It is hard not to feel a pang of disappointment on entering the American sculptor Tara Donovan’s first show at Pace’s London space. An artist-magician of sorts, she typically dazzles you with transformations of everyday consumer flotsam into landscapes and organic forms, and then invites you to get up close and see how the trick is done. In Pace’s large, airy gallery, there were no snowy mountains conjured from polystyrene cups, no giant gauzy spores fashioned from acrylic rods or milky stalagmites made from buttons.
Instead, the exhibition condenses her longtime interest in using Minimalism’s truth to materials, and Process Art’s transparency of making, as means to explore the illusionism that earlier iconoclasts sought to explode. In place of her well-known voluminous works, in which millions of identical little parts repeat through space according to a simple methodology (stacking, twisting, etc), a new series entitled Compositions (all works 2017) lines the gallery walls. At first blush these appear to be identically sized square paintings, or drawings in shades of grey. Palimpsests of dancing geometric shapes point to Donovan’s concerns with depth and surface, Agnes Martin-like strips signal her Minimalist forebears and textile patterns suggest her repetitive and labour-intensive methods, comparable to crafts like embroidery and weaving.
Up close, these works reveal themselves to be shallow, wall-mounted boxes filled with thin white plastic rectangles of the kind typically used for identification cards. It’s an association that heightens the abstract imagery’s implications: camouflage patterns or polygraphlike scratchy zigzags suggest social order, surveillance and the individual’s relationship to the crowd. Stacked so that only their edges are visible, the cards form planes of light and shade that vary depending on how densely they are packed. For all the display of labour, Donovan has a playful approach to the formal and physical qualities of traditional sculpture and painting. The shading that suggests depth on a flat picture plane, for instance, turns out to be literal depth, created by the gaps between cards. Then there’s the way the imagery grows lighter or darker as you walk from one side of a composition to another, like a sculpture viewed in the round. It disappears into an almost total whiteout when seen side-on, while we become aware of the physical reality of the cards and their enclosure.
There’s a thrill to seeing a familiar trick, like dissembling the boundaries between sculpture and painting, done well. One of the sticking points of Donovan’s oeuvre, however, is that it doesn’t build on the legacy it mines: Minimalism’s ‘what you see is what you see’ plainness. The sublime, stunning mass and wondrous complexity of earlier installations carry them through. But with the spectacle scaled back, one wonders if Donovan has boxed herself in.
Tara Donovan: Compositions at Pace Gallery, London, 24 January – 9 March
From the April 2018 issue of ArtReview