Tara Donovan, Untitled (Mylar), 2011, Mylar and hot glue, 22" x 36" x 25" (55.9 cm x 91.4 cm x 63.5 cm) © Tara Donovan

Curator's Choice

Tara Donovan

Untitled, 2011

By Michaela Mohrmann

Tara Donovan’s sculptures consistently overturn my assumptions about the use and properties of mass-produced objects that populate my life. Here, metallic mylar tape has been repeatedly folded and amassed into a large-scale cluster of spheres, yet I can’t recognize the material—or is it that I can now finally see the tape for all that it is? This cognitive estrangement goes hand-in-hand with the sense that the work exceeds the limits of my vision. At times, a silver loop of tape can reflect light with a piercing intensity, but if I shift my position by a few steps, the same curve transforms into a dim pocket, a vacuous blackness that my eyes can’t penetrate enough or, rather, at all. The work’s structure is also elusive, befuddling. The baroque coils of mylar sometimes seem to dissolve the Minimalist geometry of the spheres they compose. There is no clear sequence or hierarchy of parts directing my attention. Like blooming mold or complex molecular chains, the work’s orbs appear to have the potential to keep multiplying in all directions—a promise of growth so infinite that it underscores the limits of human comprehension.

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The entire encounter is as mesmerizing as it is humbling; I’m left interrogating the entire eye-to-brain relay that is my chief way of knowing the world. There is, however, something empowering about this position of doubt. It encourages an open-mindedness and self-awareness that dispels received notions in favor of an understanding that is perpetually receptive to new information. This state of mind is akin to Donovan’s own attitude as an artist. She isolates a material and methodically tests the many ways it can be aggregated and manipulated. Her rigorous investigation of form and matter is based in an empirical approach that borders on a scientific method. “I think inspiration is a joke,” Donovan explains, “I think real artists sit down and get to work.” In the doggedly abstract works that this laborious experimentation yields, there is no room for self-expression or social commentary, Donovan rightfully insists. Yet, as I walk around Untitled and slip into a perplexed and inquisitive mindset, I glimpse the oblique, political implications of such an experience. In times defined by online echo chambers and disinformation campaigns, Donovan’s art recalibrates my mind by highlighting my blind spots; defying my preconceptions on things most familiar to me; and using wonder to trigger not belief, but curiosity. If Donovan is (and she is) part of a lineage of Minimalist artists heralded by Frank Stella’s dictum, “what you see is what you see,” then the daring of her oeuvre can be located in its implicit retort, in a question that punctures the machoistic certitude of the rhetoric subtending Minimalism. To them, to me, she asks, “But is what you see, what you see?”

  • Essays — Curator's Choice: Tara Donovan, Apr 19, 2020