Be prepared to indulge your sense of childlike wonder as you move through Fieldwork, a mid-career retrospective of New York artist and 2008 MacArthur Genius Tara Donovan. The show opened September 21 and will occupy the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s three stories of gallery space until January 27, 2019.

Fieldwork features drawings and sculptures by Donovan dating from 1991 through present, including never-before-seen pieces created this year. Curator Nora Burnett Abrams says the show’s inclusion of two- and three-dimensional works spanning nearly three decades shows the ideas she developed and revisited, at times unknowingly, throughout her massively successful career. Donovan is known for her brilliance in transforming mundane objects, like rubber bands, Slinkys, or the tar paper that lines your roof, by aggregating them into forms unrecognizable from the original objects.

When viewers enter MCA’s first gallery, they’re greeted with what feels—to this Coloradan, at least—like a Trail Ridge Road-blocking snowbank, topped with a jagged drift, dirt, and pollution settled onto amorphous white sides, and veined by translucent, reflective ice.

But none of the above is there. The towering form is in fact “Haze,” an installation comprised of countless, stacked drinking straws, first realized in 2003. “Haze” is lent the illusion of organic shape by way of the straw’s placement, as if massaged into form by the hand of a clay sculptor, and by the light of the room, which reveals the disposable plastic’s off-white iridescence.

Tara Donovan
“Untitled” by Tara Donovan. Courtesy of the artist and Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo by Ron Blun

“That is something that happens in all of the works,” says Burnett Abrams. “She’s using one thing over and over and over again, and instead of getting repetition and predictability, you get something completely unfamiliar [to the original object]. That’s really the magic of her work.”

In the next room, the gallery-consuming sculpture “Transplanted,” first created in 2001, is an aggregation of brown tar paper that has been ripped to expose imperfect edges and stacked at varying heights and widths, suggesting, maybe, a mountainous landscape, undulating ocean, or topographic map. It’s surrounded by relatively jarring untitled paper prints that Donovan created in 2008 by inking shards of shattered glass. The pairing shows the relation of distinct pieces to each other in completely opposite ways. In the prints, we see separation and upset. Conversely, in “Transplanted” we see the cohesion of many things into one.

“She has an approach to art-making that is incredibly far-reaching, and in that way it engages with architecture, it engages with the landscape, it engages with the environment,” says Burnett Abrams. “It’s just not contained to simply a ‘sculpture.’”

Around the corner, towers of stacked styrene index cards are veined with rings of fanned-out right angles, like an infinitude of hands of playing cards. Altogether, the resulting shapes resemble the water-sculpted hoodoos of southern Utah. They even seem to take on hints of discoloration in yellow, blue, and green, like the copper-stained dust of the Beehive State’s high desert.

We’ll stop there, because there’s joy to be found in the surprise and discovery of moving through the exhibition. Suffice to say, we encourage you to take your time.

“There’s a visual shift that happens in all of my work that isn’t really apparent in a photograph that is kind of a part of it all,” Donovan says.

We will leave you with one last, tip, though: When you’ve circled through it all, come back to the the first gallery from the main lobby and look immediately to your left. Tucked in the corner, a small cement square is set on a pedestal, its center tightly packed with protruding rubber tubules. It’s got nothing on the scale and complexity of light and form employed in the rest of Donovan’s work—but don’t hold it against her, she was barely 20 years old when she made it in 1991. You’re looking at a seed of the now MacArthur Genius’ vision of transformation through aggregation.


Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.