Wynnie Mynerva's erotic paintings are a cathartic revenge fantasy
The Peruvian artist's new exhibit, ‘Sweet Castrator’, confronts sexual trauma and healing by placing female and trans bodies in positions of power.
A Matter of Luck, 2021. Oil on canvas. 27 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Courtesy of LatchKey Gallery.
Growing up in the urban coastal district of Villa el Salvador on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, Wynnie Mynerva speaks of murder, prostitution and drug raids on their doorstep. There were neighbours who sold their daughters, whose screams you could hear at night, and the sound of police kicking down doors echoing into the darkness. Today, violence against women persists as the most common form of violence in Peru, with one in three women likely to experience physical and/or sexual from an intimate partner in their lifetime. During the pandemic, calls to a national hotline for victims of domestic abuse more than doubled, as did emergency responses to victims of rape. In a place where misogyny is rife, “you have to train yourself not to attract attention; to hide, not to ask, not look, not talk and to take care of life,” Wynnie says.
It’s only through art that Wynnie, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, has been able to carve a space for themselves and tackle the sexual trauma of existing in the world as a femme presenting person. “I was never really able to explore my sexuality as an adolescent because I was scared,” Wynnie says. “My art is where I began experimenting sexually. The first thing I wanted to explore was my desires, and once that door was open, it opened up many other doors. Not only sexually, but the doubts and trauma and other things. While I was creating I would reverse the scenes and moments from my past experiences. That's how I gained strength not only for myself but for my body, for my identity.”
The artist’s new show Sweet Castrator, which opened at the LatchKey Gallery in New York on May 7 is a testament to Wynnie’s healing process. At the centre of the exhibit, which chronicles Wynnie’s sexual trauma and their journey to self-acceptance, the artist lay in a bath of blood that symbolised the revenge they wished to take on all the men who have violated women. Wynnie says that they would never have been able to expose themselves artistically like this in their hometown of Lima, where they are regularly abused online by those that deem them — and their art — too promiscuous, and where their shows have been ransacked by conservative protesters.
Although Wynnie’s work channels a soft romanticism, featuring a palette of pastels and earth tones, their paintings balance femininity with violent art history metaphors that have been reclaimed to subvert gender binaries. “The cis hetero male figure has always been a threat [to me],” Wynnie says. “My sense of security is constantly attacked. In this exhibition, I seek to expose this and express my desire for revenge. The victim becomes the perpetrator — it is a way for me to hurt, but also to heal.”
Wynnie was classically trained at the San Marcos University and Bellas Artes in Lima and often references the male-centred work of the Old Masters, as well as Catholic iconography, in their paintings. It’s their way of breaking the hegemonic narrative. Crafting a new story from experiences that aren’t male, Wynnie incorporates female and trans bodies in positions of power and control. “Images have so much power and significance, they retain historical moments and needs. We need visual spaces where other identities can reinforce their trust through acceptance,” Wynnie explains. “My representations seek to make the woman the owner of her image.”
The artwork in Sweet Castrator is exhibited to tell the tale of Wynnie’s transition from dominated to dominant, passive to active, suppressed to outspoken. The first painting “Eat For Me” depicts a desecrated breast on a plate, and references the Baroque portraits of St. Agatha, a virgin martyr in Christianity who had her breasts cut off because she refused the advances of a Roman prefect. It looks back to a time in Wynnie’s life where they gave up their whole self to the man. “The female body is a territory of conflict and resistance,” the artist says. “Women can be an object of desire, but when we have control over our desire, it is violently cancelled.”
“All My Tears” encapsulates the grief Wynnie felt after being abused. But from the tears emerge beautiful fish to symbolise the coming of something better; they are a metaphor for deeper awareness and since water brings life, the painting can be seen as a rebirth. Another shows a woman turning away from flies that circle her — Wynnie had a recurring dream about flies during bouts of depression following their assault. “The entire story isn't about the violence. It's also about the process of healing,” the artist says.
It’s about sexual exploration, empowerment and aggression too. The show is filled with depictions of predators as the prey. In “A Matter of Luck”, a knife torments a surreal hand formed of penises in a game of roulette. While another shows a flaccid penis being shot from the barrel of a gun. But it’s the triptych, “Story of Revenge,” that showcases the true catharsis of the paintings and Wynnie’s style fully-formed. Drawing on Artemisia Gentileschi’s somewhat gruesome “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, Wynnie fearlessly beheads their abuser with a knife. They skillfully manipulate their brush strokes to move between figuration and abstraction, a style they first developed when painting people having sex in front of them. Back then, painting was fast and instant, creating a fluidity and immediacy that often obscures the brutality and sadism in their work. Now it’s out in the open. “[Over the years] I have expanded my own limits: painting people having sex, masturbating in front of an audience, being naked in my own exhibition,” Wynnie says. “After each project I gain more strength and safety.”
“Wynnie tricks our eyes,” Amanda Uribe, one of the co-founders of LatchKey Gallery, says over Zoom. “If you look at past paintings, the palette would be almost referencing a Monet, a very calming and soothing painting, but then you approach the [their more recent] work and you’re immediately taken into a different world.”
That world is filled with desire and it explores sex and sexuality that is too taboo to engage with in the machismo society of Peru. “My projects seek to represent women in art, to extend the image of power and freedom to female bodies,” Wynnie says of the importance of creating art for the people of their home country. “To have other images where we can rejoice, take charge of our own sexual liberation, talk about our fears, heal our pain, process and tell our own stories.”