The Madness of Ordinary Material
In their landmark 1984 book, Order Out Of Chaos, Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers describe how, in unstable conditions, otherwise disparate and chaotic masses are capable of organizing themselves into coherent systems. Their examples include mold growth, termite colonies, and a variety of chemical reactions. Upon entering the room with Tara Donovan’s floor sculpture "Nebulous" (2000), on view at her stunning debut solo exhibit in New York at the Ace Gallery in Tribeca, one has the uncanny sense of being in the presence of something alien, cold, and beautiful that is rapidly multiplying, spreading across the gallery’s cement floor: a rare fungus that grows deep underwater, bacteria magnified thousands of time, strange crystal formations. Fashioned from endless strips of Scotch tape set on edge and curled back to form irregular cells, "Nebulous" accumulates into dizzying, centerless rhythms, some with an open texture where the sinuous structures are visible, others densely compacted into focal protrusions Prigogine and Stengers might call "strange attractors." The translucence and sheer quantity of the tape, combined with the chilly, diffuse lighting, gives the piece an eerie bluish glow which blurs up into the air, making it difficult to tell, except on close inspection, what it is actually made of. The shapes themselves are not so much biomorphic or crystalline as fractal in their proliferating asymmetries, and the sculpture as a whole attains its effects through the amplifying properties of multiplication.
Despite her solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1999, thirty-three-year-old Donovan came to the attention of New York audiences with "Ripple" (1998), a swarming floor installation of cut electrical wire at the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Like Sarah Sze and Tom Friedman, Donovan transforms mundane, manufactured materials in ways that are surprising, labor-intensive, and even perverse; her chosen elements are toothpicks, pencils, Scotch tape, drinking straws, and tar paper. The unusual use of found materials that retain their references to commodity culture runs through twentieth-century art: think of cubist collage, Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the constructions of Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, and Arte Povera in Italy. Donovan’s work is singular, however, not simply due to the astonishing scale of her obsessiveness, but because of the way she deploys mass produced materials, the basic physical particles of corporate capitalism and suburban consumer culture, in an aesthetic idiom that one might call "the minimal, statistical sublime" and which is also a variation on process sculpture. But whereas Robert Smithson’s and Richard Serra’s relationship to their materials is direct and literal, Donovan’s is more abstract and structural, which is why her best pieces are able to sustain subtle forms of illusion and metaphor.
The exhibit’s focal point is "Haze" (2003), a sculptural installation consisting of thousands of drinking straws cut to different lengths and covering the far wall of one of Ace’s large, central galleries. Like the Scotch tape in "Nebulous," the translucence of the plastic straws, combined with the light streaming down from the skylights, creates an unsettling optical effect: viewed from a distance, "Haze" pulsates softly. While "Nebulous" partially resolves into its constituent cells, even close up, the ephemeral, enveloping impact of "Haze" is distributive, streaming phases of lumps, swells, and cumulative lineaments of stain. "Haze" can look like a moving wall of fog, like clouds or a bank of smog seen from above, like skin under a microscope, like magnified pixels on an immense, floating computer screen. By comparison, the dark, sticky sheets of tar paper in "Transplanted" (2001) are heavy and geological. The accumulations of overlapping sheets create an undulating motion, and the curling layers of the papers’ edges evoke the strain, flecture, and shifting axes of deformation of the earth’s colliding strata. "Transplanted" is a kind of landscape, but it is a landscape in process, suggesting the slow but violent formation of mountains and valleys in deep time. Yet the repetition of the sheets of tar paper, all the same size, all the same color, gives the piece an abstract, diagrammatic quality, like a giant structural relief map. Akin to Smithson’s Pour sculptures, the shape of "Transplanted" is largely determined by the weight and pliability of the material, and so it is also a formal exploration of a common roofing material. But "Transplanted" falters under the clunky weight of the tar paper, its density and tactility, which renders the piece relatively static and prevents it from actively infiltrating the gallery space. "Transplanted" also lacks the interplay between an almost-delicate lyricism and mass production dynamics of the other pieces, as well as their rich ambiguity of scale between the macroscopic and the microscopic.
