Wynnie Mynerva: Sweet Castrator
May 7 through June 26, 2021
By ROBERT R. SHANE, June 2021
Wynnie Mynerva’s painting and installation at LatchKey Gallery protest a culture of male-inflicted sexual violence in their country of Peru, and worldwide, as the artist works through their own experiences of sexual trauma. The exhibition embodies the contradictory impulses contained in its title Sweet Castrator. Walls painted pink with white cartoon clouds are the backdrop for luminous scenes of life-sized figures painted in the colors of icing. Lured in, the viewer is swept up into a world of violent painted gestures and subject matter that probes violation, revenge, and the misogyny embedded in much of Western painting.
Mynerva completed all works on view in 2021 during the Kates-Ferri Projects Artist Residency hosted at LatchKey Gallery. When the artist spoke with me on site, with gallery co-founder Amanda Uribe interpreting for us, they described the exhibition as taking place in two acts. The paintings on canvas in the front half of the gallery comprise the first act and take us back in time with Mynerva as they process memories of their body. In All My Tears a naked figure rendered in translucent pink and purple contours huddles on the ground while a man ejaculates behind them, his hand hovering menacingly over their head. A foil to the semen, large cyan tear drops fall along the arm and past the breasts of the figure—who is faceless as are all figures in the exhibition—and accumulate in a pool populated with orange coy. These meticulously rendered fish provide a place for psychological respite or even dissociation from the scene of trauma.
In another untitled painting in the first act, Mynerva finds kinship with rape survivor Artemesia Gentilleschi and reinterprets the Italian Baroque painter’s composition Susanna and the Elders (1610), which depicts a story from the Catholic Bible of two men who invade a woman’s bath and try to coerce her into performing sex acts by threatening to falsely accuse her of adultery—a capital offense—if she doesn’t comply. The subject was treated by many male painters, particularly during the 16th-18th centuries, as “an opportunity for legitimized voyeurism,” in the words of art historian Mary D. Garrard. In Mynerva’s interpretation the lecherous men have been replaced with a swarm of oversized flies whose buzzing persists like a traumatic memory. Susanna turns away, raising her arms to shield herself from them.
Gentilleschi continues to appear in Act 2 of Sweet Castrator, where Mynerva represents their present-day empowered sense of self in three mural-sized canvases mounted directly on the walls and collectively titled Story of Revenge. In the center panel, which wraps around the sides of its freestanding wall, Mynerva interprets Gentilleschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-13), a depiction of the Biblical story of two women getting the upper hand over a male tyrant, sneaking into his tent and beheading him in his sleep. Mynerva renders Judith and her maidservant nude rather than wearing 17th century dress, and their Judith wields a kitchen knife instead of a sword. These substitutions underscore the sexual and domestic nature of an assault for which Mynerva’s characters seek their revenge. Holofernes’ head is left unrecognizable in the ensuing carnage. The flies who attacked Mynerva’s Susanna in the first act reappear, but this time silenced as their wide eyes blanch with fear.
Garrard in her 1989 book on Gentilleschi reads both Susanna and Judith as two of several “female heroes” in the Baroque painter’s work; in turn, we can view Mynerva’s interpretation of Gentilleschi’s female heroes as a direct challenge to the trope of “heroic rape” seen in numerous Old Master paintings, for example, Correggio’s Jupiter and Io (1530) or Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-35). (Vivian Fryd recently traced this trope’s continued appearance in 20th century painting in the introduction to her Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970.) Copying Old Master compositions was still compulsory in Mynerva’s art education, an exercise which implicitly asks the student to replicate the ideologies those works contain. But today Mynerva wields their expressionist brush like a weapon, inflicting stylistic violence against misogynist traditions embedded in Western painting.
Mynerva employs this stylistic violence as they assert their own agency. They further emphasized the specificity of their personal story in the exhibition through an opening night performance (which I did not witness). Mynerva laid in a bathtub—which now stands in the center of the gallery on a red puddle-shaped carpet—that was filled with red fluid, keeping their eyes open but not interacting with visitors. In a statement, they said part of their intention was to help the audience put a face to the exhibition’s story. Even though the performance is over, we still feel Mynerva’s presence through their inimitable style and the towering scale of Sweet Castrator’s second act. Speaking through an interpreter, Mynerva told me, “This project has made me gain strength. It’s been a form of release, freedom, helping me heal. I always had to stay quiet, but the paintings allow me to speak loudly about what is happening.” WM
Robert R. Shane is a critic and curator and received his PhD in art history and criticism from Stony Brook University.view all articles from this author