Tara Donovan – The Champion of The Ordinary

Tara Donovan | Credit Photo: Ellen Labenski

Everyday materials like drinking straws, toothpicks and styrofoam cups are elements used by American artist Tara Donovan when she creates her amazing sculptural works. A celebration of the ordinary object available to everyone is her raison d’etre; although she will tell you, “it’s nothing special”. In my view, that’s not for Donovan to decide.

Born in 1969, the year Neil Amstrong walked on the moon, in Queens, New York, she hasn’t moved far away; living and working in Brooklyn, New York, today. Her large-scale installations, sculptures, drawings, and prints comment on the effects of accumulation and aggregation. Lauded for her commitment to the process of making, she has earned acclaim for her ability to exploit the inherent physical characteristics of an object in order to transform it into works that generate unique perceptual anomaly and ethereal effects. 

She is considered to be a process artist who uses various artistic fields for work influenced by, or attempts to develop and go beyond, the aesthetic of minimalism; but goes further on to post-minimalism with the use of simple materials, and goes out of the way to say that the art is totally about the aesthetics and has no other meaning. Donovan stresses that her work is not a comment on climate change or political unrest and that the concept is so simple that many of her pieces are not even named.

Donovan’s formal art studies began at the School of Visual Arts (New York) in 1988–89 a commerical art and design college. Donovan received her BFA (Bachelor of Art) at the Corcoran College of Art and Design (Washington DC) in 1997 MFA (Master of Art)  from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1999.  After completing her undergraduate work, she worked from a studio in Baltimore and began participating in group exhibitions at galleries and non-profit art spaces. Her first major exhibition was ArtSites 96 at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, where she presented the first incarnation of her now-famous toothpick cubes.

Reportedly Donovan held her first solo exhibition, ‘Resonances’, at Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington DC, a commercial gallery; although reviews on this exhibition are non-existent. However, in the same year, while working with Carlton Newton, she went on to exhibit New Sculpture at Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, and this was a documented success.

The major breakthrough came in 1999. Donovan presented ‘Whorl’, an installation made out of approximately 4,000 kilos of white nylon fibre that was bundled into units and then spread out on the floor in an expanding spiral pattern or whorl. Soon after she relocated to New York and was invited to participate in the 2000 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she presented a floor installation (Ripple, 1998) made of cut electrical cable. 

In early 2003, to a fanfare of review in the New York Times, Village Voice and Art in America among others, Donovan occupied the entire Ace Gallery space at 274 Hudson Street in New York with a series of installations built specifically for the gallery. These installations represent her signature and include Haze (2003), which is composed entirely of translucent plastic drinking straws stacked against a wall and reinforced by the adjoining walls to create a monumental sculpture with ethereal effects. The floor installation Nebulous (2002) is made entirely of Scotch tape that has been unspooled and unplanned ‘woven’ into interconnected units. 

The review of Donovan’s work from the Ace gallery goes on to read like a menu – Moiré (1999) consists of large spools of adding machine paper that is manipulated and layered to form radiating patterns that shift with the position of the viewer. Colony (2000) is composed of cut pieces of standard pencils at various lengths, which are arranged on the floor to suggest the architectural sprawl of urban development. Transplanted (2001) expanded upon her previous projects with torn pieces of tar paper in order to create a monumental slab of material occupying a footprint of over 25-feet square. Strata (2000) is another expansive floor installation made of pooled and layered pieces of dried Elmer’s glue. 

None of the menu-like facts from the Ace Gallery tells you much about the art or the artist. In some ways, the catalogue acts a disservice; a bland CV, a rendition of events without really telling you anything about the installations. After reading the reviews and looking at the photos, I can only draw a conclusion based on the artist’s own view, “It’s nothing special”! But what do I know?

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