Krista Dragomer is a pretty woman. Her art is beautiful, but not pretty. Prettiness is skin-deep. Beauty cuts to the bone.
A native Ohioan, Krista is currently my Brooklyn neighbor, and a creator of drawings, sound art, mixed-media installations and collaborations that span the forest to the landfill to the petri dish.
The body is always a starting place for her work: the body out-of-control, or not quite coming together.
“I think it’s personal,” she says. “I think it comes from a sense of myself as this multi-faceted creature that doesn’t easily come together to form a cohesive ‘me’. And then I think that general way of moving through the world affects the way I explore the body creatively as a habitat, or as some kind of landscape. So there’s always some slightly monstrous quality.”
“I guess if you think about it,” I offer, “a monster is something that just isn’t together right.”
“Yeah, and kind of misunderstood,” Krista agrees. “I think of monsters as just these walking mistranslations. I always enjoyed that figure as place of creative disruption and possibility.”
The last time Krista was in Philly, she went to The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
“It’s like weird scientific mutations,” she describes. “There’s jars of bizarre fetuses and growths. I actually really love that stuff. It’s a bit disturbing, and I can’t handle horror movies and things that create this scary narrative around it. But them as sort of phenomena itself is really…”
“Well, yeah,” I cut in, “because the horror movie is sort of presuming that it’s a bad thing. And you’re not really seeing it that way.”
“No. I actually feel a kind of maternal connection to all my little monsters. They’re kindhearted. They might have teeth coming out of their shoulder or something, but they mean well.”
To me, the excitement of looking at Krista’s work is that her fantasy is not fantastical. Her fantasy is only reality outside the frame. This suggests to me that the picture is just not big enough.
“The picture is selective,” Krista agrees. “So we decide where along the timeline we want to focus, and then name something in relation to that particular moment. But that’s not the whole story.”
Krista recently created a series of drawings about cosmetics.
“The red color in lipstick is made from a beetle,” Krista reveals to my mild dismay. “And there’s a lot of, like, fish parts. There are all kinds of creatures that are in cosmetics. I’ve been really interested in reanimating those bodies. And so I’m making these portraits of women with all of these other creatures coming out of their faces – we actually have these relationships with these creatures unknowingly. It’s like a framing question, because we’ll buy the products that say ‘not tested on animals,’ so there’s this idea that there’s a distance from them. But it’s actually made out of animals. It wasn’t tested on a bunny, but it was still made out of a whale and a fish and a chicken. So the work is less about creating a kind of alternate fantasy, but just sort of re-inhabiting the stories that are already there and available, but are below the radar.”
In her earlier years, Krista made fiber sculpture. This work had a wearable component, so she incorporated performance. She ultimately felt the performance focused too much on herself and her body, so she began recording performances instead, and then playing them in a space with the sculpture. From there, she began thinking about the particular qualities of the sound itself.
“What I really enjoy about working with both sound art and visual art is that they’re very different types of processes,” Krista explains. “And they have different relationships with the body. So making things with your hands, whether it is sculpture or doing drawings, there’s much more of a tactile component to doing it. You’re with the material, you’re smelling the material.”
She did a series of drawings as part of her last Bahai Fast. Each morning she used the left-behind bits of food and tea from her pre-dawn breakfast for a total of nineteen days.
“I made them all out of my food,” she says, “and I really loved that relationship, the intimacy with the materials.
But when you show it, people don’t actually get to touch the materials that you touched. It’s different with sound. It’s a bit of a sterile process, because the tools are, like, a computer. But the effect is something that’s so much more visceral because it enters your body. I used to think of sound as dematerialized sculpture. And then I thought it’s actually not dematerialized, because it’s vibrating within you, and it’s just so materially present.”
“Like food,” is my first thought. Because it enters your body.
In 2011, Krista joined Eben Kirksey and “his band of bio-artists” exhibiting and curating with The Multispecies Salon. Eben’s group has expanded on ethnography to tell stories about microbes, bugs, and all the other non-human organisms that are living in the environment. The Multispecies Salon explores what those intersections are like, the ramifications and consequences of the ways we intertwine and collide.
Krista’s contribution was a series of sound sculptures about birds.
