The Public Humanist

"I could do that"

In art history survey classes, when I get up to Jackson Pollock, I invariably have a student who says, “I could do that.” And my response is always the same: “Go ahead. If you can make a credible Jackson Pollock, you’ll get an automatic A in my class.” Only one student has ever taken me up on the offer.

Last week, I went to see the Tara Donovan exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston (open through January 4, 2009) and my first thought was: “I could do that.” This is not meant to demean Ms. Donovan or her art; on the contrary, my thought came with a feeling of elation and joy and inspiration.

Donovan, a 2008 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, uses mundane, manufactured objects in huge quantities to create astonishingly affecting sculptures. Millions of straight metal pins poured into a mold find enough tension in each other to adhere into a cube – not perfectly, as the scattered pins on the gallery floor can attest.

In another room, hundreds of yards of Scotch tape has been folded against itself and laid on its side. From the distance of just a few feet, “Nebulous,” looks like foam or mist.

Each piece has a wonderful transforming effect. From afar each sculpture looked like part of the natural world: foam, stalagmites, sea anemone. Upon closer inspection, these organic forms reveal themselves to be tape, or clear buttons, or paper plates.

As a viewer, I’ve just described the process backwards. Donovan, the artist, somehow saw how ordinary tape or buttons or plates could become beautiful. The initial transformation was from the ordinary into art.

Donovan’s process is (mostly) obvious from looking at the end product. Once you see what she’s done, there’s really nothing to prevent any one of us from playing around with the idea. Like Jackson Pollock, it’s easy to feel like you could do it yourself.

I mean, any one of us, with a million plastic drinking straws could stack them up against a wall and possibly create an effect as beautiful and compelling as Donovan’s. Of course, not many of us have the materials or time to make such a replica. And I have a hard enough time with Scotch tape just wrapping a present, much less create an intricate work of art with it. And it’s doubtful that anyone other than Donovan could have conceived of these sculptures in the first place.

So I couldn’t really do it myself.

But. That one student who took me up on the offer to make a Jackson Pollock? She had two kids, a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son. They spent an afternoon flinging paint at poster board and the results were passable (the son’s was the most “Pollock-esque”). My student said it was the most fun she had had with her kids in a while.

“I could do that” should be reframed as a declaration of joy and wonder and not cynicism at the opaque tastes of the art world. I might not be able to create a work as spectacular as Donovan’s, but I could certainly play around with forms, to look carefully at the stuff I have lying around and to have fun. Yeah, I could do that.

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