Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
On first sight, Tara Donovan’s massed and massive constructions elicit two questions: What are they made of, and how long did it take how many people to put them together? But there’s much, much more to her work. Even small wall pieces qualify as massive, in that they consist of countless iterations of the same unit, meticulously arranged. Many—but not all—have a unique quality of concentrating light into a glow that makes it difficult to focus the eye.
Some of the more recent pieces in “Fieldwork,” Donovan’s recent mid-career retrospective, lacked the aesthetic beauty of her early work with translucent materials like plastic cups. (It is hard to refer to individual works except in terms of their components, since they are almost all Untitled.) Yet the impact of an elephantine installation amassed from gray file cards is thunderous, as powerful as banyan tree roots, mythical monsters, or the mountains of Huangshan. In most cases, Donovan uses glue as a binder, but in Transplanted, a floor piece made of tarpaper, the sheer weight of the material suffices. Polar opposites of her luminescent sculptures, these works evoke weighty landforms, cliffs, valleys, and waterways, absorbing light rather than emitting it.
Donovan says that she begins by manipulating and reimagining each chosen material in the studio, usually assembling it on a small scale. She does not make drawings; instead, she brings vast quantities of materials and piles them up ad hoc in the space. In addition to on-site works, the show included studio-made wall pieces. It takes close inspection to deconstruct these works. Some consist of dressmakers’ pins, closely spaced to create dark areas and thinned out to leave negative spaces. Similar optical trickery with file cards turned on-edge yields another kind of visual monochrome that resembles drawing, as if a draftsman had penned nothing but vertical lines to evoke icebergs, mountains, rows of crops, gravestones. Several works made of Mylar, straws, and Slinkys resemble cellular biomorphic forms. The springy metal toys morph easily into spheres, dense where the wire is massed and exposing negative space as they open out.
Having exploited quotidian materials in three dimensions, Donovan is also experimenting with printmaking. An unlikely material—hundreds of rubber bands nestled cheek-to-jowl—yielded a flat pattern that she inked and printed. Yet more serendipitous is her use of glass plate: framed, stressed in the printing press until it fractures, then inked and printed.
Implicit in Donovan’s work is a commentary on the multiplicity things in our culture contain—she insists we have to deal with it. One museumgoer was heard to remark that such work could only be made by an obsessive-compulsive individual. Never mind. Donovan’s work is absorbing and overpowering. It cannot be described and almost cannot be properly photographed. It has to be seen.