Related to the geological themes found in "Transplanted," "Strata" (2001) consists of variously sized puddles, splats, and drips of Elmer’s glue that proliferate across the gallery floor. Toward the center of "Strata" the irregular shapes are larger, overlapping into thick stratified slabs, branching and radiating out toward the periphery, where they become thin wafers or scatters of droplets. The title of the work suggests that this is a basic, geological cross-section, but as with "Transplanted," the topography is dynamic: these are land masses, peninsulas, and islands in the process of emerging out of the barely hardened fluid of tectonic plates. The flowing, biomorphic quality of the shapes, along with the glue’s milky, half-translucent hue and soft texture, evoking bodily fluids and tissue, extend the allusions into the biological. "Miore" (2000) is comprised of big, pod-like rolls of adding machine paper, which, overlapping in clusters, form a peninsula in the middle of the gallery. The shapes themselves have a limp, meaty quality, like giant fungi, folding over and squeezing around one another. But while the logic of pieces like "Strata" or "Nebulous" is iterative and spreading, "Miore" moves toward the inward nests of warping turbulence created by the spin of the adding machine paper and its streaks of red leader. In places, the tightly wound paper is pushed out into a bee hive, in others it is depressed into a whirlpool, and in still others it is bent into wobbly, lopsided cones. The spiraling lines and edges of the paper provoke a dizzying optical blur, and the whole depends upon the interplay between solid shapes and their destabilizing motion. Donovan’s use of adding machine paper is prescient, and in a digital world where massive computations pass through tiny circuits, almost nostalgic. "Miore" gives physical form to the logic of large numbers governing our society of mass production and mass consumption, which permanently exists in a state Prigogine and Stengers call "far from equilibrium."
Donovan’s only notably unsuccessful piece is "Colony," a floor sculpture of pencils cut to different sizes, evoking modern urban sprawl viewed from above. The extension of Donovan’s metaphors to urban growth is natural, especially when the chosen material is the ultimate instrument of compulsive yet easily erasable inscription: not only does Donovan’s work appear guided by the concerns of complexity theorists whose analyses apply equally to catastrophic geological events, embryonic development, chemical reactions, and traffic flows in crowded urban centers, but it also persistently refers back to a kind of mass society, typified by cities like Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the urban references in "Colony" are so literal they shut down further associations; one would have liked a piece that also evoked ant colonies, termite nests, and bacterial growth. The force of Donovan’s work rests in the interplay between materiality and abstraction: mass produced commodities are in a sense already abstract, and her pieces’ optical effects lift them off their material base and point to physical processes which are irreversibly temporal. Unlike the glue shapes in "Strata," the cut pencils fail to create a sense of something being generated. There is no sense of presiding over something that is dynamic and unpredictable, and for that reason the pencils are never transported beyond themselves. "Colony" ends up being gimmicky and fussy.
Obsessive fussiness of a perverse and extreme order is one of the hallmarks of conceptual sculptor and mad craftsman Tom Friedman’s work. In a way, Friedman is the exact opposite of Tara Donovan. Whereas Donovan’s work multiplies toward an impersonal sublime, Friedman’s pieces are self-reflexive and self-deprecating to the point of being vanishingly private and hermetic; while Donovan uses mass-produced items in mass quantities, Friedman typically works on the stray detritus of a suburban household. Friedman’s travelling survey show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 2001 was in many ways a disappointment. It lacked the opaque, curiously aggressive and idiosyncratic fragility of his gallery shows. Friedman’s objects are too peculiar and hypersensitive to live wholly on their own; they need to be in a small, unassuming space, and placed carefully in relationship to one another. Any doubts one may have harbored about Friedman’s project after the New Museum exhibit were more than dispelled by his dazzling spring exhibit at Feature Inc.
Stuck to the ceiling in the reception area was a pink balloon fashioned from papier-mâché, and in the corner beside the door stood a folksy figurine carved from an apple core, its frizzy head of hair and beard made from the artist’s own hair. The illusion of the helium balloon is uncanny, its surface tension and rising quality working against the crude, children’s-art-project materials. The figurine is another deadpan self-portrait, the artist as a mad peasant woodcutter or a vagrant New England hippie, and one is conscious of the awkward, skinned, and perishable nature of the organic material. And in Feature Inc.’s main gallery was a tour de force in ambivalent self-portraiture: a miniscule painted wood carving of the artist casually kicking back, hands behind his head, set in the center of a copy of the New York Times with headlines announcing Bush’s triumph in Iraq. The sculpture is so small it was almost unnoticeable; Friedman seems to revel in his diminutive stature, anonymity, and insignificance in relation to the march of world events.
