The Mystery of the Mundane: The Art of Tara Donovan

Toothpicks. Plastic straws. Pencil nibs. Straight pins. Plastic drinking cups. Is this the stuff of art? In the hands of someone like the artist Tara Donovan the mundane does become transformed into awe inspiring works of art.

Tara Donovan sculpture made with rolled sheets of mylar

rolled sheets of mylar

Donovan’s process is very straightforward. She finds a material and then watches what it can do. She doesn’t alter the individual element – it isn’t painted, nothing particularly artistic is done to change what it is. Instead, she accumulates masses of identical things and finds a way for their physical properties to be used and revealed.

Tara Donovan sculpture made with toothpicks in the form of a cube


Donovan is an observer and it is through paying attention to the world around her that her works are born. Early in her career Donovan was working on a sculpture that included toothpicks. She accidentally knocked over a box and without thinking she pulled the box off the remaining toothpicks and discovered that they held a perfect corner shape. From this observation came the idea for the piece shown above. It is composed of tens of thousands of wooden toothpicks held together without glue. Donovan built a wooden box, filled it with toothpicks and then compressed the form. The box was removed and the cube of toothpicks maintained its shape. One of the discoveries in making this piece was the importance of scale. She began experimenting with a one foot cube but found that once it got to three feet square the weight and increased density gave the block stability.

Mesa-like sculptural form made with buttons by Tara Donovan

shirt buttons and glue stick

Undulating sculpture installation made with plastic drinking cups by Tara Donovan

3 million plastic drinking cups

Most of Donovan’s work mimics natural forms and environments – undulating waves, mesa-like forms, networks of cells. What has surprised her is that in letting the materials behave as they want they end up replicating the natural world.

Suspended installation art made from styrofoam cups by Tara Donovan

2 million styrofoam cups

The space in which her work is exhibited has a large influence on the art. The work is designed in the studio but constructed on site. It changes in order to adapt to the specifics of the gallery – the quality of the light, the potential movement of viewers through the space, the size and height of the room.

Large drawing made with straight pins by Tara Donovan

straight pins

Some works of art just have to be seen in person. This “drawing” of circular cell-like shapes is made from straight pins nailed into gatorboard. I saw these pieces in a show of her work at Pace Gallery. The pin drawings are very large in scale and there is a tension between the overall size and the delicate linear marks made by the sewing pins. A photo just doesn’t do it justice.

Wall installation made with millions of plastic drinking straws by Tara Donovan

plastic drinking straws

Hard to tell in the photo above just what is going on. Well, in person it was equally difficult to understand what I was seeing. The installation is called “Haze” which perfectly describes the experience of looking at the art. The wall appears to shimmer and it’s impossible to focus on a single point. Donovan has taken an immense volume of plastic drinking straws (over two million) and stacked them perpendicular to the wall. The light reflects in unpredictable ways off of the variegated surface.

Installation set between exposed wall studs composed of sheets of polyester film by Tara Donovan

plastic film, set into wall interior

Luminous. Mysterious. Enigmatic. To use Donovan’s own words she is “…remanufacturing the manufactured material. Remanufacturing the intended fate.”

This entry was posted in Artists and Designers, Elements and Principles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *