Rachel Lee Hovnanian has been described as “a wizard at fingering uncomfortable truths.” Her recent exhibition series, The Women’s Trilogy Project, took the Leila Heller Gallery by storm this past summer. Raised in Houston, Texas, much of Rachel’s work is inspired by her upbringing in the American South, engaging with societal pressures and mores that were imposed particularly on women. She received her BFA from the University of Texas, Austin, and has since exhibited internationally in both solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Through a series of interactive installations and marble sculptures, her three-part exhibition series at the Leila Heller Gallery explored societal ideals of feminine perfection and addiction, evaluating contemporary social dependencies and cultural pressures through a feminist lens, with an eye to how it has translated in today’s tech-obsessed world. Navigating the post-internet world, the artist merges photography, video, sculpture, painting and installation art into surreal environments that challenge viewers to examine and reevaluate their own cultural values and relationship with digital technology. Meditating on her own relationship to perfectionism, Hovnanian challenges the social media presences that often mirror the pressures towards purity and effortless beauty of previous generations.
In Part III of The Women’s Trilogy Project, ‘PURE’, Hovnanian invited participants to confront notions of consumerism and beauty faced by women in contemporary society by literally smashing the plaster sculptures of ivory soap bars that comprised her installation. “We are consumed by the idea that we have to be flawless all the time, which has become an addiction to pursuing something we can never attain,” she says.
Describe The Women’s Trilogy Project.
Expanding on themes from my previous work, I used each exhibition in this series to initiate difficult conversations surrounding modern relationships with technology, addiction, and gender roles, through a collection of interactive installations, paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. I sought to challenge viewers to question what gender barriers have been overcome in our society and to engage with the inert social struggles that women still face.
Part I of The Women’s Trilogy Project, (The Ray Lee Project, Vol. 1) NDD Immersion Room is a large-scale immersive installation whose title derives from the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder (“NDD”), used to describe a form of human alienation from nature that results in both a greater susceptibility to negative moods and a reduced attention span. Upon entering the exhibition, visitors will surrender their phones and receive a lantern to enter a dimly lit interior forest barely illuminated by a campfire with very few signs of civilization. I created this exhibition under my male pseudonym, Ray Lee, in response to the gender biases that I have experienced as a woman artist throughout my career. Presenting this work under a male pseudonym allowed me to observe the difference in responses to my work when viewers believe that it was created by a man.
Part II of The Women’s Trilogy Project, Happy Hour is a multimedia exhibition that explores domestic culture and gender roles in relation to alcoholism through a series of paintings, works on paper, and installations using the narrative style of Dick and Jane and iconography borrowed from Girl Scout and debutante traditions. This exhibition is my reflection of my childhood in the South that challenges the restrictions of my upbringing. I use my works in this series to show the complex relationship surrounding alcoholism and the domestic order that leads to numbness and expressionless responses to not disrupt the status quo.
Part III of The Women’s Trilogy Project, PURE explores societal ideals of perfection and purity, shedding light on the often-detrimental effects of media on our psyches. Social media platforms have become the current podiums from which we are encouraged to broadcast our curated selves. PURE presents Ivory soap casts as icons of societal pressures towards perfection, modeled from the large Carrara marble soap sculpture that stands in the gallery space. The exhibition invites visitors to meditate on their own identity in the age of social media and the true self in Selfie.
What does art mean to you?
My job as an artist is to create conversation. I draw inspiration for my work from my own lived experiences and from observing the people – and society at large – that are around me. I am drawn to societal themes and behavioral trends that run as the undercurrents dictating how we live. I feel most fulfilled by work that draws the viewer’s attention to something in their own life that they may not have noticed so clearly before participating in one of my exhibitions. For Part I, (The Ray Lee Project, Vol. 1): NDD Immersion Room, I was concerned about the lack of exposure, we as a society have with nature. Most of our interactions with green space are through our phone screens. I wanted to create a forest inside the gallery that would awaken viewers’ attention to the fact that most of us indeed have nature deficit disorder.
What is in your current art collection, or if you can own any artwork in the world, what would it be?
I love the bronze Spider series by Louise Bourgeois. I was fortunate enough to produce my Bronze Bathing suit at the same foundry where Maman was produced, which was an incredibly inspiring experience for me to be working alongside such a monumental work – a web of emotion indeed.
Name your favorite female artists.
Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Believe in yourself – put your head down and keep working.
What is your favorite piece that you’ve ever created?
My most recent Happy Hour painting, Pink Panty Dropper, is my favorite because I was able to work through issues during the creation of the work and share them during my show in New York this past summer. It is hard to explain what it was like for me to experience with so many viewers, strangers, friends, the tears shed and depth of emotion shared during Happy Hour.
What is some advice you can give to aspiring artists?
Tune out the noise and keep working – listen carefully to your inner voice, don’t be afraid to take risks with your work.
What should we be looking out for in 2019?
In July 2019, I will hold a three-month solo museum exhibition [at the Medici Palace] in Italy.
Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Douglas Friedman.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian is based in New York City. www.rachelleehovnanian.com