Much of Berlin-based artist Donna Huanca’s career has been nomadic, creating and exhibiting in Asia, Europe, and North America. But New York is where Huanca first cut her teeth. It’s a place that’s been crucial to her development as an artist, having lived in the city from 2007 to 2009 before moving to Berlin, and moving back again between 2013 and 2016.
Now, she makes her first major institutional presentation in New York City with a splash: opening concurrent shows at two different major galleries. “Scar Tissue (Blurred Earth)” opened in October at Faurschou New York, the Greenpoint outpost of the Copenhagen-based gallery. Two weeks later, Huanca opened “Venas Del Capullo,” which translates from Spanish to “Cocoon Veins,” at Sean Kelly, the famed gallery known for showing experimental works in the ’90s.
If “Scar Tissue (Blurred Earth)”, an installation encompassing massive, vibrant paintings, pierced sculptures, live performance, and sound and scent works, is about opening up, “Venas Del Capullo” is about closing in, specifically around the ideas of transformation and metamorphosis. Huanca transformed the gallery space by covering the walls and floors in a membrane of environmentally friendly, biodegradable plastic — a recurring material in her practice that is meant to protect, camouflage, and reveal the bodies and surfaces it envelops. The effect is an enclosed, cocoon-like space that changes how the viewer interacts with Huanca’s paintings and sculptures.
“Every time I have a show, it’s always in reaction to the architecture,” Huanca says. “The shows activate me to react to the history of the room: I’ve worked in castles, masonic temples, basements— all these spaces that have history.”
When Huanca initially visited Faurschou, the 12,000-square-foot converted industrial warehouse, last spring, it was while Yoko Ono’s “Ex It,1997-2013,” installation was up, which consisted of 100 caskets planted with live trees. Huanca knew she wanted her exhibition to be gargantuan. “I really like using scale because it’s almost like a giant made something and not me. I like working with something that makes you feel really small.”
Huanca’s practice is one that responds to her conditions: the shape of the galleries where her work is going to be exhibited, as well as the shapes of the human bodies that serve as the starting point for her work.
“The beginning of all the works are the body painting that I do on my friends, and I don’t really know what I’m doing when I’m painting them,” Huanca says. “I’m just talking to them and having a kiki, and then I’m selecting colors and painting them as I wish. Eventually those paintings are documented… It gives me courage to paint on a canvas because I’m not really interested in painting on something that has no history or is just blank.”
Fully immersive, sensory elements are essential to Huanca’s work, and “Scar Tissue (Blurred Earth)” notably includes the use of scent, which has long been a component of Huanca’s work. Huanca’s olfactory work, which includes a scent that smells like burned feathers and wet wood dispersed from a diffuser, is meant to trigger the viewer’s senses, activating memories that bring viewers deeper into the present moment, as well as connecting them more with their bodies.
“For me, using scent is a way to give you a full experience that is creating this strong memory. It reminds me of being a kid: the first perfume I had, or these really cheesy shampoos, things that really are very particular. The smell when I first smoked a cigarette always reminds me of a very specific place and time,” Huanca says. “It’s really about trying to pause and give you a full spectrum of experience. I really think that’s important nowadays when you experience art.”
Evoking memory especially plays a personal role in the New York shows, which are a bit of a homecoming for Huanca. She returns to a whole new New York compared to the one she left more than a decade ago. One big change is that many of the artists who were a part of the New York underground scene have reached commercial success: Telfar Clemens, Shayne Oliver, and her former roommate Richie Shazam.
“Everyone sort of went on and did their own thing in their own authentic way, and it’s just so exciting to see Telfar, for example, transcend pop culture and get to a point where they’re on Wendy Williams or having collaborations with White Castle,” Huanca says. “It’s cool to see people build their communities in different ways.”
“In a way, my goal is to elongate time.”
Part of that community mentality is essential to how Huanca sees herself in the art world, which is largely as an outsider. She is less inspired by the contemporary art world than she is by history and experience — nightclubs, for instance, or even history museums. Though Huanca makes art in reaction to particular spaces, she is just as informed by her outsider relationship to those same spaces.
“Galleries are always problematic because they’re all about commerce and transaction,” Huanca says. “[At Sean Kelly], I really wanted to give an experience of a space that was more in process and more similar to what an artist studio was like.”
“Scar Tissue (Blurred Earth)” is an exhibition that is meant for the viewer to take their time, to practice the exquisite beauty of getting a little lost in, say, a labyrinth of nearly two dozen mirrored sculptures, which Huanca describes as “shapeshifters” that invite in the viewer. Their reliance on the audience makes them defy categorization: Every move someone makes in front of it changes the piece.
“In a way, my goal is to elongate time. Hopefully people can get that out of it because we’re living in such a time where we’re just so caught up in understanding things and getting it and refreshing the page and downloading sh*t, and everything is so fast that hopefully it can allow you to take your time and see things,” Huanca says.
Moments of peace, she feels, are especially important in a city like New York.
“New York is a city where all these artists move. It’s always sad because it’s a place where it’s really hard to be an artist financially because it’s just so expensive to survive,” Huanca says. “Most people don’t get to make the art that they want to make in the first place there. So for me, it’s like a love letter to New York because I want to give people peace in a way. I always see the works as an oasis: I want to create an oasis for healing and gathering and connectivity.”
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