Transforming the mundane—objects like index cards, plastic straws, rubber bands and even Slinkys—is Tara Donovan’s expertise. In “Fieldwork,” her solo exhibition at the Smart Museum, she combines wall-based works with sculptures for the first time. The gallery space is filled with objects we see every day, objects we use every day. Donovan breathes new life into them.
The most stunning and surprising piece is “Haze,” incorporated into the wall where shapes bubble and burgeon with a translucent light peach hue. Looking closely at the piece is dizzying. The material and shapes come toward you and retreat as if the wall is moving. Many of Donovan’s pieces are loud, but this one is quiet. Works protrude in various forms and shapes, the material looks like metal, heavy and robust. But in “Haze,” Donovan has softened her work and created a bulbous piece that begs to be touched. By manipulating the material, she confuses the viewer. At first, it’s impossible to understand what we are looking at, the translucent material appears like latex. Only after reading the exhibition wall text do we understand it is, in fact, a wall of drinking straws, made from 2003 to 2019.
The Smart exhibition includes her 2015-16 “Drawing (Pins)” series, where she worked pins into a canvas in order to create a pattern and gradient. Her pieces are mathematical, combining layering and density in order to create a blur of understanding for the viewer.
In the 2017-18 series, “Composition (Cards),” Donovan manipulates Styrene cards (a type of index card that doesn’t yellow or disintegrate) to create patterns that appear like wood grains or static on a TV. That’s the beauty in Donovan’s work—you don’t know what you’re looking at until you’re two inches away. And even then, it’s mind-numbing to imagine the organization and concentration it must require to create each singular piece. In reality, these works only take three days to three weeks to make, which exemplifies the intuitive nature of Donovan’s process in the studio.
The artist’s inspiration for new materials occurs in happenstance ways. In an interview with Surface, she speaks of finding objects in “really simple places, like Staples, or the grocery store—places like that.” The New York-based artist’s show at the Smart is soft and methodical. She’s one of those artists who impresses and engenders jealousy. A viewer may leave the gallery thinking: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Well, because Tara Donovan already did. (S. Nicole Lane)
“Tara Donovan: Fieldwork” at the Smart Museum, 5550 South Greenwood through September 22