Styrofoam sorcery

By GREG COOK  |  October 22, 2008

Untitled (Toothpicks) (1996) stands at the beginning of the show, grouped with a similar cube of piled straight pins and a cube of shattered sheets of glass. The grouping and the dim lighting make them all seem dull. A slightly larger version (42 inches cubed) of the pin cube sparkled when on view earlier this year in the ICA’s permanent-collection space. The brighter lighting and the isolation gave it a more alluring tension — how did it miraculously, precariously hold together? That magic is repeated in these works (even as I stared, a few toothpicks tinkled to the floor), but the repetition draws your attention to the classic Minimalist trope of the cube rather than the fresh marvel of the thing.

Of course, Donovan — like Kapoor — is one of Minimalism’s offspring. Three (overlapping) styles of sculpture dominate the art world these days: accumulations of found junk, “crafty” art (traditional crafts like knitting or embroidery turned to fine-art ends), and kinder, gentler minimalism. Donovan’s cubes signal her debt to 1960s Minimalism — basic geometric forms, repetition, a focus on the subtle relationships among objects, the viewer, and the space they share.

UNTITLED (STYROFOAM CUPS): When Donovan is on, she’s sublime.

Classic Minimalism favored the materials of factories (bricks, sheets of steel, fluorescent lights) presented it-is-what-it-is fashion. It tended to be severe, hard-edged, macho, buttoned-up stuff predicated on the notion that if you concentrate on it hard enough and are worthy, you might discover transcendence. Donovan deploys mass-produced materials, but hers come from home and office — tape, toothpicks, disposable cups. Via massing (a few dozen cups is just a few dozen cups, but a million cups is something else) and optical illusion, she magics her ordinary stuff into accessible spectacles and, when she’s really on, something sublime. 

What makes her work so catchy? Part of it’s the irresistible associations. Stacked, glued-together buttons resemble icy stalagmites; loops of Scotch tape creep across a floor like a colonizing frosty moss; large rolls of adding-machine paper resemble the ends of logs; rings of silvery Mylar tape spread up and across a wall like cells or bubbles; black and silver Mylar bulbs resemble coral or disco balls or magic mushrooms. Yet everything she uses remains indisputably identifiable as exactly what it is.

Donovan followed up Untitled (Styrofoam Cups) with its inverse, Untitled (Plastic Cups) (2006/2008). Here more than a million plastic cups are stacked across the floor in a rectangular field that fills most of a large gallery. The shifting heights of the stacks make the thing seem to undulate. It resembles a topographical map of mountains or a rolling sea. (Is there a pun here about cups that hold fluids becoming fluid?) The various accumulations of cups give off different hues — a buttery glow at the peaks and a darker cast in the troughs. At the edges you can identify the individual cups, all the same size and color. But when you scan the expanse, your eyes struggle to focus. It’s pleasantly disorienting.

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