Equal parts enthralling and bewildering, your queries will spiral as you immerse yourself in Donna Huanca’s MAGMA SLIT. Transporting the viewer from the mundane reality of Seattle traffic and tedious routine, Huanca provides a reprieve from the ordinary, casting the viewer into a cathartic land of discovery. Residing in the Henry Art Gallery, MAGMA SLIT consists of four expansive paintings depicting each season, bringing life to their formerly inanimate white backdrop. These paintings emerged from an array of digitally printed photographs from Huanca’s life, which were stitched together and transformed into the paintings. Huanca coated these foundations with vivid strokes of paint, hues primarily corresponding with their associated seasons: warmer tones depicting summer, cooler ones characterizing winter, and a flurried blend of both expressing the transitory seasons of spring and fall. Echoed with hints of life, these paintings display glimpses of the photographs of people and natural textures concealed within them, providing a real life connection between the audience and Huanca’s abstract world.
In the middle of the exhibit lies a stage. Down the center, a line of six steel sheets with alternating reflective and opaque sides create a transcendent mirror effect. This allows you to simultaneously view slivers of the paintings behind you, before you, and even catch glimpses of yourself. Cast against the vibrant settings of the paintings, viewers are further immersed in Huanca’s surreal world by becoming part of it. This deepens the viewer’s connection with the exhibit through encouraging them to relate Huanca’s pieces to themselves.
While each season carries its distinct overarching color palette, each holds accents of the one that follows, creating a sense of continuity. With attention to detail, it becomes evident that Huanca’s work is made with an intention extending far beyond aesthetics; it delves into the realm of the complexity of identity, contextualized within a tumultuous present.
Caught between the reflection of summer’s fiery tones and peeking slivers of winter’s cold foreboding strokes, the feeling of entrapment between a tumultuous world while at the same time isolated from it resonated with me. So often in life we feel overwhelmed by the constant bursts of color convoluting our worlds. It’s as if all the people we encounter, all the events that transpire, are part of a relentless current flowing around us, escaping our grasp before we can extract meaning. But we can feel just as lost with their absence when we shelter ourselves from this dynamic world, becoming isolated from the aches and the delights it has to offer: its vibrancy. Discovering this connection strengthened my appreciation for the latent beauty inherent in Huanca’s work. Grand in both size and meaning, each of her paintings tells an individual story while contributing to a cohesive whole. Spring, for example, depicts a blue expressionless woman angled away from Winter, followed on the right by the back of a woman painted with yellow and emerald accents. With the shift in color and movement, this seems to suggest a narrative of shunning the bitter winter and transitioning into a state of growth and new beginnings. Instead of creating art conforming within the bounds of favored aesthetics, Huanca challenges viewers to decode her works for personal meaning.
An auditory stimulant accompanies the visual portions of the exhibit. Consisting of four chapters representative of each season, Huanca composed a meditative track with samples drawn from her surroundings, her life, and online. Though initially uncanny, as you begin circling around the exhibit, the cadence transitions from unsettling to enhancing, emphasizing the natural elements present within Huanca’s art and allowing the viewer’s preoccupied mind to surrender to their senses.
Creating ties between nature and modernity, the exhibit establishes an atmosphere that exists somewhere in between. The incorporation of lively textures including bark, hair, and human skin throughout the paintings, give glimpses of a concrete, natural world within an overarching abstract one. This is contrasted with the pervading―almost fluorescent―white walls, ceiling, and floor, allowing each of the vibrant paintings to truly pop against their stark, uniform backgrounds. Similarly, the larger life cycle itself is conveyed through the progression of the audio’s seasonal chapters and the incorporation of long braids of synthetic hair on the center stage, both representing the inevitable passing of time and the growth occurring within it.
The stage, consisting of two circular forms splitting off from each other, is reminiscent of dividing cells (a subtle reference to mitosis). This platform, coated with copious white sand, bolsters seven statues, six composed of latex and resin and one of aluminum. The statues, all varying in size, have been created through acts of physical force. Peering up close, indentations of knuckles and shoe marks are visibly imprinted in the works, a display of the artist’s intimacy with her creations.
Perhaps the most noble aspect of MAGMA SLIT is Huanca’s vulnerability in exposing her internal world. While vulnerability is a common theme, arguably one universal within art, it is often presented under a pretense of perfection. This can detract from an artist’s message by catering to the public’s desire to stare objectively at pretty things. Just as any person is multi-faceted (infinitely more than the face they wear), so is their art. After all, art is the truest, most passionate exposé of one’s self… or at least it should be, as Huanca affirms.
Through physically striking indentations into her sculptures, splashing vibrant reds, blues, and greens into electrifying designs, layering both images upon images and sounds upon sounds, Huanca denies society’s traditional conception of beauty. But not only does she defy, she takes a step beyond, succeeding in a feat of immeasurable value: creation. Having found beauty in the world around her, she recreated her experience for others.
Guiding viewers in this discovery, Huanca unites her work as a homage to all that makes life beautiful: its fluidity (the ever-changing seasons emphasizing the evanescence of one’s life), its complexity (the distorted images reflected off the steel sheets presenting infinite unique perspectives), and its meaning (unique to every individual, the meaning extracted from Huanca’s work will invariably vary between persons).
Just as life kindles curiosity and fear, raising ceaseless inquisitions in their steads, Huanca doesn’t resolve our inner turmoils. However, she helps us seek solstice in the unknown through encouraging us to embrace it. Leaving MAGMA SLIT, I took with me not only a heightened appreciation for abstract works, but a renewed appreciation for the intrinsic intricacies that make life so interesting.
The MAGMA SLIT exhibit took place at the Henry Art Gallery on April 2, 2022 — February 5, 2023. For more information see here.