Swept into a corner of the gallery were autumn leaves crafted from cut-out pieces of paper painted with watercolor and ink and speckled with colored glue. Like the balloon sculpture, the leaves work in part because of the sinister perfection of the illusion, but on closer inspection, the beads of glue contain numbers, as though concealing a secret code. Circular, self-referential procedures tied to the grueling performance of making the work have always been crucial to Friedman’s art. The long, sharp pencil in perfect proportion hanging from the ceiling, harkening back to his earlier pencil in truncated perspective, is of course made from other pencils. The exhibit’s two abstract paintings are executed on single threads of canvas pinned to the wall, and the slashing, free form pencil drawing, which appeared to be drawn directly onto the wall, was rendered on paper then painstakingly cut out. These pieces, though canny and beautiful in their precision, may seem precious, but that sense is counteracted by the coil of powdery, sky-blue insulation hanging from the ceiling in the center of the main gallery: the cone of eroded insulation on the floor is a reminder of the extreme fragility of Friedman’s work, of the fact that it just barely holds together at any given moment.
The recent exhibit at Feature Inc. was by no means without missteps, which are often the result of Friedman’s attempts to establish a continuity with his previous work. The ball of men’s jockey shorts is less interesting then the piece in which hundreds of garbage bags are stuffed one inside the other; the pillar of painted Styrofoam cups is less compelling than his ovoid sculptures of cups seamlessly fit together; the squashed flies, though exquisite and nasty, are too familiar from Friedman’s earlier work to offer much in the way of surprise. And while the dangling figure made of a shredded garbage bag evoking Giacometti’s walking men has a formlessness and enacted violence unusual in Friedman’s work to date, "Nobody" (2002), a life-size construction paper self-portrait of the artist leaning face-first against the wall, is self-consciously theatrical in a way that the miniature self-portraits are not. On the other hand, the mangled tinfoil monster, splayed on the floor against the wall, run through with pencils and lollipops and surrounded with multi-colored gobs of molten lollipop, may be the exhibit’s highlight. A companion piece to the incredible construction paper representation of the artist as violently torn apart shown in 2000 at Feature Inc. as well as in the New Museum survey, the new sculpture goes beyond the plane of virtuoso depiction; the cartoonish, Grinch-like monster’s gouged eyes and mouth, its crinkled, torn body and the sticky gobs of lollipop, make it at once messy, infantile, and immediate.
The most obvious virtues of Friedman’s work also point to its limitations: its eccentricity, its conceptual clarity, and the intense skill and patience with which it is realized. The strongest pieces in the recent show, however, suggest that Friedman is moving toward work that is more emotionally complex and less narrowly defined. The exhibit was full of work that is queerly terminal and melancholic. The bruised perishability of the apple core sculpture is both nutty and sad, easily imagined as riddled with worms and swarming with ants. The tiny wooden self-portrait may be relaxed, but it is also full of yawning, fatalistic resignation. The crumbling baby-blue insulation evokes the fragility of form and the impossibility of protection— from heat, from cold, from anything. One of the exhibit’s most peculiar pieces is a small floor installation. An assortment of clutter, some personal, some symbolic, gradually scatters outward, like something that has shattered: pills, photographs, locks of hair, bits of paper with notes scrawled on them, an eye, a container with a bloody, lopped off index finger. In a way, it is yet another self-portrait of the artist, for Friedman’s ingeniously mad work depends upon his nimble fingers and penetrating eye. But while the scatter is arranged with his usual formal compulsiveness, the elements themselves feel like leavings swept out of the corners of an abandoned house.
Friedman’s work has always had one foot in the dada/surrealist collages of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell, and the other in a brand of conceptual performance sculpture. The best work in the recent show, all dated 2002 and 2003, suggests that he is moving away from the labor-intensive monomania that has characterized his work to date. While her sources are in minimalism, and her concerns are with the sublime and the dynamics of mass production, Tara Donovan shares Friedman’s monomaniacal tendencies: all of the work in her Ace Gallery exhibit is based on the repetition and accumulation of a single basic element. But their relationship runs deeper than that, for both artists are born of a society of stupefying uselessness and waste which leaves little space for the self; Donovan’s world is one of autonomous processes, without knowable scale, without origin or teleology, and Friedman seems to be trying to inscribe himself into leftover things that have become almost too fragile to survive. The finest pieces in Donovan’s show, like "Nebulous" and "Haze," are overwhelming in their effect, yet her way of making art is peculiarly susceptible to mannerism. The list of artists whose work has degenerated into mere technique and strategy is long: Sol Lewitt’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum was a grim illustration. Friedman’s survey at the New Museum showed similar strains, and his response, in his recent show, was to open the logic of the work. One has to wonder where Donovan’s work could possibly go from where it is now: bigger, more elaborate installations out of different elements would inevitably become redundant. That said, Tara Donovan is clearly a significant artist, and it will be of great interest to see the direction her work takes, hopefully to another state far from equilibrium.