Rachel Hovnanian — An Artist Living in the Light

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Rachel Lee Hovnanian in front of Reflections Pool III, referring to the Narcissus pool. The myth of Narcissus (and Echo) is a leitmotif in Rachel’s work.

What secrets lie beneath the surface and what lies do we tell to conceal them? What lies “Beyond the Hedges”? That’s the title of Rachel Hovnanian’s newest series of paintings. She unveiled them at Palm Beach’s County Gallery, with a boldface-filled opening reception and dinner party.

The show is in honor of David Beitzel, the last gallerist to show her figurative work. Years ago, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, Rachel’s college friend and Beitzel’s partner put them together. “David always believed in her talent and encouraged her,” Darren told me. “He loved her colorist figurative work.”

Guests at the opening reception of Beyond the Hedges at Palm Beach’s County Gallery.
The post-reception dinner party that followed.

This show marks Rachel’s return to that work, encouraged by her son and the solo nature of her Miami quarantine. At her Miami Beach studio, she showed me highlights of previous shows and works in progress. I left feeling a little freer.

She’s hoping to liberate us all from societal isolationism, materialism and female expectations — themes that run through her conceptual work, beautiful assemblages, sculptures, and environments.

The new paintings are stunning tableaus of wealth, luxury and classic beauty, illuminated by sunlit, hyperreal hues.

Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Beyond the Hedges.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Cactus Scape.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Good Enough.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Uncle Henri.

“When I moved to Miami,” Rachel told me, “walking around these beautiful, hedged houses, in isolation, I wondered what was going on inside? Where was the connectivity? I imagined visual narratives, then used magazine ad images of perfect houses and people from Instagram. I put them in spaces of vegetation I created with wonky perspectives that were real, but not real.”

Look closely at the people who live beyond the hedges. They are expressionless, alone, unconnected, invalidated, unfulfilled. The women in her robe paintings are actually faceless. “I was always fascinated by the man’s perspective in Jim Dine’s robe series,” Rachel told me of his bold, outlined statements of male presence. “Now,” she continued, “this is the woman’s perspective of a robe.” They literally and figuratively fade into the wallpaper.

L. to r.: Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s Flamingo Pink Robe; Jim Dine’s Fine Grade Robe, 1994.

“When I look at an old home from a certain time, I can feel the presence of a woman in there, a woman who had few options, who vanished into her home,” Rachel explained. “Even now, at dinner parties, no one asks me what I do. They only ask the men.”

Similarly, as much as they loved it, people could not picture Rachel, a petite blonde, as the artist behind the “Nature Deficit Disorder Immersion Room” installation, a bold recreation of a forest at night complete with 35 fir trees, crickets, cockroaches and ladybugs. It only made sense with her male nom de plume, Ray Lee.

Hovnanian’s The Nature Deficit Disorder Immersion Room installation from 2016. “I would never have imagined what a gift walking through the woods would really be.”

These new paintings also allude to the “White Picket Fence Syndrome,” i.e. trying to hold onto an ideal of perfection that does not exist. Or, as defined The Urban Dictionary: “If your mom keeps acting as if your family is that all American ‘white picket fence’ family from the ’50s, when no one acts or thinks that way. (Extreme example: your parents expect everyone to come home and talk about their day but your brother is hooked on meth … while your sister is at her boyfriend’s house pretending she doesn’t have a family).”

Rachel with White Narcissus with Mice. The albino mouse is a rare form in nature. But they have been bred for lab testing. Here they are coming off the work. “We are the new lab rats,” says Rachel. “They are studying us to see how technology affects us. I printed the mice in  3D nylon. The narcissus flowers are made individually with plasticine and then cast.”

Growing up on the Dick and Jane primer, young Rachel thought hers was the only family not living that ideal. “My father was an alcoholic,” she told me. “He was an English Literature professor, an amazing, brilliant man. But, he had a disease that disrupted our family. When he drank, my mother would often wake us up in the middle of the night, pack us into the car and escape. My brothers and I never discussed it outside the house. Rachel pointed to a faded image of her when she was five, repeated throughout an abstract collage. “Look at my face,” she noted. “It’s blank.”

A detail from a Dick and Jane series painting titled Death in the Afternoon. Rachel’s home life wasn’t the perfect ’50s white picket fence life depicted in her Dick and Jane primers. Her father was an alcoholic who would rage. Years later, she returned to her mother’s house to find this picture of herself age five. “I had this blank stare,” she realized. She put it into an abstract painting.

Childhood trauma. Workplace sexual harassment. Those were once Rachel’s secrets. She asked others to unburden theirs to “Angels Listening,” her conceptual piece at the 2022 Venice Biennale. White bronze cherubs, tapes across their mouths, invited all to put their secrets into a confessional box, to be brought, anonymously, into the light. Confessions flowed in for seven months.

