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Makeup as Muse: Donna Huanca's Cosmetic Paintings

Artforum recently featured a joint exhibition of Bolivian-American artist Donna Huanca and Polish artist Przemek Pyszczek.  While the latter's work is interesting, it's definitely Huanca's "cosmetic paintings" I want to focus on.  I'll be honest, I'm pretty brain-dead from work already this week so I'm going to take the easy way out and let a real art critic discuss the meaning of her work.

Huanca used Chanel eye shadow, liner and mascara onto stretched wool suits.  Combining the themes of male/female identity, socioeconomic power and body politics, the Cosmetic Paintings show an innovative take on using makeup as paint.  Art Viewer has an excellent description:  "Since the 1980s, the power suit and bold use of brand-name cosmetics have armored the female executive on the male-dominated battlefield of corporate life. On the one hand, these outward facing garments and war paint empower; on the other hand they represent a male ideal of the female form. In Donna Huanca’s Cosmetic Paintings, the routine female practice of applying makeup and dressing for success is transformed into a powerful, primal action, employing these loaded, normative symbols of feminine power by applying Chanel makeup onto woolen suit material. In the context of an exhibition, Huanca’s flat works act as backdrops to be experienced in conversation with the body. They are activated through a performance of painted female bodies glacially engaging with the works and space. The juxtaposition of the almost static live performance versus the remnants of intense action on canvas challenges the viewer to ask where social power is stored: is it in the body or in the garments that conceal it?" 

That last question is an interesting one, as it seems Huanca views physical bodies and clothing to be interchangeable in her art.  "Garments evoke bodies and carry their form and spirit,” she says.

Donna Huanca, Cosmetic Painting #6, 2015

Donna Huanca, Cosmetic Painting #8

Donna Huanca, Cosmetic Painting #10, 2015

Donna Huanca, Ego Medium, 2015

Donna Huanca, MiuMiu Coral, 2015

Donna Huanca, Scarring/Branding, 2015
(images from

Donna Huanca - performance for Muscle Memory show

Donna Huanca - performance for Muscle Memory show
(images from

I'm intrigued.  Creating abstract paintings with makeup isn't all that groundbreaking on its own.  But the use of a power suit as a canvas and the addition of painted live models takes a simple idea (using makeup as a medium) and transforms it into something more complex, illustrating the struggle to navigate a man's world without completely abandoning traditional markers of femininity, like cosmetics.  Rather, the raw, thick dabs of shadow and mascara on a wool suit canvas coupled with models wearing only paint as clothing demonstrate that cosmetics can be symbols of power rather than mere prettiness.  I would also argue there's a class/status angle here too, although I'm too out of it to properly articulate what that is.  I just think it's notable that Huanca opted to break out the Chanel rather than smearing on a less expensive makeup brand.  It could be yet another display of power - economic in this case - with the implication being that women high up on the corporate ladder (i.e., who wear suits regularly) can easily afford designer makeup.  Or perhaps it's an exaggeration of the idea of the makeup tax:  not only do women have to wear makeup to look presentable in professional situations, they require pricier cosmetics in sleek, fancy packaging to truly feel confident. And there might even be an unspoken expectation that they should spring for the "good" stuff in order to fully look the part of a high-powered executive.  

What do you think of these paintings?   

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