Review

Specific Ephemera

Tara Donovan
Ace Gallery Los Angeles
January 30, 2005 - May 3, 2005
Tommy Freeman

Upon viewing Tara Donovan’s Nebulous (2002) at Ace Gallery’s Los Angeles branch, I was prompted to recall a conversation I had with an undergraduate instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute. I had been complaining to him about the rising cost of materials I encountered as my work shifted from painting to more conceptually driven installations. He wisely suggested I should never let money get in the way of making good artwork. At the time, I took this to mean I should not hesitate to run up my credit cards in order to see my work to fruition. Roughly five years and several thousand dollars in interest charges later, it finally dawned on me what my sage was trying to convey: the best solution to a given problem is often the simplest and most elegant. “Simple and elegant” aptly describes the manner with which Tara Donovan explores ontology by way of relatively inexpensive, banal materials, as well as notions of space and scale, in this show of work from the past five years.

What is most striking about Nebulous is how efficiently Donovan transforms various types of Scotch Tape into a sprawling entity that, although contained by the gallery, can be imagined to expand indefinitely like a bacteria culture or fungus left to fulfill its own determination. The Scotch Tape simultaneously asserts itself both as what it is and as something else all together. As the title slyly reveals, Nebulous suggests a particular type of cosmic body while at the same time also describes an entity without specific form or definition. Such dualities of specificity and amorphousness form the conceptual underpinning of all of Donovan’s production.

The various works presented at Ace run the gamut from traditionally sized prints on paper to massive installations that both utilize and transform architectural spaces. Donovan’s output is perhaps most impressive when she allows the gallery to become an integral part of her work, as is the case with Haze (2003). In this installation, a pile of what appears to be warm yellow foam or smooth wax, upon approach reveals itself to be millions of clear plastic drinking straws stacked like cordwood, twelve feet high by twenty-six feet wide. Some of the straws are flush against the wall and others are pushed out slightly, creating a modulated vertical surface with subtle bugles and depressions. The optical experience of this work becomes phenomenological, as any perception of the seemingly heavy mass is undermined by the understanding of its relatively weightless materiality. Despite its stasis, Haze seems to undulate. This disorienting sensation is further exacerbated as both light and sound are absorbed and redirected by the straws.

In another large-scale work, Moiré (1999), Donovan again discovers a phenomenon specific to a particular material—in this case several massive spools of adding machine paper, created by combining numerous smaller rolls. Piled in a heap on the floor and distended as they overlapped one another, the spools create the wavy moiré illusion for which the work is titled.

Transplanted (2001) and Untitled (2003), respectively occupy the floor and ceiling of the gallery’s two largest spaces. Transplanted is an enormous block of torn and layered tarpaper. The black, ripped layers coalesce in such a way that the resulting object reads like a cross section of volcanic rock or the suspended waves of a bleak frozen sea. The domestic associations generated by the roofing paper fall into conflict with the foreboding manner with which Donovan evokes desolation and disparity with the material. In balanced contrast to the oppressive solidity and grounded quality of Transplanted is the levity of Untitled (2003), in which a cloud-like structure fills the entire ceiling of the adjacent room. Donovan meticulously crafted this meteoric allusion by hot gluing thousands of Styrofoam cups together with their openings facing downward. This undulating globular mass is illuminated from within. As a consequence of Styrofoam’s inherent translucency, the room is bathed in a cool, blue glow. As with Haze or Moiré, the sensation of movement is present as this amorphous body seems to slowly expand and contract like a gigantic lung.

The most engaging works are the larger installations, but not to be overlooked are the many smaller works that occupy the realm of traditional, wall-mounted paintings. A series of images made of simple Mylar stickers stuck on and/or sandwiched between illuminated sheets of Plexiglas lend some insight into the artist’s methodology. Unlike the larger presentations that tend to pleasantly overwhelm viewers, these self-contained objects, conceived at a smaller scale, allow viewers to observe more closely how Donovan tests the possibilities of various materials.

Like Tom Friedman before her, Donovan uses many of the same pedestrian materials such as toothpicks, tape, pencils, and cups. But where Friedman examines the limitations of a particular material, Donovan explores the infinite possibilities. Friedman’s work is more conceptually driven while Donovan’s more closely follows a modernist trajectory that favors a strict adherence to the inherent qualities particular to a given material. In this regard Donovan might be better compared to her minimalist predecessors such as Smith, Flavin, Andre, or Chamberlain, all of whom also tested the possibilities of relatively banal materials by way of repetition and context. But where many minimalists are seen as early conspirators in the dematerialization of the “art object,” Donovan might be better associated with art’s re-materialization by way of a minimalist aesthetic. This re-materialization is supported by the tremendously approachable nature of Donovan’s implementation of materials as paired against the cold and removed stance of minimalist production.

In what seems like a direct response to Donald Judd’s boxes or Tony Smith’s Die, Donovan offers three 40-inch cubes. One is comprised of thousands of wooden toothpicks and another of shimmering straight pins. The third is constructed with 200 sheets of tempered glass that have been shattered but still manage maintain their collective cube shape. In addition to the specific materials listed for each cube, Donovan cites the invisible forces of friction and gravity as the adhesives that hold them together. The floor around each of these objects is sparsely littered with toothpicks, pins, and bits of glass that respectively offer testimony to their precarious integrity. As the absence of any binding agent is asserted, the cubes become charged with a subtle energy that simultaneously begs viewers to take a closer look while keeping them at arm’s length for fear of accidentally dismantling them.

The majority of Donovan’s production is extremely impressive, but she might have benefited by editing a few works that feel flat or even hokey. It feels as if she may have overreached in her efforts to meet the demands of the ample exhibition space at Ace and as a consequence some of the work seems either less resolved or simply less interesting by comparison. In Bluffs (2004), yellow and lavender sewing buttons that are stacked and glued together become stalagmites. And various lengths of standard yellow pencils- adhered to one another and standing upright-form the expansive Colony (2002). Both of these works are obviously meticulously crafted but here these banal materials are not transformed into wondrous compositions that mine specific phenomenological characteristics inherent to each substance. Similarly, Lure (2004) is comprised of dozens of small pompons made from cut lengths of fishing line (also known as monofilament) that have been scattered about the gallery somewhat randomly. But again this installation does not project the duality of specificity and otherwordliness that is the success of Nebulous or Transplanted.

When she is at her best Donovan breathes life into the inert peripherals of mechanized society. She manages to subvert the otherwise mundane existence of the materials we take for granted, which allow our consumer-driven culture to function more smoothly. In Donovan’s world, scotch tape, drinking straws, and Styrofoam cups are elevated to vital participants in ontological explorations of the spiritual in late capitalism.

Tommy Freeman is an artist, educator, and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Further Reading