Donna Huanca’s ‘Obsidian Ladder’ is purposefully discomfiting, and almost too visceral and sensual to be absorbed fully in one go. Once you enter the cavernous main gallery of the Marciano Art Foundation, Huanca’s multimedia installation of paintings, sculpture, performance, sound, and scent threaten to overwhelm your senses. The combination makes for an unnerving, unsettling experience that ostensibly explores femininity and gender, but whose impact only comes across as such when you know the whole context of the work and can appreciate the importance of its site.
The centerpiece of ‘Obsidian Ladder’—both literally and figuratively—is the grouping of roughly human-height sculptures laid out on a low platform of sand, painted in shades of blue and white with electric jolts of orange or neon green. Abstract and irregular, bearing little relationship to any natural forms; they come across as inscrutable totems, as if you’ve stumbled onto a mysterious, pristine beach in an unfamiliar landscape. Huanca’s large-scale paintings of a comparable palette are similarly non-representational, their muscular forms resembling the frenzy of Joan Mitchell in parts. Clustered on the back wall in the gallery, the paintings combine with the airy atmosphere of the room to evoke the reverential feeling of an altarpiece, though it’s never quite clear what you’re meant to be looking at and revering.
Meanwhile, your ears ring with the sounds of bird calls and animal snarls, alternating with the rushing of waves, the groaning of thunder, the gentle trickle of a stream. The animal sounds drown out all but the most determined attempts at conversation, and the transition from loud noises to quiet only puts you more on edge as you wait for the inevitable ferocious roar to disrupt your reverie. Your nose is tickled by a hyper-sweet, almost floral scent that masks a smoky, lingering smell. During Saturday opening hours, ‘Obsidian Ladder’ comes even more alive with the inclusion of performers covered in paint, plastic, and other art materials, who move about the space entirely as they please, choosing to acknowledge or ignore the audience’s hungry gaze. When I caught them at the beginning of their hours-long activation of the show’s static components, the performers moved slowly, as if in a trance, kept at a distance from us by both the sand platform and their total self-internalised body language.
There’s a symbolic satisfaction in a once private and restricted space becoming an art museum that is free to all. What is particularly clever about the staging of ‘Obsidian Ladder’ at the Marciano Art Foundation, which is located in a former Masonic temple in west Los Angeles, is its feminising reclamation of a formerly all-male space. Built in 1961 (making it a historic site in Los Angeles) and designed by Willard Sheets, the temple’s aesthetic of graceful, rational symmetry and smooth, clean lines is upended in its entirety by Huanca’s complex, contorted forms. Most significantly though, the Scottish Rite Freemasons, who commissioned and occupied the temple for decades, were an exclusively male fraternity; in contrast, Huanca purposefully plays up every aspect of the mysterious, unknowable feminine in how she stages her work here. The brotherhood of the Freemasons, which has included incredibly powerful public men during its existence, is replaced by the largely female cast of performers, who, allied with the presentation of the paintings, hark back to the rituals that once took place in this building, trading in the Masonic apron for their partially-nude, plastic-clad, paint-splattered bodies. The clichéd dichotomy of rational masculinity versus irrational femininity is winningly, defiantly drawn out to its logical aesthetic conclusion, with ‘Obsidian Ladder’ showing us that both can coexist within the same space—within the same world.