Katya Grokhovsky was born in Ukraine, raised in Australia, and is based in Brooklyn, New York. She is an artist, independent curator, educator and a founding director of Feminist Urgent. Grokhovsky holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a BFA from Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University, Australia and a BA (Honors) in Fashion from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia.
Her works have been exhibited in venues such as Smack Mellon, Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe, EFA Project Space, Arsenal Gallery, NURTUREart, Field Projects, Underdonk, San Francisco International Arts Festival, Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, Lesley Heller Workspace, HERE Arts Center, NYC, Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, SUNY College, Governor’s Island Art Fair, New York City Center,, Soho20 gallery, Watermill Center, among others. Grokhovsky has received support through numerous residencies and fellowships including The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) Artist Studios Program Residency (upcoming), BRICworkspace Residency, Ox-BOW School of Art Residency, Wassaic Artist Residency, NY, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Studios at MASS MoCA, SOHO20 Gallery Residency, BRIC Media Arts Fellowship, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, NY, (New York Residency and Studio Foundation), Santa Fe Art Institute Residency, NM, Chanorth Residency, NY, Watermill Center International Summer Residency, and more. She has received awards from Asylum Arts Grant, NYC, Dame Joan Sutherland Fund, NYC, Australia Council for the Arts ArtStart Grant, NYFA Mentoring Program for Immigrant Artists, NYC, Chashama space to create grant, NYC, Freedman Traveling Scholarship for Emerging Artists, Australia, and more.
You emigrated from the Ukraine, grew up in Australia, and currently are based out of New York. What impact, if any, does this transitory background play in your art?
As a multiple immigrant, my background of movement around the world and history of numerous adaptations and assimilations has consistently informed my practice on many levels, from research prompts to shaping my artistic interest and inquiry. I often study and mine my biography and family accounts in order to understand my own identity formation and construction. Who am I, really? I feel comfortable in perpetual migration, from medium to medium, discipline to genre, venue to site, never settling, continuously in motion, forever in search of a metaphorical illusion of home.
Given you have resided in so many places, why did you choose New York City as your home base? What attracted you about the New York artistic community in particular?
When I first arrived in New York nearly 10 years ago, the city immediately spoke to my deepest inner self. I was home: lonely, broke, hungry, uncomfortable, desperate, but home. The city never fails to challenge me, keeping me on my toes, on all fronts, be it life or art related, and I thrive in its biosphere. Eventually, I got to know New York’s numerous artistic communities and have found the spirit, motivation and intellectual support, critical engagement and encouragement, which I needed. New York is still so open to new people, ideas; there is simply no other place like it. I feel at peace here, I can be myself, I can create what I want and can find a dialogue I need, to push myself forward, to nurture my work, to live my life as I have always imagined it, on my terms. NYC has embraced the little freaky me, and I’m forever grateful to it.
Why do you utilize such a wide range of media, including but not limited to site-specific installations, found objects, sculpture, video, and performance? What properties do you think using disparate materials lends to your work?
I’m an explorer by nature, and that’s how I see my practice, as a vast terrain of the unknown, of experimentation and new thought to be discovered. I’m not comfortable settling into one medium as such: I am more interested in intersections, exchanges, unexpected formations and strange results, as well as inevitable failures. I like to play, to imagine, to conquer a new material, to dig into a new land, a new subject, new method. Each material I utilize, lends a different an unexpected aspect to my work. It is my way of stumbling in the dark at times, of challenging myself, of creating totality. We don't live in one-dimensional universe, and that's how I see my practice in general, a multi-universe unto itself, where I get to frolic infinitely and create my own mini worlds, perhaps, my own homelands.
You describe your works to be “post-industrial”, “post-apocalyptic” and “post-capitalist.” Can you elaborate what this means?
I’d like to think I’m in the “post-everything” mode. The planet is in transition, most of us don't know where the human race will eventually end up, and will it even survive, as we know it? I enjoy the existential aspect of pondering the dystopian future; it lends itself to freedom of thought. Having experienced the fall of the Soviet Union as a young teen, the sense of eventual collapse of absolutely everything you know lives in my body, lodged deep in my stored memory. As a child, I would lay wide wake at night imagining being dead, letting the dread and absolute terror, mixed in with strangely delirious excitement, settle in. I now attempt to do that in my work, to peer behind the veil, to lift the curtain of post-reality, ever so slightly and propose another alternative. A dreadful, yet free world. What will it be like?
Why does the concept of the grotesque and absurd feature so prominently in your artwork?
