Interview: Rachel Lee Hovnanian

During our trip to New York for the College Media Association spring convention, Noel (Blog Editor) and Madeleine (Managing Editor) met with University of Texas alumna Rachel Lee Hovnanian at the Spring/Break art fair in New York, where Hovnanian was presenting her installation Taped Shut.

Hovnanian’s installation Taped Shut at the Spring/Break art fair March 9, 2019

The central part of this installation is the sculpture. Can you tell us a bit about how you’re using the sculpture?

Yeah. The theme of this fair is fact vs. fiction. So this installation talks about what you say – or really what you don’t say, what you don’t tell other people – versus what’s really happening in your life. The sculpture is the bust of an angel, and its mouth is taped shut. It can’t speak. It can’t tell the truth. So people can come up to this installation and – here. [She points us to a roll of X’s made from tape.] People can take an X and put it over their own mouth and actually feel what it’s like to not be able to speak, like the angel. And these feathers on the ground here, what do feathers represent? Freedom, right? And these feathers are taped to the ground, restricting their freedom. So when you feel like you can’t tell the truth, can’t talk about something, you also feel like you don’t freedom, like it’s been taken from you. I also chose the angel as a figure specifically because angels don’t really have a gender. Because it doesn’t matter what gender you are. Everyone experiences not being able to talk about something because we’re afraid of what other people will think about us if we do tell them. That’s what the sign says – “Things I didn’t say.”

Raphy Sarkissian interacting with Hovnanian's installation
Interaction with Hovnanian’s installation (with permission from Raphy Sarkissian)

Your use of gender in Taped Shut fits in with other artists who explored themes surrounding the #metoo movement. Beyond this installation, how have you engaged with gender throughout your career?

I inevitably engage with gendered forces with every work of art that I create, as a woman. This reality inspired my Ray Lee Project. I adopted the male-passing pseudonym of Ray Lee, which was also my nickname back in UT’s fine arts department. And I took my resume, left everything else untouched but changed my name. An art gallery here in New York had my NDD Installation on view under Ray Lee’s name, and I got plenty of comments that no one would’ve imagined me, a petite blonde woman, to create in the way that I do. I use Ray Lee to subvert the framework of sexism I’m implicated in as Rachel. Gender will transform as technology reduces our interactions with others to just avatars materializing on the screen. If I’ll be able to edit my position and performance then, why couldn’t I do the same now?

Besides Gender, what are some themes you explore through your art?

Portrait of Rachel Hovnanian wrapped in electrical cord
Rachel Lee Hovnanian (source: The Art Gorgeous)

My work is humanist. It creates conversations about what affects all of us as humans. I look at social stigma. Therapists love it because I open up these conversations that people are afraid to have. I’ve done work in the past that looks at addiction. There was one installation I did that was about sugar addiction. And that led me to making one that was about technology addiction. We are addicted to technology just as much as we are to sugar. It’s the same. We get the same rush of dopamine from both. After that, I started thinking about addiction in my own life, addiction I experienced in my own household. My father was a professor and a very smart man, but he was addicted to alcohol. And that’s actually what this installation is about. I felt like I couldn’t talk about what was happening in my home, so I kept quiet, and I felt like I didn’t have freedom because I was so afraid of what people would think if I told them the truth.

How did the wide breadth of classes you took at UT prepare you for your work primarily focused on installation?

Even though I don’t work in every medium I explored during my BFA program, there was never a class where I didn’t learn something or experience something that helped me grow as an artist. When you’re in a sculpture class and lob off part of your work in a horrible way, even then you learn something about the process of creating, and you can reflect on that and apply what you noticed to projects in the future. And the foundation of skills I cultivated in Austin helped me incorporate different mediums into installations that help me express my ideas in more nuanced ways. Even the sculpture in this installation adds a texture that couldn’t be replicated with anything else, that makes the whole work say something more than any of the individual parts would on their own.

You can learn more about Rachel Lee Hovnanian and her works at

About the Author

When Noel Larcher is not taking care of their four chickens, he’s probably writing poetry about butts. Or busy analyzing Ru Paul’s Drag Race through a Foucauldian lens. They’re also a consultant at UT’s writing center and a security guard at the Blanton Museum of Art.