A detail of one of her works made entirely from dressmaker pins.
The artist Tara Donovan, and family, with one of her new mylar works.
Donovan in front of a work from her latest series “Drawings (Pins),” currently up at Pace Gallery.
In the art world, Tara Donovan has become the belle of the banal. She employs everyday objects such as drinking straws, buttons or No. 2 pencils to create large-scale sculptures and prints that take on a life (and light) of their own. She allows the shape of the chosen material to determine the form of the piece until it becomes magically other (think vast moonscape in Styrofoam cups), managing to transcend both materiality and gimmickry in a culture that celebrates both.
In her latest series, ‘‘Drawings (Pins),’’ on view this month at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, shimmering metallic ‘‘canvases’’ are composed of dressmaker pins — tens of thousands of them. The cumulative effect is almost painterly. While these works are two-dimensional, they deal with the same issues as her ‘‘site-responsive’’ sculptures, as she calls them: ‘‘It’s all about perceiving this material from a distance and close up and how the light interacts with it,’’ Donovan recently explained, citing how Scotch tape, stuck to itself in biomorphic swirls, takes on a ‘‘fugitive color’’ when hit by the sun. ‘‘I’m constantly looking for this kind of phenomenological experience.’’
Her work could be classified as the ultimate manifestation of O.C.D. — take a million plastic cups and lock yourself in a museum for two weeks — but Donovan, an upbeat, charismatic New Yorker who earned a MacArthur Foundation ‘‘genius’’ grant when she was 38, sees to it that each installation is a highly social event. ‘‘It’s a really nice way to visit,’’ she says.
When I arrived at the ground-floor studio in her home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, six weeks before the show was to open, 10 assistants sat before Gatorboard panels, inserting pins gathered from several 32-gallon trash cans. They talked intimately or worked quietly to music, as they’d been doing for the last year.
‘‘I just ordered 800 Band-Aids,’’ Donovan says with one of her frequent, highly contagious laughs. Dressed in a vibrant Zero + Maria Cornejo tunic over leggings and a punk-looking necklace of chain wrapped around wood by her friend Victoria Simes she is just the kind of person you’d actually like to sit next to while you coaxed a million toothpicks into a cube.
‘‘I think a lot of people get caught up when they ask me about the labor,’’ she says, ‘‘and I always think the labor is sort of the reward: I’ve already figured this thing out. All I have to do now is do this thing. It’s very freeing. I can think about what I want to cook for dinner!’’
These days, Donovan can have all the toothpicks she wants — the better to fill her other 7,000-square-foot studio, a few blocks from the house. At the moment, it’s filled with a dazzling sculpture made of tight, silvery curls, part of her next Pace show, ‘‘Untitled (Mylar),’’ which runs from March 4 to April 23. When she was waitressing to support herself, she ordered toothpicks through the restaurant’s supplier one case at a time. Even when her work was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, she was still waiting on Cindy Sherman and Laurie Anderson at Savoy in SoHo. But it’s a day job she doesn’t regret: ‘‘I’m the most amazing multitasker in the world,’’ she says. ‘‘And I swear it’s all from waiting tables. It’s like the best skill ever.’’
As the mother of twin 1-year-old boys, she needs that skill. Donovan says she manages to go upstairs at 5 p.m. each day and tries to keep her work and home life separate, even though she designed them to coexist. Her three-story house, like her art, is a deliberate and meticulous manifestation of her aesthetic, from the towering honeycomb front gate she designed to the way the light indirectly infuses the space; some of the floors are made from the stacked ends of two-by-fours. The project also introduced her to her husband, Robbie Crawford, who worked for the firm Standard Architects.
‘‘We managed to meet, date and get married, and the house still wasn’t done,’’ she says while Crawford makes butternut squash soup in their open kitchen.
Upon entering the front door, visitors are staggered by the sight of the 40-foot enclosed staircase — especially if Donovan is welcoming them from the invisible walkway high above. Her ‘‘clean studio’’ on the second floor has since been divided to make the kids’ room, which is filled with mini Modernist furniture designed by Crawford. The third-floor living area and kitchen are the heart of the house, anchored by an enormous stone fireplace. Donovan and Crawford like to cook and entertain (her favorite cookbook is ‘‘Olives and Oranges,’’ by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox), especially since the artist would rather stay home than hit the art-party circuit.
I ask her if she had attended Art Miami Basel and Donovan just laughs. ‘‘I don’t want to hang around with a bunch of 20-year-olds talking about getting to shake Jeffrey Deitch’s hand,’’ she says. ‘‘I mean, I’m assuming this is the kind of shenanigans that go on?’’
At lunchtime, she and Andrea Glimcher, Pace’s director of communications, drop me off at Saltie, her local locavore cafe, in Glimcher’s chauffered S.U.V., Donovan offering sandwich suggestions. After I order, the woman behind the counter asks me, ‘‘Is that Tara Donovan? I used to wait on her at Marlow & Sons all the time. Wow,’’ she says with a sigh. ‘‘Talk about having it all.’’