve embracing community and regionalism while abandoning the strict utility associated with ships or textiles. Shan Goshorn’s “Song of Sorrow” (2015), a woven basket, for example, includes excerpts from Kaw, Lakota and Navajo prayers juxtaposed with the violent words of a children’s nursery rhyme (“Ten Little Indians”).
There is also a Supreme Court decision that goes with this piece: in Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huertafive conservative judges expanded the authority of state law enforcement agencies to prosecute crimes committed by non-natives against natives in Indian Country, a sea change for tribal sovereignty and federal Indian law.
For Indigenous viewers, this piece of art – as a result of this decision – may look like a punch. For better or worse, “This Present Moment” delivers that feeling in spades.
This Now Moment: Creating a Better World
Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW. americanart.si.edu.