Zola Jesus is a musician with roots in Wisconsin and a stirring goth-inflected sound that started gaining attention in independent music circles in 2009, when she released her debut, The Spoils. Last week she released Okovi, a new album on the vaunted indie record label Sacred Bones that was anointed with Pitchfork’s ”Best New Music” designation. For ARTnews, she paid tribute to six artists from different disciplines—from painting to photography to Vienna Actionist gestures—whose work influenced Okovi‘s aural and visual aesthetic, from the cover art to the album’s accompanying videos, including one for the song “Exhumed.” —The Editors
Jesse Draxler, a mixed-media artist based in Los Angeles, was one of the biggest visual inspirations for my new record. While I was writing, I would often look at his work to sink deeper into the world I was imagining in my head. 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. I was thrilled to meet him and even more excited when he agreed to do the album artwork.
So much of the visual world surrounding Okovi was gathered piece by piece: a collection of images that grew into a collage of ideas. Franz Kline’s work was a vital asset to this line of thinking for the way he brought a messy, broad-stroked inner-world to the surface. Every time I see his work I feel at the core of myself a “yes.” Yes, that’s what I feel. Yes, that’s what I hear when I am writing these songs. It’s brutal, violent, thick, and inky. Yes.
I’ve long been a fan of Pierre Soulages, but for this record in particular I felt his work to be an unspoken friend. I’m drawn to the intensity of his work, how he paints with such extreme dimension. Instead of focusing on image or color, it’s all about texture. It’s very physical and somehow feels violent. It inspired my songwriting in that it made me want to focus on the shape of sounds rather than the color of them. I did a lot of digging in and sound-sculpting to try to create beds of sonic texture. It’s something I used to do a lot more in my earlier work but only recently returned to.
Josef Koudelka was a recent discovery, but he quickly made an impression. His photos are so evocative in their strong contrast and folkloric impressions of everyday life. So many of his photos—timeless and surreal—have cut into my DNA. Looking at them for the first time summoned something strangely ancestral, like I had seen them before or was somehow behind the camera when they were taken. In my own work I tried to tap into this unspoken sense of familiarity. Koudelka has a gift for walking the edge of Uncanny Valley. It’s such a powerful gift.
Uncovering Vienna Actionism was one of the most pivotal moments in my development as an artist. Günter Brus in particular was very important to me. His work is so physical and grotesque. To me, good art makes you feel either a little less or a little more human. Brus has a way of making me feel both. Peering into the morbidity of his photographs was a visceral experience I undertook when I started writing my new record. At the time, I was dealing with the struggles of corporeal life, and looking at Brus’s work helped me disassociate body from mind in a comforting way. His photos were cathartic.
E. Elias Merhige
Very often when I’m songwriting I have a TV next to me playing movies, and for months on end I had E. Elias Merhige’s 1990 film Begotten on loop. I’d sit in my dark room being lit by nothing but the screen’s caustic frames. It was my closest friend during my darkest moments and a scream I couldn’t let out on my own. I’ve never felt so directly inspired by a piece of art before. It was incredibly helpful to have this film in my life when I needed it most. I can’t help but see the imprint it left on my visual aesthetic for Okovi.