Bolivian–American artist Donna Huanca’s work has stood out for its understanding of the body, and of the skin in particular, as a territory where surface and matter converse with architecture, space, and the world. Her performances produce slow–paced choreographies that conjure private rituals and meditations in the gallery space, confronting the viewer with a scenario equal parts uncomfortable and suggestive. The titles of the paintings, through which matter emerges as something between the natural and the artificial, and in which blue predominates over skin tones and earthy colours, allude to different types of rocks, minerals, and natural processes. The totemic sculptures, on the other hand, combine a variety of materials that relate to the body and which stand out for their tactile qualities, such as clothes, skin, silicone body imprints, natural and synthetic textiles, or re-contextualised cultural artefacts.
Opening on 28 February 2020, London’s Simon Lee Gallery hosts WET SLIT, a solo exhibition of new works by Huanca. This is Huanca’s debut exhibition with the gallery and her first solo show in London since SCAR CYMBALS, her 2016 commission at the Zabludowicz Collection. Incorporating painting, sculpture, sound and scent, Huanca’s site-specific installation immerses viewers in a total environment which synthesises her unique aesthetic with a politics of the body as it relates to space and temporality. Her ‘skin’ paintings, layered on magnified cross-sections of her models’ painted figures photographed during performances, refer directly to the body. During the artistic process, she layers colours and forms with paint on her models, resulting in an indexical practice that places emphasis on the interaction between the ephemerality of experiential art and the permanence of painting.
Entering the gallery, viewers find themselves in a cocooned space, the walls hung with swathes of diaphanous recycled polythene that engages with the tactility of the artist’s work. These sheets will be reused in future pieces of the artist’s sculptural practice, further engaging with her method of reusing and extending materials in multiple iterations and forms. As though islands, two sculptures form an archipelago in the space. Coated in layers of highly textured oil paint mixed in with sand, their totemic proportions act as surrogates for Huanca’s models, who are both sheltered and observed through the negative space of their compositions during performance. By introducing her organic statements into the white light of the gallery, Huanca emphasises the primordial in her practice. All her materials refer directly to the human body and denote an engagement with the cultural traditions of her Bolivian ancestry.
The exhibition continues into the basement where viewers are enveloped in a dark, hermetic environment that counteracts the sterile light of the ground floor. This inversion of the traditional gallery space positions institutional critique at the heart of Huanca’s femme-centric practice, upending prevailing power relations and realising a sanctuary. In both spaces, she facilitates an amplified connection between the senses with the introduction of sound and scent, bringing sight, hearing and smell into congress. The galleries are suffused with a fragrance derived from Palo Santo, a holy wood native to South America used in ritual purification ceremonies in both folk and church traditions.
Huanca’s practice questions systems of knowledge such as biology, ecology, geology, or anthropology. The sound piece, which uses natural sounds of water and liquid serves to further displace the viewer from their surroundings and into a transcendent state, while underlining the fluidity of the subconscious. The artist’s background in sound art generated a practice based around sensory experimentation, which brings bodies and architecture into direct contact. Fundamentally, Huanca’s emotionally instinctive body of work challenges the viewer through an invocation of the mutable, interactive and nonconforming.
Donna Huanca: Wet Slit at Simon Lee Gallery, London
28 February – 18 April 2020 (Private View: Thursday , 27 February , 6–8pm)
Feature image: Donna Huanca, METIS, 2019-2020. All images courtesy the artist, Simon Lee Gallery and Peres Projects, Berlin. Copyright of the artist.