Donna Huanca’s ‘Wet Slit’ at Simon Lee Gallery provides a bodily experience of her work. Like the ice sculpture encasing Klein blue hair, only present for the show’s inaugural weekend as it shed water to nothing, we are encased by the exhibition in its evolving sounds and smells, moving beyond the visual. The sound of water dripping and splashing, a glass occasionally smashing, plays on loop. The gallery is divided into two spaces, an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs space smells medical almost, TCP or antibacterial hand gel - the now coveted scent of cleanliness. The walls are covered with plastic sheeting, creating a space of sterility or something more sinister. We feel that the room is prepared for the abject, for liquids pouring out of bodies. And then there are the bodies in Huanca’s paintings, cloaked in paint, skin revealed only in fragments.
These paintings are resplendent. Layers of oil paint so thick you can still smell its nutty odour. They are wet but gritty (the oil paint is mixed with sand in some places), figurative yet abstract. They look the way sex feels; glimpses of bodies amid a slippery blur of movement. In ‘Vesta’ (2019/20), we see a woman’s back, its cello curves reminiscent of a Man Ray photograph. Huanca paints on top of photographs of her performers and here we see the image emerge from beneath the oil; the creases of a foot’s sole beneath the weight of a body.
The works seep together, the plastic on the walls a connective tissue between the paintings. Similarly, Huanca’s sculptural pieces, totemic steel works covered in oil paint, sand and synthetic hair braided with cable ties, map out her two-dimensional works. The cut-outs in the sculptures, reminiscent of modesty screens with a peep-show twist, allow us to peer through at the paintings. They become fragmented in the space, several works merging to one. The paintings echo the sculptures, the colour palette repeated and the cable-tied braids transposed onto canvas. Each work is inseparable; our bodies inseparable from them in turn.
Entering the downstairs section of the show feels like entering an underworld, leaving the starkly lit, almost surgical space above and moving into a dark space, cocooned by black carpet and midnight blue walls. The works here, a sculpture and four paintings hung so closely that they could be one work, are lit by dramatic spotlights; we move among them primarily in darkness. It smells different down here, a note of Palo Santo, the South American holy wood, replaces the medicinal smell from upstairs. This space becomes the womb from which we are born, leaving the gallery and its healing space, through the glaring lights and sterilised. ‘Wet Slit’ both speaks to and negates our fears of leaking bodies and porosity, of what can pass between skin; all the more relevant in these times of Coronavirus-induced quarantine and isolation. We can leave this show but not without internalising it in some way, without it seeping into our skin.