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Raymond Meier
Tara Donovan's foam-cup installation at the ACE Gallery in New York.

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Ace Gallery
''Colony,'' 2002; pencils glued together in transposable clusters.


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Clouds in Her Coffee

By JON GERTNER

Published: November 30, 2003

Tara Donovan's apartment in Bushwick doubles as her studio, and because space is tight, she generally likes to work there with only one sculptural material at a time. Projects are bound to overlap, however. In the course of a supermarket run to buy paper plates for one project, Donovan saw a large package of foam cups and threw them in her cart. She'd been in the midst of sculpturing the plates into intricate ruffled balls, but back at home her attention wandered. She began to shape the cups instead. Later in the day she returned to the store to buy 10 more packages. She had seen something curious when she attached the cups in a certain manner and hung the assemblage near an overhead light.

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As it turned out, the experiment with foam grew into a new installation, created specially for this issue of the magazine, in a spare room at the ACE Gallery in Lower Manhattan. Donovan and several assistants spent a week in her studio constructing partial ''cells'' of the larger sculpture by attaching cups to one another with hot glue. They joined these pieces around a skylight in the gallery space during six labor-intensive days. First, she and her crew screwed eye hooks into the ceiling. Then, the team sewed embroidery thread through the cup bottoms and looped it through the eye hooks. One by one, the individual parts were hoisted upward, until they all interlocked. The skylight then became the sculpture. The cups open downward, pouring light upon the visitor.

Donovan's other works also tend to explore how massive accumulations of ordinary things -- 1.6 million drinking straws, for instance, or 17,000 pencils -- create disorienting geometric effects that belie their uses. She begins a project by scouring surplus and dollar stores and her local C-Town supermarket. Ideas and inspiration are always preceded by an actual purchase of material, she says. ''I usually buy something -- a case of something. And a lot of the work is about what's inexpensive, because I need so much of something.'' In addition to straws and pencils, a critically acclaimed show at ACE last spring spotlighted her work with roofing paper, Scotch tape, pins, Elmer's glue and rolls of adding-machine paper. She never uses the same stuff twice: ''I do sort of believe that there is one answer for each material, so it's a matter of me figuring out what the answer is.''

What she looks for is ''a phenomenon'' -- an arrangement or configuration that transforms something dull and disposable into something numinous. Not every material yields to her safecracking; Donovan has abandoned a variety of products after carting them home for testing. But the successes seem to speak for themselves. For all the things we twist, tear and toss out; for all the things we think little or nothing of; for all the things that pass through our hands, mouths and fingers -- there is, under the rarest of circumstances, a possibility of aesthetic salvage. Then a pin is no longer a pin, or a straw a straw. Several thousand cups at ACE become a fantastical whorl of clouds or smoke that glow with tinctures of blue or silver as the room brightens or dims. Or as Donovan sees it, ''like ice that covers a lake or ocean, but you're underneath that ice, looking up.''

Jon Gertner is a contributing writer for Money magazine.


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