Sculptor Tara Donovan has made a career out of seeing the marvelous in the mundane, and so it was that in a ramshackle auto-body garage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she glimpsed her dream house. Feisty, earthy and up for adventure, Donovan, 38, spied the building three years ago and, when she found herself in a bidding war, threw in one of her works to snag the deal. Today it looks like nothing else on the block, which is crammed with bodegas, modest brick homes and factories-turned-lofts. In the same way that she transforms the everyday materials that make up her work—in her hands, plastic cups call to mind mounds of melting snow, and pencils multiply into sprawling cities—Donovan has turned the gritty space into a striking sculpture of glass and stucco.
Sparking a sense of wonder in the viewer is something of her stock in trade. Step inside Donovan’s front door, and the first thing you see is a narrow stacked staircase that leads your eye to the glass floor above it. At first you think it’s a mirror. But then light comes flooding through the glass, leading your eye up another 17 feet to skylights in the ceiling. Seeing my response to this optical illusion, Donovan recalls the night her dealer, PaceWildenstein’s Marc Glimcher, came to visit: “I laid facedown on the glass floor so that when he looked up, he thought I was flying—or about to come crashing down!”
Donovan’s ingenuity and industry are on view everywhere in her home-cum-studio. Her first major museum survey opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston in October, and in her ground-floor studio, four young female assistants sit around a table as if at a quilting bee, gluing together Styrofoam cups and chatting noisily. Over their heads thousands of the cups are amassed in what looks like a bulging, giant foamy cloud. (The piece, first made in 2005, will be shipped in sections and reassembled on-site.)
Donovan jokes around with the women as she leads me to a brand-new work, to be installed in a museum wall facing Boston Harbor. Seen from afar, it suggests a block of intricately carved ice or undulating waves in an aquarium, but, in fact, it’s made of nothing more than plain old plastic sheeting, unfurled from rolls and folded over and onto itself. Twenty-four feet wide by four feet high, it will be visible from both sides. “I discovered this kind of kaleidoscopic, optical thing it does,” says Donovan, whose pale skin and smoky blue eyes are framed by a perky black bob. Increasingly her work has focused on the way translucent materials affect perception. “I think in terms of infinity—of [the materials] expanding. I’m interested in this idea of a visual, expansive field that has shifting viewpoints.”
Resembling topographies or biomorphic forms, her large-scale works often resonate with the complex geometry found in the natural world. Donovan chooses her material before seeing what she can make of it, using vast quantities of the same mass-produced item and laboriously building forms through careful accumulation until she finds what ICA chief curator Nicholas Baume calls “the tipping point,” when the toothpick or cup ceases to be itself and becomes something entirely different.