Up close, Tara Donovan’s Haze is like a gorgeous, billowing cloud. Haze covers 32 feet of wall space at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where Donovan (b. 1969, New York) and several assistants installed it last week. From afar, the thing is an amorphous drift, the main feature of which is a mountain-range top edge very near the 20-or-so foot ceiling.
Bulges and undulations in the surface become more perceptible close up. The piece also absorbs sound; at first, it has the muffling effect of a cloakroom. But put your ear up close to it and it seems to generate a faint, intriguing whisper. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the work is the honeycomb that becomes visible only in the bit you happen to view straight on and at eye level. Otherwise, everything looks like white cotton. Haze is at once monumental and intimate, static in fact and dynamic in effect.
And what do you suppose is the stuff of Haze?
Straws. Plain, clear plastic drinking straws. About three million of them, stacked like cord wood and affixed to the wall at one end with silicone adhesive. The bulges and undulations differ with each installation, as they have to do with the reach and aesthetics of local assistants, who sculpt and mold the bulges.
During the the press preview, Donovan assistant Eva Lewitt (yes, Sol Lewitt’s daughter) examined Haze intently and adjusted individual straws with tweezers. Which sounds crazy and obsessive, but her concentration and serious purpose impressed. One straw out of three million matters to Donovan and company.
Haze is part of a major Donovan show at the museum. MAM owns one piece, Bluffs, a gorgeous miniature landscape of dizzying spires and canyons made of tens of thousands of clear plastic buttons.
“A lot of button companies are in upstate New York,” Donovan said, as she chatted with journalists touring the preview. “I brought buttons home and started messing around with them.”
Straight pins, pressed onto four large, flat surfaces and arranged in geometric patterns or in spectra of density; flexible, resilient mylar sheets folded over into sensual shapes and stacked into a window cutout; and starburst shrubs formed from clear plastic rods (a sort of base material for other sorts of plastic manufacturing) are among the other wonders of this show.
The translucent mylar (Untitled) takes on the color of lasagna noodles in Donovan’s arrangement. Curator Brady Roberts noted that Donovan often makes the most synthetic materials look and feel organic.
“The mylar, you just cut if off and fold it over any way you want it,” Donovan said. “So it’s different every time.
“I don’t have a running list of materials I want to work with. I never know exactly what the thing will be. It’s pretty arbitrary, honestly. I’m attracted to transparency and luminosity.”
Roberts picked up on that and wisely removed the long-established coverings from the east wall of the gallery. Lakeside light pours into it now and makes Donovan’s work all the more dazzling. The press showing was in the afternoon; I will return to see it in morning light.
Unlike Haze and the mylar piece, which were assembled on site and are unique in their Milwaukee variations, the four Drawings (Pins) came to town as finished artworks.
How many pins are in the drawings? someone asked.
“I don’t know,” Donovan said. “Pins are purchased by the pound. It’s a lot of pins.”
Donovan likes the social aspect of making her works. In her New York studio, she and assistants performing repetitive tasks — breaking plastic rods to specified lengths, for example.
“It’s very relaxing and therapeutic,” she said. “We sit around a table and chit the chat. The assistants all become very good friends. It tends to get personal really quick.”
Donovan’s practice usually involves austerity of means, and she makes rules for herself. (Most artists do; without restrictions, progress comes hard.) One rule limits her to whatever humble material she’s selected and to some sort of fastener, so the material determines the form to an extent. She broke that rule in the crystalline pieces made of plastic rods.
“There are steel armatures inside,” she said. “You need forklifts and chain hoists to move them. We had to figure how we could make them and how we could lift them. There was a lot of problem-solving involved.
“I wouldn’t say it’s efficient to do these things. It takes and army and it takes time, because everything is hand-made. But the making is the reward.”
Currents 35: Tara Donovan opens Saturday, May 5, and runs through Oct. 7, at the Milwaukee Art Museum.