Tara Donovan: Playing Her
Cards Right

The decks are stacked in favor of multimedia artist in new Pace show
Tara Donovan coaxes, interesting shapes and patterns from thousands of cards and plastic rods.

Stepping inside Tara Donovan's exhibit at Pace Gallery in downtown Palo Alto, is like entering a minimalist's idea of heaven. Whiteness makes its presence felt. Or inversely, if you prefer, color is entirely absent. The artwork, separated into three categories, maintains an orderly sense of Nordic design.

Large framed pieces reflecting faint patterns and gradients against clean hardwood floors. The eye, used to overstimulation, will need a minute to settle into this display of starkness. But once it does, the process of engagement is like glimpsing the underbelly of an osprey against a winter sky.

What Donovan leaves out of her work is not accidental. When asked via email if she was simply disinterested in color, she replied, "Color is often what I like to refer to as a 'fugitive' quality in my work. It is a trait that often only becomes evident with accumulation. With the cards, blues and yellows develop in the shadowy interstices between the cards." Donovan here is referring to the Composition (Cards), her newest series of stacked styrene cards.

The central gallery contains ten of these cards. They are trompe l'oeils, framed to look like paintings but only mimic their form. Standing up close, I was unable to detect blues and yellows, but could make out the in between spaces. One card in particular seemed to catch the movement of my shadow like a reflection in a dark mirror. Donovan intentionally creates her work with this play of light in mind: "Transparency and reflectivity are important because these traits are responsive in the sense that they can be amplified or subdued according to the light conditions around them."

From the entrance, you can see a sculpture in the back room. At first glance, it bears little relation to the Cards. But after reconsidering the exhibit as a coherent statement, the Cards moved further away from being static in their perfectly square frames. If you approached them from side angles or even underneath, they began to look like cross sections taken, like specimens on a slide, from a three dimensional sculpture like the one at the back of the gallery.

Donovan too considers them to be a type of hybrid: "They have the linearity of drawing, the materiality of painting and the volumetric depth of sculpture." She has to reconsider the very notion of the frame itself. "When you are dealing with massive volumes of material, it becomes necessary to think about framing in a more conceptual way. I relate very strongly to the modern painting discourse where the canvas is posited as an infinite field only delimited by the frame."

Donovan is known for using vast quantities of everyday materials like plastic cups and straws (see an earlier work entitled Haze from 2003). The Cards series disguises this fact in a way that the sculpture does not. Untitled (2016), according to Pace, is made of "tens of thousands of clear acrylic rods." Physically, it resembles a giant tidepool creature arisen from Neptune's distant atmosphere. Donovan explains that her process is "a kind of dialogue with a chosen material. Chance is of primary importance in the beginning as I experiment with a new material. As a project progresses, the dialogue becomes more nuanced."

This dialogue of chance is admittedly less apparent in a third series: Drawing (Pins). In two framed pieces, we see hundreds of nickel-plated steel pins painstakingly placed on the canvases. To create them, Donovan "plot[s] out a design for each one beforehand. The production of them requires an incredible amount of repetitive labor that almost becomes meditative. I think of the pin pieces almost like a very manual form of grey-scale printing." They do have a mandala-like quality, if colder and more restive. Most of all, they represent the artist's intense sense of rigor and discipline.

Tara Donovan
Thru Mar 5
Pace Gallery, Palo Alto

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