I loved Tara Donovan’s Haze, the 2003 installation at Ace Gallery composed entirely of drinking straws to form an organic, alien wall terrain that enveloped the space. I also loved her last show at Pace in 2006 that employed zillions of plastic cups to create an otherworldly lunar street view. Her latest offering at Pace, titled Drawings (Pins), leaves me on the fence.
When looking at Donovan’s installations one is first encountered by the formal beauty of the works, and then upon closer inspection, startled by the simplicity of its means. Using only dressmaker pins stuck to gatorboard, the artist has created “paintings” of geometric abstractions that border on pointillism, Op art, Vija Celmins and Mark Grotjahn. Pins of varying sizes are pushed in at different depths and intervals to give the illusion of subtle gradations and perspective tonal values, coming closer and dissipating. They are beautiful from a distance, but the surprise factor of their materiality is oddly absent. Perhaps we’ve taken Donovan for granted, as we casually expect “everyday wonders” from the artist to transcend the commonplace each and every time. Or maybe the value of labor no longer shocks us, so used are we now to seeing mammoth-scaled works turned out from every artist who has “made it.” Budget and ambition certainly influence one another.
The sheer scale of Donovan’s installations forefront this matter of labor, which one might claim is essential to the work. With the sizable studio force needed to produce them (10 assistants supposedly spent the last year working on Pins), the work loses a certain conceptual delicacy.
Labor help aside, the choice of subject matter - basic geometric and cellular forms – sticks comfortably close to playing it safe with the rudimentary this time around. They are rather contained by their metamorphosis, unlike an even more daunting work such as Ai Wei Wei’s recent porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern, which feels truly transformative.
Pins are indeed beautiful. Let’s not lie. But somewhere out there, we know the stars are more than just little white dots in the sky at night. Certainly more than just gleaming pinheads.