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MADRID — Barbie dolls took a bashing at Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s Madrid opening Tuesday night. “I wasn’t allowed to play with them,” said the New York-based artist. Her mother, Peg Lee, added, “Her father and I thought the dolls with those tiny little waists sent the wrong message.”


Hovnanian’s latest work — “American Beauty — Too Good to Be True” — is on display at the Aina Nowack/AAC Gallery here through Oct. 14 after opening in New York. The series is a poignant, often humorous depiction of physical attributes featuring 15 black-and-white photographs, a wall sculpture stacked with jars of beauty cream and an installation of a bassinet with only a mirror on the pillow. “This is where it all started. Everyone always says, ‘Oh, what a beautiful baby,’” Hovnanian explained.


She calls her work “a discussion. In our culture, there is pressure to look a certain way. Beauty can be power, yes, but it’s a burden, too. We’re taught to be the best, but that’s a fantasy because there is always someone behind you. The obsession with beauty is an American thing, but it’s spreading. With Photoshop and [the] Internet, we’re comparing ourselves to unreal images. There is no reality now.


“An artist’s job is to create a dialogue. I believe the idea of perfection is something we should discuss because it affects everybody, women and men,” she said during a preopening panel discussion with TV social commentator Isabel Sartorius. Sartorius remarked, “A few extra pounds don’t bother me as long as my cholesterol is OK; and I didn’t let my daughter play with Barbie dolls, either.” 


In the crowd were bespoke designer Miguel Palacio, who will open his first store here in December, and the Duchess of Alba’s son Fernando, Marqués de San Vicente del Barco.

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