BY MIN CHEN
Zola Jesus’ 2017 release Okovi looked and sounded every bit like a dark artifact. Written after a bleak period in Nika Roza Danilova’s life, during which she experienced loss and depression, it was a violent storm of an album, swept with taut strings, nocturnal beats, gothic reverberations, and its maker’s robust vocals. And yet, not all iswasdoom and gloom. As Danilova explained, Okovi was “an attempt to cleanse the pain that I felt and cleanse the pain of the people around me.” Purgation, after all, holds the promise of clarity and release at its end. And the record, an exercise in catharsis, bore that light within.
Just observe the cover of the record. Created by Los Angeles-based artist Jesse Draxler, the sleeve featured a photograph of Danilova that’s been daubed with black paint, with visible brush strokes and textures adding visual interest. In the only spots left unpainted—and in fact, where the black has clearly been edged out—are her fixed, steely eyes. That gaze, though enclosed within a sea of black, was far from subsumed by it, but cut through it, searching and persevering.
The rest of Draxler’s oeuvre is similarly enigmatic and abstract, concerned with the surfaces and dimensions of faces and figures. In his monochrome, mixed media collages, human features are deconstructed and reconstructed, defaced and recreated by the light of the artist’s grim and wry imagination. “The face is a highly relatable signifier,” he told Flanelle Magazine in 2014. “It is very immediate and quickly brings forward themes of identity and self.” And by so wilfully refashioning faces and parts, he makes the human body—and by extension, self and identity—his canvas.
While writing Okovi, Danilova sought and found inspiration in Draxler’s creations. “I would often look at his work to sink deeper into the world I was imagining in my head,” she said. “I even went so far as to print out some of his collage pieces and tape them to the wall of my studio. His art seemed to echo the universe I was feeling within the music: monochromatic, impressionistic, and existentially aggressive.” Draxler’s work does indeed confront the impermanence of everything. Describing his 2016 show, “Terror Management,” he said, “It’s a scientific exploration of what our knowledge of mortality does to our psyche. Basically, it says that everything we do in life, on every level, is at the core influenced by the idea that we’re going to die someday.”
Likewise, Danilova’s record was strewn with lyrical abstraction and somber overtones in its meditations on life and death, flesh and blood. “Bury the tongue between the teeth / Open the jaw and sink in deep,” went “Exhumed,” while “Remains” asked, “Do ruins give power or do they give proof / That something meant more than what we lived through?” As she’s averred, “If I’m going to do something, I want it to be about the guts of life and nothing superficial, because there’s no time to make music for the sake of making music.”
Ironically, for an album christened after the Slavic word for shackles, the excellent Okovi ended on that promised note of light and release. “Half Life” is an instrumental track, composed as Danilova pondered the “hope in finding euphoria in our darkest moments” and of a darkness “so black that it eventually becomes white.” Draxler, in describing the act of collage, might call it “creation through destruction.” Zola Jesus won’t disagree. “As the pain digs deeper, it pierces into pleasure,” she explained. “That’s transcendence. That’s the essence of being alive.”