‘The frame is the room’: Tara Donovan’s road-trip worthy exhibition at MCA Denver
IF YOU GO …
What: Tara Donovan, ‘Fieldwork’
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
When: Through Jan. 27
How much: $8 (free for 18 and under, $5 for students, seniors, military)
More info: mcadenver.org
After two years and six months of working together on a monumental new exhibition, artist Tara Donovan and Museum of Contemporary Art Denver curator Nora Burnett Abrams came to Anderson Ranch Arts Center to talk about their collaboration in July.
It was a fascinating conversation about nontraditional materials, Donovan’s sculptural process, site-specific installation, and so on. Sure. And it was accompanied by a big-screen slideshow of her work.
But, truth be told, nothing Donovan could say, and nothing anybody could put in words or photos or video can communicate the road trip-worthy experience of being with these objects in-person at Donovan’s meticulous, mad, mind-bending “Fieldwork” takeover of the entire MCA this autumn.
Donovan transforms mundane materials — Slinky toys, Mylar tape, plastic drinking straws, index cards — into extraordinary things.
“Originally I started working with cheap, mass-produced materials because they were cheap and easily accessible and I was a poor art student,” Donovan said at Anderson Ranch.
But she stuck with these as her creative building blocks because she found surprising depths in these ordinary materials. Even when she could afford to work with stone or higher-end materials, she chose to continue trying to tease out new meanings from the kinds of things you might find in your junk drawer at home — toothpicks and rubber bands and such.
“It’s evolved so much over time,” she explained. “There’s something about a drinking straw. We all know what its intended purpose is. But a wall of a million drinking straws becomes something else entirely. It becomes this ephemeral atmospheric effect. You’re left in a suspension of disbelief.”
One of the first pieces you experience at the MCA is Donovan’s “Haze,” a pixelated vertical landscape of straws — literally millions of straws — stacked against a wall and nearly reaching the ceiling, where they break unevenly like a crumbling edifice. It can make you dizzy taking it in from different angles, seeing a faint reflection of yourself in this undulating plane of straws.
An adjacent gallery is filled with the massive black tar paper sculpture “Transplanted,” which looks like a flattened meteorite or hardened lava, with a planar surface that changes appearance seen from different angles. It’s so big that it forces you into corners and makes you scooch around the room, which is lined with Donovan’s silk-screens of shattered glass.
The similarly huge “Untitled (Mylar)” fills another room with something reminiscent of a coral reef, made up of Mylar folded into cones and pressed together to make orbs that she’s clustered. Again, you’re forced to circle it and study it while skirting between its outer edges and the wall.
Crammed into another gallery are what must be millions of small index cards piled a story high into forms reminiscent of the ubiquitous hoodoos in the Utah desert.
Burnett said she wanted to make a show that was both sculptural and environmental, an experience that “straddles objects and installation and landscape.”
These sculptures overwhelm, they appear to barely fit. That’s by design here. As Donovan put it: “The frame is the room.”
And consider the humble Slinky. Donovan has manipulated and twisted thousands of the classic toys into a creature-like abstract form. (She has also pressed Slinkys nearly flat against the a wall, snaking them together to create a different effect.)
The optical illusions in Donovan’s work are wondrous without being gimmicky. You walk out of this show and you see beautiful new potential in the junk in your pockets. Her “pin drawings,” for instance, look from afar like Frank Stella canvases of basic geometric designs. Step up close and you find they’re actually made up of thousands of dress pins staggered together to create form out of shadow. In her “Composition (Cards)” series of 13 pieces she has arranged and framed the carts sideways to create images and a mystifying holographic effect.
There’s more. But really you have to see it to believe it all. Donovan’s show runs through January.
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