Monday, December 01, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments (6)

"I could do that"

posted by Jack Cheng

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.

Comments (6)
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I like the way you have reframed this statement that is typically used to dismiss contemporary art. My favourite working artists are people like Donovan who take things that we have around us and through inspiration but also hard work, make them into something beyond their mundane use. It shows us that art is all around us, but also that the beauty in art is as much the process as the product.
Posted by Pauline Cheng on 12.1.08 at 13:19
Have you read the children's book _Olivia_? She views a Jackson Pollock painting at a museum and has just that reaction--she both thinks she can do and goes home and does it. The photos of Tara Donovan's work on the ICA website are stunning. It's cool to think about "I could do that" in a positive way. Another good response to inspiring work is "I WANT to do that."
Posted by Hayley on 12.1.08 at 15:40
A thought-provoking post. As I mulled it over, I realized that my response to certain kinds of art (or the output of any creative labor where the value-added is in the creativity, and the labor itself) could be characterized as "I could do that, but I couldn't have thought of it." Is it democratization of art (as well as other fields) that leads us to think that "Could I do that?" is the interesting question, rather than "Could I have thought of that?" And did I punctuate the previous sentence correctly?
Posted by Wilson Hsieh on 12.3.08 at 11:50
I had another random thought on this topic, which I'm sure someone somewhere has answered: how do we define consumption of art? Does it teach us to do things ("I could do that"), or does it teach us to see things in a new way ("I never would have thought of that"), or some combination/something else? Or does it just give us something else to talk about (on blogs or in academic journals)?
Posted by Wilson Hsieh on 12.11.08 at 7:52
And did I punctuate the previous sentence correctly?
Posted by Emma on 6.11.09 at 6:37
I AM SURE
Posted by links on 6.15.09 at 7:38
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