The buttons and baubles neatly arranged on Jennifer Angus’ work table don’t seem unusual for an artist who specializes in textile design.
But the oversized plastic bins lining the professor’s UW-Madison studio — rows and rows of bins, stacked nearly to the ceiling — hold a bit of a surprise.
Angus pulls off the cover of one of the bins and reveals layers of methodically pinned bugs. These are not insects akin to the common house fly or Wisconsin mosquito — but large, exotic, often breathtakingly beautiful beetles, moths and cicadas that come from the other side of the world.
They are leading characters in Angus’ artwork, which has received worldwide attention. Angus was selected as one of nine nationally known artists to create an installation in “WONDER,” the show that this fall reopened the historic, newly renovated Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
“In the Midnight Garden,” Angus’ installation, takes up an entire gallery in the 19th-century-built Renwick. With walls painted in striking cochineal — the scarlet color made from crushed insects that is also found in some cosmetics and foods — “In the Midnight Garden” appears first like elaborately decorative wallpaper.
But as the viewer approaches, the “wallpaper” reveals itself to be patterns made from thousands of insects from Angus’ collection pinned to the drywall. The work carries a message about the environment (the title refers to the Doomsday Clock) but also has the capacity to astound.
“I walked into the room, and I remember just how surprised I was at experiencing her work for the first time,” said Nicholas Bell, the curator for “WONDER,” who recruited Angus for the Smithsonian show after seeing her work at another museum.
“Like many people, I walked right up to them not knowing they were real,” Bell recalled, “then realized they were actual insects and stepped back quickly out of a sense of some sort of tension that they were right there before me.”
“I was interested in that interplay between our disbelief and coming to the realization that something is real,” he said. “I really just felt that if I could get Jennifer to take over a gallery (at the renovated Renwick building) and give people that moment of surprise — and yet of intense curiosity — then we would have been achieving everything we could hope for for that reopening experience.”
Located across the street from the White House, the Renwick Gallery was the first building in America designated an art museum. It is named for its architect, James Renwick Jr.
Before the museum show, “I don’t think I realized what a beloved institution the Renwick is,” said Angus, whose work in “WONDER” joins that of artists Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal.
The show’s curator “really felt that one of the greatest treasures of the museum is the building itself. So he wanted to celebrate the building.
“I’m just honored, of course, to do a show with the people I’m with,” Angus said. “I think you do notice the building in new ways. With different work, it wouldn’t be quite so highlighted.”
The large-scale installations in “WONDER” are all made from “unexpected materials” — not only insects but index cards, marbles and strips of wood. In the first month it was open, the show drew 100,000 visitors to the Renwick — an overwhelming response considering the museum’s attendance prior to the reopening was 140,000 people a year, Bell said.
Putting up “In the Midnight Garden” took Angus and her two assistants nine days. Angus’ installation also includes an antique cabinet of curiosities in the center of the room. She filled each of the cabinet’s 98 drawers with a tiny vignette.
“Most of her installations are pretty labor intensive. In D.C., we pinned five or six thousand bugs,” said Pete Bouchard, a UW-Madison graduate student in printmaking who has been Angus’ assistant for the past six months.
“When I first looked at what she was doing — I never expected I’d do that in my life. But it’s like any process. You sort of get into a zone and do it,” Bouchard said.
“It’s more like symmetry,” he explained while working on another Angus installation, for a show at Lawrence University in Appleton. “The insects are like pixels on the wall. I don’t see them as insects anymore.”
Angus pre-designs her installations on a computer, and the rest is hands-on labor.
“I said to someone recently I became an installation artist because I have no time,” said Angus, who carries a full teaching load, oversees an international program at UW-Madison that helps artisans in developing countries, and is the mother of a college-age son.
As an installation artist, “You really construct on site,” she said. “You have to plan, of course. But when you’re teaching and doing a lot of service work, you don’t have much time to make things.
“I’m going to be on sabbatical next year and I’m really looking forward to it — that I can really be in the studio,” she said. While building the cabinet of curiosities for “WONDER,” “I felt like I really rediscovered the joy of making things, which I just hadn’t had time to do.”
The Canadian-born Angus, who grew up mostly in Niagara Falls and Toronto, earned her BFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. On a trip to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s, she saw garments made from the shimmering wings of insects — and that got her thinking about incorporating them into her art.
“Honestly, I never realized that there were beautiful insects other than butterflies,” she said. “I like shiny things…. I found myself getting more and more interested in insects.
“But my first love is pattern. So what I did was merge my interests in insects and pattern,” she said. “I always say I come to this from a legit place in the textile world. There are other groups that use insects as embellishment, whether it’s headdresses or garments.”
Angus, who in 2013 wrote a novel aimed at middle-schoolers called “In Search of Goliathus Hercules,” about a boy who discovers he has the ability to communicate with insects, calls the creatures in her artworks “ambassadors for their species.”
The insects she uses and re-uses for her art installations come from a Belgian collector who gathers them from around the world. Angus chooses them first on price (some can cost up to $100 apiece), durability and aesthetics. Some are harvested, and some are caught in the wild.
“There are certainly detractors who say, ‘How many insects died for this exhibition?’ and I just think that’s great, that’s an awesome question,” she said. “Because these insects are actually a renewable resource. What isn’t renewable is their habitat.
“These are rain forest species; we all know how fast the rain forest is being cut down,” she said. “So if you care about these, why don’t you boycott tropical wood projects?
“Virtually every insect that is on the endangered species list is there because of loss of habitat, not over-collection. So that’s my answer to that question. If people can make a livelihood in the insect trade, you can’t cut down their habitat.”
Artistically, Angus is also intrigued by the Victorian era’s passion for backyard science and its over-the-top aesthetic — or what she calls “their dubious taste.”
“No such thing as too much,” she said. “I always say that the (Victorian) elephant’s foot umbrella stand is that kind of quintessential item. It’s just terrible — but at the same time it’s kind of cool. So that’s the edge I want to walk.
“For me, when it comes to insects and quantity, there is no such thing as too much. And of course I love pattern, so there cannot be too much pattern. That Victorian clutter is very appealing to me. I like a lot of stimulus.”
In “WONDER” or any of her installations, “I think the most common reaction I get is — people walk in and they just go, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “And I think if they say that, I’ve really done my job.”