If you can't remember the last time contemporary art made you feel really good--even uplifted--don't miss Tara Donovan's luminous, room-filling installation "Whorl," which just opened in the Corcoran's Hemicycle Gallery. It will recharge your batteries--if you let it.
At first encounter, "Whorl" looks like a huge, fluffy white shag rug, roughly 35 feet in diameter. But spend some time around its perimeter and it begins to cast a spell. All white at first, it soon takes on a subtle bluish tinge, turning silvery in spots. We see subtle indentations running through the soft pile, as if the artist had gently walked barefoot through it, forming a large spiral culminating at center.
And if you look long enough, that spiral begins to kick off recollections: of a sky clotted with clouds, observed from an airplane window; of a vast hilly landscape with a river winding through it. There are other implications, too--of tranquillity, of infinite space and even of the infinite possibilities of art.
What's most appealing--and promising--about this work is that the longer you ponder it, the more complex and mysterious it becomes. At no point does it give itself up completely, or dissolve into a one-liner. Clearly, within this work there are intimations of landscape, and of flying. But they are only allusions, left there to make viewers respond in their own terms, and out of their own experiences. "These forms mimic nature," says this bright and determined 30-year-old Richmond artist, "but I'm not doing organic abstraction. I want people to see landscape or ice or mold or whatever they see; I want them to interact with the piece." As indeed they are bound to do.
But interaction, inevitably, leads to questions about how Donovan made this piece. And the answer reveals the hidden magic of her transformations. For, believe it or not, she has fashioned this seemingly featherweight blanket of bluish-white froth from 8,000 pounds of waste generated in the manufacture of white nylon carpet fiber. Lent by the manufacturer, Allied Signal Inc., it was selected--like all of her materials, which have included torn roofing paper, toothpicks and nickel-plated copper wire--to explore its aesthetic potential. In this case, Donovan says, she was "looking for a filament that would cast a color."
The bales of ultra-fine filament were cut and bundled by hand into thousands of small rosettelike pompom forms, which took eight months. ("My work is ridiculously labor-intensive," Donovan says.) They were then assembled for the first time last week in the Hemicycle Gallery. "I don't make work in my studio," the artist explains. The final form of her work, she says, takes place only on-site, and is shaped by the site.
Her experiments with the aesthetic potential of other unlikely materials have led to remarkable results in the past, including an ethereal cube of toothpicks formed by tightly packing a box with them and then turning it over and lifting off the box. "One touch and it would have come apart," said Donovan, who was on hand for the opening of her first solo museum show last week.
Born in Queens and reared in Nyack, N.Y., Donovan came to Washington in 1988 to study at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and stayed on for five years as an assistant to sculptor Kendall Buster. While here, she established a regional reputation through outstanding installation pieces in the WPA/Corcoran "Options 1997" exhibit and in a show at Hemphill Gallery, where she filled a room with what looked like a topographic map of a vast nocturnal wasteland made of torn black roof paper. Last May, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she lives.
In February, however, everything is likely to change when she moves to Manhattan and into a studio provided by a one-year grant from the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation. She has also just landed a spot on New York's most important launching pad for new talent: Last week the name of Tara Donovan appeared on the list of artists who will be included in the upcoming Whitney Biennial. She's a choice most critics are unlikely to dispute.
Her Corcoran show will continue through Jan. 17. After it closes, it will be dismantled and the materials returned to the lender for recycling. A catalogue--her first--is in the works.