Tara Donovan part 3

November 10, 2008


There is something delightful about experiencing a work of art that challenges you in both physical and psychic ways—ultimately evoking a sense of joy through wonderment. Over the past few years I have shifted my taste in art from one that seeks mental and emotional affectation to one that seeks delight through curiosity. I suppose that this shift signals a broader movement from critical apprehension to optical effect/affect. What ever the case, I am encouraged to see that the exposition of raw technique has enabled a broader spectrum of viewers to be engaged by the art, and that the technical methodology of Donovan’s work is capable of developing an immediate dialogue between different disciplines.

The interdisciplinary qualities of Donavan’s work emerge from both the naturalistic figuration and the technical assemblage of the work. The technical assemblage of her work is profound in several ways; it is an inspired experiment in self similarity and flexible modularity, it is an experiment in generative geometry, it is an investigation into phenomenal material effects, and it is a conceptual thesis on the nature of synthetic human objects and environments.

The art of critical apprehension is a mode of artistic production that requires a degree of critical literacy in order to appreciate the work. When ever you hear some one say “my five year old could do that.” This is what I am talking about. The art of critical apprehension does a few positive things; it is remarkably open in its ability to absorb new modes of representation and in doing so creates a progressive project that is rich in dialogue. There is a flaw in this however, and it is this, that as this mode of artistic progression has renewed its self over the past 60 years, it has invariably created a canon that is increasingly internal to its own dialogue. In doing so, Art has isolated its self from a broader cultural discourse; it has become an industry of cocktail parties that merits work for its political value rather than its beauty. Beauty is after all the core mission of art.

The art of optical effect/affect comes from a very different place than the art of critical apprehension. When ever you hear some one say “How’d they do that?” this is what I am talking about. The creation of wonderment is an established tradition in art—its roots are intertwined with the Baroque study of the Sublime—and it draws from our inability to immediately comprehend either the scale and or structure of an object. The “affective” qualities of Donavan’s work is perhaps best illustrated in her “Bluffs” sculpture which is constructed from stacked and corbelled clear buttons. This sculpture is optically affective because it appears to blur in a very discomforting way, and although this is also a material effect, it is one of the only sculptures that I have seen which has physically affected me. Donovan’s work is at its most Sublime when it has deployed the simplest of materials without the use of adhesives, as illustrated by her “Toothpick Cube”, which exploits the stacking and tangling qualities of the toothpick mass to form the material into a perfect cube. All of Donavan’s work transforms the basic materials into new textures and forms, that through self similarity and aggregation create remarkable new material phenomena, it is an art of special effects, made even more profound by its total rejection of cosmetics.

Tara Donovan part 2

November 10, 2008


In architecture we are currently obsessed with self similarity and flexible modularity. Many would chalk this up to the increasingly generic study of parametric design; I however see this as an ethical conundrum that promises to help architecture evolve out of the current serial digital hegemony. Donovan work is a meditation on the capacity of aggregation to achieve a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts, thereby making the part even more profound. She allows the physical elasticity and flexibility of her chosen component to manifest its inherent properties through structural forces and environmental forces present in her composition. Many contemporary parametric practices fail in their pursuit of an industrialized mode of production because they create idiosyncratic cellular designs that are little more than assemblage of unique snow flakes. This ethos runs head long into issues of efficiency and conceptual rigor. It is far easier to create module that shape-shifts than it is to create a self same unit whose behavior is informed by a property of its structure or dimension. And while this may seem like splitting hairs, in production it is the difference between generating a thousand totally unique pieces from scratch, and creating a thousand similar pieces that has a limited repertoire of operations performed on them.

The generative geometry of Tara Donavan’s work is an inspiration to many practicing architects. Donovan controls the sphere in two remarkable ways, her paper plates sculpture is derived from the folding and halving of typical paper picnic plates, the “thickening” of the scalloped edge enables Donovan to create an angular offset of perhaps 1 degree, when aggregated these 1 degree steps create a sphere of variable completion, it is an architecture of wedges. Donavan’s second spherical sculpture is composed of mirrored Mylar sheets that are rolled into cones of equal height. The effect is a conical aggregation that supplies only a tracery definition of the sphere’s surface. In each of her works Donovan shows a remarkable capacity to take a single geometric operation, and when aggregated en mass it transforms the material into something incomprehensible and beautiful.

Tara Donovan Part 1

November 10, 2008


The phenomenal material effects in Donovan’s work stem from many of the strategies listed above. There is a tremendous amount of introspection that occurs wherein the optical effects of the material are amplified by their pairing with an aggregation strategy. For example the mirrored Mylar of the her spherical Mylar sculpture would not be nearly as effective if she had not rolled the reflective material, thereby allowing the reflective material to pickup the tonal and luminance differences in the floor and ceiling. Like wise her selection of Styrofoam cups for her ceiling installation reveals the slight translucency of the cups, that when backlit transforms the reading of the construction from coffered to a surface inscribed with circles. In a sense, Donovan is a master of revealing the latent physical properties of ordinary materials.

Donovan’s work reveals the nature of synthetic human objects and environments. I am of the mind that the distinction between the natural and manmade world is a false one. That humans are apart of nature, we are in the most glorious sense, animals. Therefore all of our production, be it material or intellectual, is with in the realm of nature. A better distinction might be the difference between toxic and non-toxic processes. If we redefine “nature” in these terms, then it is easy to find examples outside of human production that are “toxic” to the environment. Donovan’s work places many of the more toxic items of human production into formal dialogue with natural generative geometries.