Tara Donovan’s Bluffs looks glamorous and luminous, seen from an adjacent gallery, 30 feet away, in the Milwaukee Art Museum. It might be some exquisite, spiraling coral, or crystals that have grown from the floor of some enchanted cavern, or a mountain range carved into vertiginous towers. Or it might be Oz, as conceived by Antoni Gaudí.
Its glowing presence, coiled energy and structural complexity make Bluffs feel bigger than it is. The piece stands maybe four feet tall at its peak, and its footprint is maybe 4×5.
Still, its proportions give it the grandeur of the skyline of some miraculous city. It is architectural, hierarchical and daring. The outlying spires defer to three majestic towers just off the center of the piece. They step up 3-2-1 to the pinnacle. Deep, shadowed canyons among the towers add intrigue. Dizzying cantilevers in almost every spire add vertiginous suspense.
The piece is still, but sinuous shapes suggest movement. I’ve leaned on the architectural metaphor, but an organic one could apply. Donovan’s Bluffs could be anemones frozen in mid-writhe and sway. Bluffs appears to have grown up with no particular plan, in shapes that rose naturally from materials and process, as corals and cities grow. Glamorous as it is, Bluffs feels natural. It is elegant without contrivance.
What lies beneath all this beauty, grandeur and sophistication? A punchline: Buttons.
Simple, cheap, clear plastic buttons. Thousands of them.
Any one of them appears to be colorless and clear. But strange things happen as light travels through masses of them: It turns a dusky pink/mauve that I can’t recall seeing anywhere else. The varying densities within the piece make for an infinite scale of saturation of this beguiling color, which changes subtly with point of view.
I spent a good deal of time around Bluffs, watching and listening to people as well as looking at the piece. This little exchange between a girl of 10, or so and her mother typified the reactions:
“They’re… buttons, Mom!”
“Yes, Elizabeth, they are buttons. OK, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
A conceptual beauty lies behind the physical, structural and sensual beauty of Bluffs. We take away not only the memory of the piece, but the image of a savvy New York artist (native born in 1969), holding in her hand a nearly worthless common item and thinking: Hmmm, I could make something beautiful of that.
What a leap of imagination! And what a work ethic. Donovan spent endless hours — days and months, I sure (in Zen-like calm, I would hope) — gluing button after button into shapes that would eventually delight a mother and daughter in Milwaukee.
Bluffs is the Milwaukee Art Museum’s latest acquisition for its permanent collection.
The museum and ThirdCoast Digest are running a contest related to this piece: Guess the number of buttons and win a one-year family membership to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Place your guess in a comment box at the end of the story (email address required, but will not be published). Closest guess wins. We’ll announce the winner at the end of this summer series on the M.A.M. permanent collection.