Los Angeles

Tara Donovan

ACE Gallery

Appropriately titled “Tara Donovan: Survey,” the first major West Coast solo exhibition of this artist’s work was also, thanks to the spaciousness of Ace’s city-block-long gallery, something of an early retrospective. At their strongest, Donovan’s works merge literalist fascination with illusionist wonder, demonstrating how an artist can transform material and how art can transform experience. But while this seven-year overview wowed with impressive works, it also revealed some weaknesses.

A 2005 remake of Donovan’s Ripple, 1998, a floor-based work comprising countless bits of electrical wire arranged into a carpet of undulating concentric rings, affirmed, as it did at the 2000 Whitney Biennial, the artist’s talent for generating ambitiously elaborate yet focused and often subtle objects and images from massive quantities of basic materials in tiny units—a methodology present throughout the Ace show. One of Donovan’s best works to date, Ripple possesses the gee-whiz factor that comes with using lots of a little but really engages by getting a lot from a little. It offers not just accumulation but transformation. In its relationships of material to reference and part to whole, it proves evocative in ways complex and conflicted: simultaneously fluid and stiff, fluffy and prickly, seamless and fragmented, and evoking intertwined senses of calm and discomfort.

Equally evocative is Transplanted, 2001/2005, a manicured heap of large tar-paper rectangles, many of them torn along one edge, which, like many of Donovan’s works, tweaks and conflates Earth art and post-Minimalist scatter. Laterally, the edges of each sheet are aligned to produce a rectilinear mass with perfectly plumb sides, more than four feet high and covering an area of roughly fifteen by thirty-five feet. It should add up to a perfectly cubic form, but Donovan has stacked the sheets unevenly to create a top surface that resembles a rolling ocean swell, crested by the paper’s torn edges. Referencing sea- or landscape, and specifically Walter De Maria’s Earth Room works of the ’60s and ’70s, Donovan confronts expansiveness by creating a work that suggests it has been compressed, contained, or cut, blending senses of openness and density.

Transformation and evocation also emerge as themes in Haze, 2003/2005, an arrangement of roughly one million clear-plastic drinking straws stacked like firewood against a gallery wall, their deliberately irregular placement causing soft bulges to push forward and produce the effect of a frozen fog bank. In an untitled work hovering overhead, about a hundred thousand Styrofoam cups, hot-glued together, filled six-hundred-plus square feet of ceiling with porous lumps suggestive of clouds, a giant honeycomb, or an amoeba’s underside. Similarly elemental references also accompanied floor-bound arrangements of pencils, adding-machine paper, and fishing line.

Many of Donovan’s wall-based works proved less rewarding. Best among these was a group of drawings executed by placing bubbles of ink on sheets of foam-core. Other drawings made by exhausting ballpoint pens in rendering endless chains of loops seem too derivative of more ambitious work by Tim Hawkinson, while lightboxes with stickers layered on their insides to create quasi-cosmic atmospheric depth never achieve the kind of transformation Donovan engineers elsewhere. The same is true for two cubes made of thousands of densely piled toothpicks and straight pins purportedly held together by nothing more than gravity and friction. A third cube, made of stacked sheets of shattered glass, is a more successful play on micro and macro, making the others seem like overblown parlor tricks or physics demonstrations, mildly impressive in terms of quantity and feat but failing to take novelty beyond itself.

Christopher Miles