For the last 20 years, the American sculptor Tara Donovan has been making art out of the artificial: plastic cups, drinking straws, Mylar tape, those mini golf pencils, even the humble Slinky toy. With these and an array of other materials, Donovan constructs site-specific works that recall landscapes or organic forms. On the eve of the publication of “Tara Donovan: Fieldwork” (Rizzoli, $60), by Nora Burnett Abrams, and an accompanying retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Donovan described pieces of her work and spoke about her creative process and philosophy, as well as the whole “starving artist” thing: “I started out working with mass-produced materials because they were what was accessible to me as a poor art student — they were cheap.”
“With every project, I isolate a new material and have to figure it all out from the beginning. I’m always looking for certain physical traits that can somehow be activated outside of the material itself. Transparency and reflectivity are important, because those traits respond to light, and they can be amplified or subdued according to the conditions in the space. A single drinking straw has a very clear purpose that’s universal, but a million straws — together they become something else entirely. They take on ethereal and atmospheric qualities that aren’t present when you’re just observing a single straw.
“For this piece [pictured at top] I started out working with index cards, but I can’t make art out of things that are going to disintegrate. So I sourced those styrene plastic cards, which I’d first worked with for an installation at Pace in 2014. I was particularly interested in privileging the edge of the card as a means to develop horizontal strata that would ascend.
“Within these materials there are these fugitive colors, blues and greens and yellows, that pronounce themselves when you’re looking at the edge even though they’re seemingly blank white cards when you look at them individually.”
“This piece took on a variety of forms in the studio. I started working with plastic cups and kept coming back to the obvious nature of how they’re packaged, and that I could stack them in this horizontal orientation where they would crest at varying heights and it would create this plane — an undulating, pixelated landscape — but it would still remain a cup, despite its being composed of a million parts. It was really about the simplicity of being able to stack them. It’s more about that kind of discovery.”
“I think of my process almost as a re-manufacturing of a manufactured material, and I think that it’s inevitable that what results goes back to nature. I never have a set idea in mind of what an overall composition will look like; it really grows out of a doing and making and a sense of play and an idea of chance.
“The Mylar sculpture came out of an attempt to harness the reflective surface of the material into condensed units. I had the Mylar cut into circles, and then I folded them into these cones — it’s very simple geometry, the cone building off of itself, which then becomes a fully complete sphere. The size of the circle determines the size of the ball that it makes, which allows me to construct the piece with varying-sized balls of material, where the light would reflect at different depths and make the piece shift from a shimmering silver to a very deep black.”
“The wall installation is a hybrid approach that functions as both sculpture and drawing. And then it utilizes the architecture of the space as a frame to contain the meandering dispersion of the material. So I can make the piece in sections and link it together like a puzzle, and it can expand indefinitely within any space that I want it to.
“At a certain point, my hand disappears, and it’s as though the pieces could generate new forms on their own infinitely.”
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