“Bird sounds and cell phone sounds,” she specifies. “I started thinking about the body in digital space. And just imagining all of these bits of information, all of the buzzing sounds, the electro-magnetic frequencies, all of these things that comprise the air that we live in and breathe in. I was imagining other creatures that are kind of caught in digital space, and how they are or are not able to adapt. So there are ways in which we recalibrate ourselves. Like, we recalibrate silence all the time, and a really noisy environment, we’ll actually think of as quiet. But those sounds are still continuing, and they’re affecting all of these other creatures who may actually be dependent on sound to navigate, and to be able to find their way to build a nest, to communicate with their mate. And so I wanted to try to make something that allowed for a more empathetic relationship with non-human sensoria, to maybe use that as a way to bring those sensations back into the frame and think about their experiences.”
My memory of the sound sculpture is this: There was a circle of bird houses, facing in. There were different combinations of sound and silence coming out of each one. I stood in the middle.
Krista recounts two different and opposite reactions people have to this piece: “One is an experience of really deep listening where people then start to attribute other environmental sounds that aren’t actually in the piece to it. So, like if a siren goes by…they’ll start to hear everything as being a part of it. The other reaction is the opposite where the piece has all these sort of buzzy digital sounds, and cell phone ring tones, and the listener will simply tune out all of it and only hear the birds.”
I’m fascinated. I don’t remember hearing any digital sounds. I only remember hearing birds. Does my brain automatically un-hear those things? Are they such a given that I don’t even register that they exist?
“When I showed it in the Hamptons, it was outside, it was in a tree,” Krista says. “People were constantly reaching for their phones, and were wondering if the sounds they were hearing were coming from them.”
Krista has collaborated extensively with Iranian filmmaker Rashin Fahandej in a series of works titled collectively 160 Years of Pressure, which have been exhibited in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Vancouver, Paris, and Chonqing, China. Krista focused on the sound element, and Rashin worked on the visual component.
Krista’s also worked with Beatrice Marovich, with whom she has co-created and published numerous graphic essays and works of speculative fiction that explore ideas of life and non-life in the anthropocene and beyond.
“I’m interested in narratives that seem apocalyptic but there’s something else going on. I do a lot of bouncing back and forth between the present and a kind of projected future as a means of exploring a post-apocalyptic sense of hope. And then I try to imaginatively inhabit that projected future, and retell the origin myth of whatever is in that future. How did they get there? Where did they come from?”
Krista’s work uses senses as the entry point. Whether the work is visual or sound, it’s focused on sensory and imaginative explorations of ourselves and the environment that we’ve created or find ourselves in. And that environment is inclusive of all of the other creatures that live in it and co-occupy it with us. All of the works are different permutations of that, whether she’s looking at a product, like the makeup, or looking at the cell-phone tower, and how those affect the birds. They’re all about the way our bodies and the bodies of others are situated, how we’re at all times involved in this complex multi-species intertwined life.
“And there’s no opting out of that life,” she says. “The most ethical person can say ‘I want to live this sort of non-interfering life’, but that’s simply not an option. So how do we deal with it the way it is now? What are the sources of hope? Because I don’t want to make these works that are like ‘everything is dying’, we know that. Hopefully we know that. But that isn’t my role. But how do I take those realities and make it a place where we can have an experience with our senses, with our whole bodies, that maybe opens up different ways to think about all these complex lives? I like the idea of walking into a familiar experience through a side door that you’ve never gone in before.”
I ask Krista about a new project, The Indelible Animal.
“My little pet portraiture side-hustle?” she laughs.
She draws portraits of the companion animals that leave indelible impressions on our lives. She draws them in indelible ink. A portrait of a reclining dog looks to me like more than a visual likeness. It looks to me like the actual entity of the dog.
Krista describes these drawings as “somewhere between a portrait and a caricature.” It’s almost like you can see out from the dog’s eyes.
“Well, they’re all so individual, and they’re just full of personality, so it’s pretty fun to try to inhabit it a little and let that part of it come out. I always have people tell me lots of stories about their pets so that I can get a sense, so I can understand these funny little creatures and their little lives.”
“You really love animals.”
“I do, yeah.”
“Do you sometimes see the world from the perspective of an animal?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
She had a winter that she did dog-walking. She took over another woman’s business for six months, in Windsor Terrace.
“So it was just me and the dogs,” she remembers. “I wasn’t talking all day long. I had the whole day of no human interactivity. It was just me and the dog and the snow and the trees in Prospect Park. And I felt very much full of conversation. I felt like we were having shared interactions all day long. I didn’t feel like I was by myself. I just was communicating differently.”
Krista will be participating in this year's Gowanus Open Studios, happening this weekend Oct 17-18. 2015. She will occupy a table in Hang Dai Studios at 112 2nd Ave, Brooklyn. Check out more of Krista's work on her website. She's also a bit of a regular at Sunny's in Redhook, where they have some great Western Swing on Wednesday nights.