Kristina Davis: Peripheral Poetries

 Kristina Davis,  Buzzed Whispers,  Salt and black sand, Dimensions variable, 2016.

Kristina Davis, Buzzed Whispers, Salt and black sand, Dimensions variable, 2016.

by Lucy McGuigan

In her own words, Davis uses “text as a visual vessel,” and as a consequence her work pivots upon its intertextuality and intermediality.[1] Davis’s recent backpage.poems, exhibited at Pennsylvania State University’s Edwin W. Zoller Gallery, intermingles quotes from the canon of Western literature with postings from backpage.com, a classifieds site where sexworkers often advertise their services. The juxtaposition of these two categories of texts, sans any visual indicators to identify or distinguish them, asks us to question the moralistic judgements of worth that bestow literary value upon one and decry the other as debased ad copy. This compositional strategy works to elevate the voice of the sexworker, giving humanizing shape and color to marginalized experiences.

Davis’s immersive installations place the viewer in liminal spaces, architectonically actualizing the unrelenting vulnerability of the sexualized body. Turnt’ Out envelops visitors in a blinding, candy-red cocoon; the components—velvet, Plexiglas, neon, and an emergency blanket—suggest the traumas enacted in the slickened spaces of sexual commerce. In stride, the disorienting effects of Chambers are achieved through projections onto rotating, semi-translucent surfaces.

While Davis’s work certainly cannot be considered on purely aesthetic terms, one cannot help but become fascinated by the sensuous quality of the texts’ visual form in her most recent works. Rendered in lotion stenciled on a wall and granular sand and salt stenciled directly on the floor, both their sources and their unconventional mediums subvert the viewer’s expectations regarding text’s content and form within the hallowed spaces of art’s display. In contrast to the sterile vinyl lettering of exhibition didactics that is essentially ubiquitous in museums and galleries across the globe, these texts insist upon their materiality, tantalizing viewers with textural complexity that beckons a tactile encounter. It is easy to be enraptured by “the enchantment of technology,” wondering at Davis’s ability to tame such temperamental substrates into precise typographic forms.[2]

Davis’ earlier work in the medium of print reflects these scribal tendencies: her hand-altered lithographs boast scrawling incantations of heavy metal anthems and Transcendentalist verses alike, following labyrinthine paths across the page. This kind of cultural mashup—culling sources from both highbrow and lowbrow realms of production—seems emblematic of Davis’s artistic ethos, straddling the academically-sanctioned spaces of the university and gallery and the peripheral heterotopias of the DIY squatter and freight-hopping community.[3]

  backpage.poems,  Lotion on wall, Dimensions variable, 2017.

backpage.poems, Lotion on wall, Dimensions variable, 2017.

  backpage.poems , Lotion on wall, Dimensions variable, 2017.

backpage.poems, Lotion on wall, Dimensions variable, 2017.

Davis borrows from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, each constituent letter formed in perspiring lotion.

Kristina Davis, Turnt' Out, Velvet, emergency blanket, plexiglass, and neon sound, 2017

The emergency blanket’s reflection of light conjures nightmarish topographies.

Kristina Davis, Chambers, Projection and kinetic installation, 2016.

In a projected video, the artist rips away pages to reveal a textually-relayed narrative of violence, a poignant reminder of the perils inherent to the daily life of the sexworker.

  Buzzed Whispers,  Salt and black sand, Dimensions variable, 2016.

Buzzed Whispers, Salt and black sand, Dimensions variable, 2016.

Artfully sifted black sand spells out the lyrics to the Descendents’ “Suburban Home,” staggered in snippets across the linoleum floor.

  Which Witch , Hand-altered Lithograph, 11.5 x 15 inches

Which Witch, Hand-altered Lithograph, 11.5 x 15 inches

Verses from Henry David Thoreau's poem The Moon encircle an image of tatooed hands at the center of the composition.


[1] Kristina Davis, “Artist Statement,” https://www.kristinadavisart.com/blank-mpvle.

[2] See Alfred Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” in Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, edited by J. Coote and A. Shelton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 40–66.

[3] For heterotopias, see Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (Spring 1986).