Art review: Tara Donovan at San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art


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Tara Donovan’s best sculptures employ thousands of ordinary household objects in installations whose structural integrity seems miraculous. Adjusted to respond to the architecture of the space in which they are installed, they establish a perceptual bridge between object and environment. The intuited recognition is felt in a viewer’s bones as much as it might be seen with his eyes. ‘Uncanny’ is the word that keeps coming to mind.

Sometimes, though — and too often in the traveling survey of 15 installations at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art — the sculptures seem to be little more than clever, arbitrary accumulations of material. Once grasped, they just sort of sit there.


Thousands of white-plastic drinking cups are abutted in stacks of varying heights to make rolling, wintry “landscapes” emanating translucent light. Mylar mounds suggest synthetic moss, while balls of crinkled paper plates are like gigantic virus molecules.

Untold hundreds of lavender buttons, glued in organic stacks that rise from the floor, yield the appearance of man-made stalagmites or a coral reef. Loops of Scotch-tape unfurl across the floor in irregular, apparently random designs, like a patch of ice that turns out to be sticky rather than slippery.

In each case, you admire more than engage these works, impressed by the cleverness of their materials and fabrication. But an aura of inertia plays against them. It’s as if, once parsed, there’s no expectation of further insight.

Other Donovan sculptures could not be more different — notably, a trio of 3-foot cubes made from toothpicks, straight pins and sheets of cracked glass, all made in 2004, and the 2003 “Haze Neblina,” a vast wall lined with literally hundreds of thousands of plastic drinking straws. Fragility has never seemed more powerful, an inherent contradiction that turns out to be surprisingly moving.

The cube sculptures came about by happy accident, when Donovan knocked a box of toothpicks to the floor. Most spilled out and made the expected mess, but one cluster of toothpicks that had been tightly packed into a corner of the box held its shape. Intrigued, the artist tried to reproduce the effect. The scale grew. At the size of 3 feet per side, the finished cube seems like a bundle of potential energy that has been corralled into unlikely service.

What holds the thousands of toothpicks together? Adhesion — a combination of density, friction and gravity, from which a few stray toothpicks on the floor around the base seem determined to escape.


Those errant shards are important to the sculpture, however, because they hold the visual key to what could conceivably happen, especially in a seismically unstable setting. In a world that is alive and constantly changing, the static sculpture seems to expand beyond its physical limitations, encompassing the floor beneath your feet, the room in which you stand and the inherent instability of all perceptual experience.

The same happens with the cube of straight pins, although here the silvery, nickel-plated bits of steel add prickly, glinting light to the mix. The tempered glass cube, made from stacked sheets whose blue-green color is like ice, has been whacked hard on all four corners from bottom to top, creating a labyrinth of cracks and bits of glass that may (or may not) portend a block ready to fall to pieces.

Like the toothpick sculpture, these two cubes include bits and pieces scattered around the base that foretell the form’s inevitable dissolution and decay. Entropy interrupted is a powerful theme. Donovan’s sculptures struggle against inescapable degeneration and decline, if only for the moment-by-moment experience during which you perceive the works.

A cube is a horizontal and vertical grid pushed into three dimensions, a kind of abstract map of the modern built environment. “Haze Neblina” pulls actual architecture into the mix.

The work consists of what might be millions of plastic drinking straws, cut to varying lengths and stacked in irregular rows, perpendicular to a very long wall. At each end, side walls act to contain the sculpture.

The irregularity of the straws’ lengths results in a surface that is not flat; instead it bubbles and undulates, like a pillowy bank of cumulus clouds or a spreading vertical expanse of soapsuds. The sculpture’s temporary reality moves to the perceptual foreground. An intellectual awareness of being bounded in time is transformed into perceptual experience.

One of the best features of “Haze Neblina” is wholly unexpected, however. As you walk along the length of the wall, either up close to the straws or across the room, the constantly shifting angle of your sight-line creates an optical disruption. Along the way it matches up with the protruding length of some drinking straws, either inside the tube or in the space around it between abutted straws. Visually, the solid gallery wall seems to crackle and shatter, not unlike the way lighting bolts appear to buckle inside clouds. ‘Neblina,’ the word for ‘fog’ in Spanish and Portuguese, seems an apt description.

The traveling exhibition, concluding an 18-month tour, is surprisingly small. (If you happened to see the 2005 Donovan survey at L.A.’s sprawling Ace Gallery, its 13 works provided roughly as full an introduction as this museum show.) The selection is also odd. The show spans 2001 to ‘08, with just one work from each of the first three years and one from ’07.

Helpfully, the museum has installed a selection of Minimal and Post-minimal works from its permanent collection in the space across the street from the former downtown train depot where the Donovan show is installed. (Don’t miss the wonderful two-channel video — a sleek projection showing abstract images of luminous simplicity, paired with a clunky monitor with documentary footage of the extensive drudge-labor involved in producing the projection’s set-ups — by Mexico City artist Melanie Smith.) It provides good context for the repetition of simple materials installed in space-gobbling accumulations that Donovan is trying to bring into the 21st century.

Donovan’s is an uneven accomplishment, to be sure. But at moments it takes your breath away.

-- Christopher Knight

“Tara Donovan,” San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, 1100 Kettner Blvd., (858) 454-3541, through Feb. 28. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Tuesdays. Closed Wednesdays. $10