The themes in Rachel Hovnanian’s mesmerizing art will ring true with many of us.
When I read about Rachel Hovnanian in the New York Times, the directness and honesty in her work resonated with me. She says she wants to show how intensely beauty and perfection are part of our culture, as well as shine a light on the “fantasy of perfect domestic life.”
Rachel’s work tackles sensitive subjects head on and gives pause. Just think of the images we see on a daily basis. With the barrage of airbrushed (or not) size zero’s, it’s no wonder some of the most popular sections of magazines are the embarrassing photos that show the celebrities with cellulite…are we mean, or just relieved that perfection is not possible after all?
The piece “Fun House Dressing Room” (below) features a life-size replica of a fitting room complete with bathing suits, a warped mirror, and an audio with self-flagellating mantras like “You shouldn’t have eaten those Cheetos” and “You need more Botox.” Wow – it’s as if Rachel has seen me and my orange-stained fingers picking out swimsuits! It’s remarkable how universal self-deprecation can be.
In the past year, Rachel’s work has been well-received in two different shows in New York: “The Power and Burden of Beauty” at the Jason McCoy Gallery, and “Too Good To Be True” at the Collette Blanchard Gallery. Whether or not this art feels particularly personal to you, there’s no doubt that our society’s obsession with unattainable pursuits of perfection is not the greatest use of our energy. At the very least, maybe the work will inspire some of us to make peace with swimsuits and denim in the dressing room.
(find more of Rachel and her work at www.rachelhovnanian.com)
Can you talk about your technique and the scale of your sculptures? And much of your work seems to be white – what does the lack of color represent to you?
I have created a dialog about beauty using installation art, large-scale sculptures, small-scale sculptures, mixed media, encaustic paintings, drawings, and film. For example, my “Beauty Queen Totem” is a giant (11 foot) marble effigy of a beauty queen trophy appearing as an embalmed, stony goddess. I believe, the use of white throughout my installation communicates the commodification of beauty.
It’s interesting that you were forbidden from playing with Barbies as a girl because your mother said “Barbie represented false ideas and hopes to young girls.” That sentiment seems to inform your work as an adult. Can you talk about that?
As a child I remember playing with baby dolls. As time progressed, young females started playing with adult looking dolls. Now our children look at photo shopped images of young women distorted like the mirror image in fun house dressing room. We as mothers cannot look away from this historic timeline.
On your website, you say you are “enthralled by beautiful images.” Do you think that feeling is a backlash to being prohibited from playing with Barbies (the idealized image of beauty?)
I appreciate beauty, and beautiful design because I am an artist.
Do you think obsession with beauty and status is a particularly American issue?
Beauty + status = celebrity. Celebrity is no longer an American export. It is a global issue.
Your work has a serious theme, but it’s also presented in a way that sometimes comes across as amusing or entertaining. How do you reconcile the tension between these two very different moods when you are creating?
I prefer to refrain from judgment, some might be amused, some might be incensed… hopefully everyone feels something.
I’m fascinated by the piece “No Prenup.” Judging by the name, I’m assuming it’s a husband and wife, though it can almost appear to be a father/child relationship. Either way, is consumerism an artificial common ground we think we share or is it a barrier to human connections?
“No Prenup” has brought many interpretations, I suppose that is why the piece has received so much attention. One woman at my recent “Too Good To Be True” show was overheard saying that she wanted to take all of my photographs to her therapist because “the show was her life.”
Your work in last year’s exhibition, “Power and Burden of Beauty,” included a dressing room with a mirror that distorts the viewers image along with audio stating “You need more Botox” and “You shouldn’t have eaten those Cheetos.” Your work holds up a mirror that shows us that our perception of beauty has become unreasonable. As you’ve immersed yourself in your art and its messages, have you gained new insight on how to keep yourself grounded as it relates to who women are “supposed” to be?
The piece “The Beauty Queen Totem” and the work in the shows “Power and Burden of Beauty,” and “Too Good To Be True” speak directly to how I feel about the issues that women face.
(Rachel’s interpretation of some of her pieces)
“The Beauty Queen Totem” –- we strive
“Texas Beauty Queen Creams”— we hope to change ourselves
“Natural Beauty,” “Natural Athlete” and “Beauty and the Donuts”— we suffer
We strive for perfection — we compete — we fail — we can never win.
What do you hope young women (or their parents) take away from your work?
Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue with our children – it is the best we can hope for.
What kind of feedback do you get from people who have engaged in your art?
I asked therapists, women in the entertainment industry, fashion industry, college students, professors, and women scientists to sit on a panel in order to discuss with an audience these issues. It is fascinating to see the passion women expressed regarding these issues. To say the audiences were in a frenzy would be an understatement.
Aside from not playing with Barbies, what else were your early formative years like – were you creative as a child? Did you come from a creative home? Did your parents or someone else help nurture your creativity?
My parents both painted and wrote, I was always surrounded by an appreciation for artists and the arts. I demonstrated talent at an early age, and I was very fortunate to have an encouraging family and support system.
My favorite snack is: Bacon and Eggs Gelato, at Teo’s Gelato in Austin, Texas.
Don’t ask me to: wear pantyhose.
I would put into a time capsule my: a bar of Camay soap.
My favorite place is: anywhere my family is.
When I have a creative block I: I rarely have a block, but my advice is to meditate.
My favorite mantra is: It is hard enough to get along with yourself, let alone someone else.