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Tara Donovan's Different Kind of Beauty at MAM

May. 7, 2012
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Tara Donovan is a contemporary artist riding a fairly powerful career trajectory. A 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, she has entered the hallowed halls of a number of museums, including the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) with her fantastical sculpture Bluffs (2009). This piece is a landscape, a castle, an icy barrier reef. Whichever way you choose to interpret its craggy form, it physically boils down to masses of clear buttons and glue. That doesn't diminish its magic in the least bit. This sculpture is currently housed in the Minimalist gallery, in conversation with, but a couple of generations removed from, the conceptual structures of Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt. As part of its “Currents” series showcasing contemporary art, MAM brings in Donovan on a bigger, even more beautiful scale.

I don't want to throw out too many spoilers because part of the pleasure in Donovan's work is the element of surprise. Suffice to say, she works with some pretty ordinary things—stickpins, for example. To the ordinary person in an ordinary setting, they are utilitarian, unruly and even irritating when fingers are poked by the business end. In Donovan's art, stickpins are coaxed into graceful and shimmering abstractions on large canvases. Time for a true confession: I first saw these works out of the corner of my eye across the gallery and thought, “How weirdly conventional, paintings.” The joke's on me. These are big concoctions made up of tiny, tiny parts, which come together like pointillist studies.

The surfaces in Donovan's installations are often sleek and allude to organic forms writ large from countless smaller parts. But when compared with the unpredictable and messy qualities of nature, for example the choppy Lake Michigan waves or casually loose patterns of flying birds visible through the expansive gallery windows, these sculptures have a reassuring sensibility. They are far more controlled and precise than the world outside.

There is also something awesome about being confronted with massive quantities of objects. An installation called Haze consists of about 3 million individual pieces, coalescing as a big, dreamy cloud. A degree of the sublime is conjured out of the most ordinary things, transformed en masse to something much greater than the individual part. Other floor sculptures are like spiky white puffs, perhaps arctic hedgehogs or Pomeranians. Move closer, and see how the squares have become spheres. As Donovan told The New York Times in 2008, “So much about the art-making process is about paying attention. It's about looking and noticing things.”

Each work begs to be viewed from near and far, for the viewer to rest and stroll in front of its surface. This motion adds the special ingredient of shifting light, activating surfaces that glisten like crystals or kaleidoscopes. The metallic color of those stickpins modulates in color and density, calling to mind the richness of Byzantine icons, albeit in a modernist voice and an altogether different kind of beauty. 


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