Approaching the entrance of the Rice University Art Gallery, one gets the impression of a steep cloud bank, or a heap of snow along the highway just after a plow has sheared the edge. Its surface is uneven, with portions swelling in different-sized bumps, featuring occasional hints of red and blue tints that give the illusion of a natural surface. As you walk around the room to look at this formation from different angles, portions of the surface appear to break up into odd geometric patterns of shadow and light. What substance did Tara Donovan use to create this effect? Plastic straws.
"Haze," currently on view at the gallery, consists of hundreds of thousands of transparent straws stacked like firewood against the back wall of the gallery. It spans the entire width of the 44-foot wall and is more than 12 feet tall. At times, the contours at the top suggest a mountain range, with a band of light glowing to emphasize the horizon. The installation is inviting, comforting, worth spending some time with.
Tara Donovan's media are common, mass-produced objects that most of us use all the time -- and ignore. Recent works have used toothpicks, adding machine tape, adhesive tape, paper plates, twist-ties, tar paper and good old Elmer's glue. Each piece employs a single product in huge quantities. One work at a recent show, "Transplanted," used roofing paper, ripped and stacked in a rectangle to create what Lilly Wei called a "glinting, undulating construction resembling a crusty, geometricized lava bed" (Art in America, October 2003).
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The effect of "Haze" is similar to that of some of the rooms in the Cy Twombly Gallery, where immense canvases of primarily one color overwhelm the visitor. This installation exudes the same kind of tranquillity. It would have been nice if there'd been a bench to sit on a while and let this piece do its work.
Donovan's art differs from the other assemblages made from everyday objects, in that each piece uses only one material, making use of its properties. She creates something new and different without altering the basic building blocks, in the same way that a pile of snowflakes arranges itself into a drift.
Creating this kind of artwork is an arduous process. Based on cheapness and availability, Donovan chooses some material, studies it and plays with large quantities, searching for aspects of color and pattern that can be exploited on a large scale. There's a similarity to the guy in the office who's always playing with paper clips during meetings, twisting them into odd little shapes, linking them together. Imagine that guy given a few thousand paper clips to play with at once. Imagine his finding a way to twist or stack them together to suggest ocean waves or curling hair.
Once she finds a pattern, Donovan builds a small piece of the installation and comes up with a set of rules for assembling the complete work in a series of repeating steps. The pieces are usually labor-intensive, requiring the help of many assistants. (At the Rice gallery, students were given the opportunity to work side by side with the artist to complete "Haze.") This construction process imitates organic growth: A few simple rules are followed repeatedly to build something large and complex.
Accident and error add their own special touches to the final piece. When "Haze" was set up for its New York installation, some construction work nearby knocked a few straws out of place. Nothing went back quite the same way. When installing the work here, Donovan brought a lot of caulk to make sure it stayed in place.
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Since her work is site-specific, it's rebuilt for each showing. The change of environment causes additional variations. In its original installation at a gallery in New York, the tar paper piece took the shape of a rectangle in a rectangular room. It was re-created in another gallery as a wedge flowing from an atrium into a larger space. Reinstalling each of these pieces in a new venue requires a different kind of attention to detail. The artist herself supervised the lighting of "Haze," creating shadows from specific irregularities in the installation's surface and using the reflective and refractive qualities of the straws to create an illusion of color difference. The darker lower third of the piece graduates into the lighter higher portions, finally culminating in a band of bright reflection on the wall along the top.
Sometimes variations in even mass-produced products add their own unintended consequences. For example, "Haze" was constructed from seemingly identical clear plastic drinking straws. These are manufactured with the same machinery that the factory uses to make colored straws. Supposedly, the equipment is thoroughly cleaned between production runs. But in the Rice installation, some of the straws contain residues of red and blue that cause subtle tints in places.
The Andrea Nasher Collection owns "Haze." There's something odd about "owning" an object of art that is rebuilt and destroyed every time it's shown. As Donovan told Julie L. Belcove in an October interview for www.magazine.com, "I'm not really interested in making these static objects that just get moved from place to place." It's as if the visual arts have moved into the realm of performance. "Haze" can be seen as not so much a work of art as a script for one.
Some observers of the current art scene suspect that a lot of new work is created for those who like talking about art rather than those who simply want to look at it. On hearing of a piece consisting of a huge number of plastic straws stacked against a wall, such suspicion easily could be raised. It would be increased by something Donovan once said about graduate school: that it allowed her to further develop "a language with which to speak about" her work. In the case of "Haze," at least, there's no need to worry. The work itself is a thing of beauty and power.