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Tara Donovan Ace Gallery, LA

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by Ed Shad

Tara Donovan’s installations are of this world, but are far from ordinary. Most of her assemblages are made from the fringes of cubical desk organizers or Chevy toolboxes: pencils, styrofoam coffee cups, stick pins, toothpicks, fishing wire, shattered glass, roofing felt, and electrical wire. The materials are set, known, and recognizable, but the result is Jacques Costeau’s camera on the ocean floor or a National Geographic image of a remote part of Australia; in other words, Donovan’s world is a bizarre one that we want to visit, and she has no trouble taking us there with brilliant artifice.

Inside the tall, austere spaces of Los Angeles’ Ace Gallery, Donovan arranges a series of sets in which we act, playing our fancies in dream terrarium. Using thousands of multicolor buttons, she creates a floor-size ocean reef, multicolor sponges seemingly sifting the gallery air for enrichment. The next gallery uses fishing wire to conjure a blanket of sea urchins, like hundreds of shimmering ladies’ powder puffs. In her largest installation, Styrofoam cups make up dozens of lit bulges, recalling the underside of a sack of spider eggs.

Organic forms and landscapes are a dominant, yet not entirely encompassing motif in the work. As Michael Knight recently observed, there are minimalist undercurrents, the desire to “eliminate composition and focus on the singular object.” However, if Donovan is a minimalist, it is of a sort that does not mind illusion and poetics. Even Donovan’s large cubes – toothpicks, pins, and glass held together by gravity and friction – are strange surfaces, masses that romantically linger rather than assert themselves in Ace’s large corridors. Donovan seems to be imaginative through and through.

With the fundamental differences of materials creating quite different landscapes, each piece can have a sort of a one hit wonder appeal, and at times, especially in her works on paper, intricate material play becomes obsessive and tedious. The overall appeal of the show, however, much outshines its weaknesses and if nothing else, Donovan’s installations are memorable, and consistently a delight.

May 2005

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