The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Amanda Douberley, January 18, 2008, Arts

'Donna Huanca: Secret Museum of Mankind'

Women & Their Work, through Feb. 16

Even before Lizzie Wetzel's performance, a smoke machine, incense, and drumbeats made the opening night of Donna Huanca's "Secret Museum of Mankind" at Women & Their Work feel more like an esoteric ritual than a reception for an art exhibition. The University of Houston alumna jam-packed the gallery with a series of installations that loosely reference pre-Columbian civilizations, 20th century Cuban rebels, psychedelic rock bands, and New Age spirituality. Each vignette fluctuates between a diorama and a stage, where viewers and performers alike activate the space.

The gallery is roughly divided into three parts that overlay past, present, and future. The video I'm Leaving and the felt diptych Cuban Rebels and Papauly represent events from the lives of Huanca's parents. The former echoes her mother's flight from Bolivia to the United States through satellite footage familiar from TV weather reports, while the latter focuses on the time the artist's father spent in the Bolivian army. In two mural-sized wall hangings, Huanca treats scraps of felt like paint, layering boldly colored swatches to depict two groups of figures based on photographs in her father's collection. On one side, men dressed in uniforms hover over a fallen solider. On the other, the rebels pose in front of a campfire. It's the right balance of artificiality and realism – combined with the dense hue of textiles – that makes these figures almost pop off the wall and also makes Cuban Rebels and Papauly one of the best pieces in the show.

Memories/Past includes two sets of near-life-size puppets situated on either side of a painted stepped pyramid. In this vignette, Huanca ruminates on events from her own life, with characters that include a plush version of her dog. The puppets prompt activation via imagination, turning this portion of "Secret Museum of Mankind" into something like a children's museum.

The gallery's central space has been given over to stage sets for ritual acts. A mound of dirt speared with sticks of incense and covered in spices sits in front of a large black circle painted on the wall. Nearby, white blocks form a pit that spews artificial smoke. A large installation on the back wall combines bones, crystals, colored powders, and found objects to evoke a glowing grotto where Wetzel, one of Huanca's collaborators, cavorted on opening night. This part of the show – which Huanca created with Wetzel and the artist Owl Eyes – functions well as a performance space, but compared with the high craft of the exhibition's other vignettes, it does not make for great visual art.

Much of what is here has been shown elsewhere, including the puppets and felt diptych. There is nothing wrong with resituating past projects to create something new; however, the combination of fully resolved art objects with temporary performance props is a little jarring and leaves viewers with a lot to process. "Secret Museum of Mankind" is not a tight show but certainly an ambitious one.

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