What did they say? “‘’I fear the future.’ ‘I feel alone.’ ‘I wanted to love, but it turned out not to be.’ ‘I’m gay and I can’t tell my family.’ ‘Sometimes I don’t like to see people be happy because I’m jealous.’ ‘I was raped,’” Rachel recounted. “It just goes on and on. Everyone has trauma.”

Detail of Hovnanian’s installation of Angels Listening at the 2022 Venice Biennale. “I’m very lucky that I was classically trained. I went to art school. I know how to use material. I did post graduate studies. I studied photography. I studied with a master portrait maker. And I continue educating myself.”

She’ll put those messages into paintings and a follow-up solo exhibition that includes healing herbs from an Italian forager, and in a book, You Are Not Alone. You Are Not Alone, Angels Listening opens March 30 at Chiesa di Sant’Agostino in Pietrasanta, Italy.

Yes, society’s standards make inner demons into dirty secrets. And there are a whole set of unattainable standards especially for women.

An installation of a monumental large-scale sculpture Poor Teddy in Repose will be exhibited alongside her solo exhibition You Are Not AloneAngels Listening at Chiesa di Sant’Agostino in Pietrasanta, Italy. Poor Teddy is an image that Rachel repeats. “If you gave a child a teddy bear or an iPhone what would they pick?” asks Rachel. “Teddy bears help children develop social skills, foster children’s creativity and imagination.. They become a part of how children interact in the real world.”

“I grew up in Texas,” Hovnanian continued. “My parents always told me it doesn’t matter what you look like. It only matters what’s inside. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘You’ve moved me to Texas. It’s one of the strongest beauty-driven cultures there is.’” In 2007, Rachel started investigating that culture. “I realized beauty pageants were a way for women to get out of situations, the way sports scholarships are for men.”

FMLMBD. Our cells are modern day Narcissus pools. We see ourselves in it — our friends, our texts, our social media, our “likes.” Like Narcissus glued to his reflection, we can’t look away.

Rachel walked me through rooms of the art that resulted. Assemblages featuring Narcissus and the pool that was his mirror. Beauty queen statuettes that look identical at first, but in reality are different. A body of photographs called “Too Good to Be True.” Marble Ivory soap bars like the ones she had urged people to smash in a 2018 conceptual show. Bathing suit forms. Bathing suit guides from Macy’s that tell you how to compensate for what’s wrong with your body. Fun house mirrors to mirror our own distorted body images. Art inspired by mixed signals she received as a Girl Scout. Sayings from face creams, like “Fix your face for good,” “Precious skin cream for the privileged few,” “Imagine having the confidence to approach new people.”

Rachel knows how spending can be manipulated. After getting a Fine Arts degree, she took a job as a Madison Avenue Art Director. “In December I staged a game to see if people could distinguish between $300 and $10 creams,” she told me. “Without labels, only 15% of the people got it right.”

Undeniably, we’ve been programmed. “I did a show in Belgium,” she continued. “Miss Belgium got up to talk about the pressure she feels. The woman standing next to me said, ‘She’s not so beautiful!’ We are constantly being judged; looked down upon, then celebrated.”

Rachel’s mother, Peg Lee, was a self-taught chef who was a founding director of Texas’ Rice Epicurean cooking school and Central Market. “It was great having a mother who never held me back for being a woman,” Rachel said. “She always told me, ‘You’re no better than anyone and no one’s better than you.’” Peg also understood the value of natural food, in an era when Rachel’s friends, children of astronauts, were obsessed with Tang.

Words of wisdom from Rachel’s mom Peg: “Life is like being on a swing. It’s so much better when you have someone to give you a little push. Fly through the air like you just don’t care!”

That reverence for all things natural manifests in Rachel’s love/hate relationship with modern technology. She feels it unites us in one way, but alienates us in others. A series called “Foreplay” shows couples erotically placed in their bed, consumed — and eerily illuminated — by their cellphones. To enter the NDD Immersion Room, you had to relinquish your phone. She’s made conceptual pieces with charging stations. A repeated image is the single red bar, signifying you have lost your “power.”

Take back that power, Rachel seems to say. Embrace nature. Love your inner self. Let go of shame. Live in the light.

Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Doug Hall, and Darren Walker at the opening reception.

L. to r.:  Pam Owens, Evelyn Tompkins, and Beverly Little; Capera Ryan and Fruzsina Keehn.
Jean Otrakji and Lily Rogath.
L. to r.: Georgine Anton, Lisa Bytner, and Vera Gibbons; Lisa Brintz and Amy Collins.
Brian and Laurie Buckelew.
Eleanora Kennedy, Kara Ross, and Jacelyn Javits.
L. to r.: David Amoure and Stacy Engman; Mark and Nina Magowan.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Tyler Tananbaum, and Whitney Schott.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Chris Meigher, and Grace Meigher.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian and Stephen Schwarzman.
Lisa and James Cohen.
L. to. r.: Blake Hanley and Mumbi O’Brien; David Hochberg and Harry Slatkin.

Photographs by Mireya Acierto (people) & Silvia Ros (paintings)

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