Tara Donovan: Intermediaries
January 15 – March 6, 2020
Donovan’s latest show at Pace represents work made before the pandemic, but the six installations largely satisfy the present need for an art that engages bodies, reveals a sense of self and presence (both as viewer and assertive creator), and encourages a return to social engagement. They position people as active participants in the art experience, spectators of sleights that bear the possibility of eliciting amazement. There are six separate spaces, including four built-out rooms, the first-floor hallway/ramp, and the rear wall of the library. The signature image is Sphere (2020), a six foot in diameter orb on a coved base comprised of half inch diameter PETG hard tubes trimmed to various lengths and laid laterally, here north/south. It sits on a raised platform a few inches high. The work is “activated,” in Donovan’s own words, by viewing another person through the tubes from either of those two sides. The participant reads as a shadowy figure and remarkably causes the work to seem to flatten out. Sphere, like so much of Donovan’s art, is deceptively simple in materials but complicated in execution. Resembling the old Pan Am logo crossed with that of AT&T (spheres are remarkably popular for corporate symbols), the reference is nonetheless more planetary than logo, bowling ball, or marble. The circular patterning on the flanks of the sphere somehow resembles both computer imagery, such as Minecraft constructions and Roman architecture, such as the sunken arches in the curved walls of the Pantheon and the Colosseum.
In an adjacent room, its form filling the view through the doorway leading there from Sphere, is Stacked Grid (2020). Comprised of thousands of pieces of PETG sheet plastic cut into strips and notched so that they can be fit together, the resultant structure is 13 × 13 foot in plan and nearly 10 feet high. Unlike the billowing straws in Haze, which blew all our minds in the vast ACE Gallery on Hudson in 2003, or Untitled, an undulating field of plastic tubes in a generous space at the Armory Show in 2018, Stacked Grid expands to nearly approach two sides of its dedicated room, pressing out into viewers’ bodies. There is a new type of threat potential here, despite the delicacy of the block’s extremities, the gossamer-like translucency of its corners and top edges. Reflected light flicks aqueously across the walls of the room in emulation of crystalline refractions from a chandelier.
The highlight of the show is a series of seven framed works on four walls in the darkened central room on the first floor. Each is titled Apertures (all 2020). Here, Donovan has filled 78 × 78-inch frames with 5-inch hollow black cocktail stir sticks packed parallel to the floor and on end into the frames, which are 9 5/8 inches deep. The dark color of the walls and minimal lighting communicates a very different sensation from the white walls and bright illumination of the other installations. The straws are not inserted into their deep frames at a uniform depth, or they have minor variations of height, such that when looked at from a raking angle the exquisite surfaces entice and bear a texture that resembles that of a thickly woven tapestry.
The organization of the straws nicely recalls similar surface patterning and designs in earlier works such as smaller scale pen drawings from 2002 or 6 × 5-foot mylar, tape, and hot glue works from 2017. The suite of seven Apertures is also similar to her installation of 5 × 5-foot or 8 × 3-foot drawings using pins (2015/2016). The pinheads reflect ambient and directed light at the viewer as one moves across the works. A similar effect is achieved in Apertures through a clever bit of tech: a rheostat-controlled single strip of LEDs at the top of the frame’s interior. The light is directed down across the backs of the straws. As you move your vision around each work the resultant splash of light visible through the stir sticks follows your gaze, and as you back away from the piece the light burst expands as your angle of vision can encompass a wider field of straws. From a distance, the pictures appear almost to glow all over. Herein is the closest link with the title, with cameras and seeing and your eyes as lenses with varying perceptions of depth and field. You do not need another person to activate this work, a critical factor.
Each Apertures is different. The central one on the south wall features straws laid out in taches up to two feet long and some 65 straws wide. They crisscross or lie at angles to each other like blobs of adjacent paint in a Cézanne. The stir sticks in the picture on the right side of the east wall are organized in long, undulating horizontal rows making a pattern that approximates sedimentary flows frozen in rock or the sweeping landscapes of the American West. The work on the left side of the east wall is composed of pockets of circular forms, like swirling geodes stacked vertically and without perceived depth. The singular and remarkable example on the north wall features ribbons of flowing lines, as in a later de Kooning, meandering across the picture plane in evocative loops and streams. Apertures represents an impressively painterly element in Donovan’s work as against the more typical draughtsmanship of her framed wall works.
Donovan’s wizardry constantly seeks new materials, new forms. This is her métier: the mass-produced, the seemingly ephemeral but distressingly stable by-products of our consumer addictions. PETG is recyclable but will last for hundreds of years before breaking down. It is as durable as COR-TEN steel, or bronze. Yet with an innately aesthetic touch she turns the prosaic into poesy. In this sense her art shares affinities not with Minimalism, but with Andy Goldsworthy, whose ability to transform mundane materials scrounged in nature, through dedicated labor and persistence and repetition and experimentation, results in similarly alchemical aesthetic transmutations. Donovan’s own rigorous process remains on full display in Intermediaries, especially in the thirteen large Layered Screen Drawings (all 2020) displayed salon style on the rear wall of the library, or in twenty-four highly focused small 18 7/8 × 18 7/8-inch Screen Drawings (2020) in a small room. But in her conceptual ambition married to the considerable imagination on display in Apertures, the artist reels in the spectacle in favor of something closer to an intimate sublimity.