The concepts of both absurd and grotesque come directly from my experience of life as a female immigrant and have become important tools of transformation and rebellion for me. Once upon a time I did not speak English in an English-speaking country and lived in a non-verbal, liminal, absurd world of misunderstanding. The world also calls grotesque anything that veers from the standard idea of beauty and I truly enjoy highlighting that aspect, purposefully becoming absurd and ridiculous, larger than life, a beast, a monster, a living breathing, craving, emotional, failing being. Let me take up more space, shed politeness and decolonize, glaring and hissing at the world, exposing raw, bleeding muscle. A grotesque woman immigrant is a persona-non-grata and that’s how I’d like my work to be: liberated, deconditioned, courageous, audacious, nauseating, barely tolerable, hopping around and being its glorious self.
Although your art has a somewhat dense and dark subject matter, pertaining to themes of unjust power hierarchies, systemic oppression, isolation, and displacement, there is still an element of animated, even childlike, humor. Can you explain this lighthearted element?
Just like absurdity, humor in my work originates directly from my life as an immigrant: if you don’t laugh, you cry. It is a very human, extremely real defense and survival mechanism, a way to sugar coat the hard-to-swallow truth. I don't want my work to be all doom and gloom, so humor coats and masquerades the message. As an artist, I’m a forever-child, a Peterina Pan, never able to grow up, always slightly naïve, inquisitive, free to fly, open and fragile. The lighthearted aspect is somewhat of a necessity and helps me to navigate the dark themes, which I’m plowing through daily.
How do you develop your character within each of your performances? Are they extensions of you? Or are they more invented personas or allegorical figures?
The characters are borne by my own life and experience as well as observational research into lives of women. They are my alter egos, extensions of my identity, and braver, vivid versions of me. They allow me to be what I wish I could be more often in life. They say what I could not. They are vehicles of my projections, insecurities, ambitions, of various investigations and experiments. I work in a project-based manner, each starting with an idea, an obsession: from writing, drawing, painting, collaging to objects, sculptures, costumes, performances, videos and installations. This system allows me to create a complete, yet in flux microcosm, where the character resides and operates. Each is an alter-reality, a slight one step away from me.
Can you explain some of your more notable characters, such as Bad Woman and Bad Bunny?
Bad Woman and Bad Bunny have been with me for over a year now and I am enjoying inhabiting these characters. Bad Woman is an ambiguous being, situated between past and present ideologies, genders, assumptions, standards, codes, etc. She is grotesque, idiotic, ill advised and an absolute genius. She says and does things I won’t in life, she is my alter ego, increasingly hysterical, angry, alert, reckless, irresponsible, impolite, eccentric, foolish, and bold. She will repeatedly tell you she is a genius and wants and will be in history books. Bad Bunny occurred simultaneously as Bad Woman’s whimsical, childish companion, an oversized, infantile kid-adult-animal-woman, who perpetually plays around, unable to be useful , domestic, sexual or to conform. Both of these characters are non-conforming alternatives, aspects of some undefined femininity from another dimension.
What process do you employ to create the masks and costumes you use within your performances? What steps do you take in crafting these deconstructed characters?
The masks, objects and costumes undergo a lengthy process of experimentation and elimination, as well as chance encounters and intuition based decisions. I compose the characters as part of a bigger world they inhabit, so there are various layers of research and making. I use papier mache, ready-made paper molds, acrylic paint and mediums, large variety of found materials such as fake fur, feathers, fabrics, rubber, other masks, toys, wigs, clothing, upholstery, domestic use objects, print media, books, embroidery, hair, etc. I recycle my own previous works, deconstructing and collaging them with found objects I collect from my immediate environment. I frequently scour the streets, thrift stores and fellow artists’ studios for materials.
How are the detritus and other materials used in the performance/videos selected?
I go through a laborious process of making, failing, assembling and eliminating. When I arrive at the performance and video stages of my project, I usually have a color and aesthetics scheme designed, a sort of 3D painting-set in mind, which I carefully arrange and stage, playing with many materials, discarding and choosing as I move along. By this stage, I would have already written, collaged and painted a lot, in order to hash out the new ecosphere and its inhabitants. My process is akin to creating a film, a play, or a fashion collection with all aspects of the production created by me.
Your art has a visceral physicality, whether experienced through the thick, viscous implementation of paint on masks, the use of discarded worn fabric, a rough handmade aesthetic, or your own body. What role does physicality and the body plays within your work?
I realized early on in my life, that my body is the only thing which I fully possess. Once you experience the world around you crumbling and collapsing, your body is what you rely on, as your only home. So it is where my inspiration initially originates, be it my memories, experiences, sensations, dreams, desires, etc. The body is a work in progress and highly physical; so I employ visceral, interchangeable quality materials such as paint, fabrics, plaster, hair, etc., as extensions of the body. I’m interested in viscera’s bodily qualities, which can entice and seduce sensations in the viewer, as well as myself as the maker. I need to employ my hands, my sense of touch, to possess something; to truly understand it, to make it mine. My early backgrounds in dance and fashion have positioned my understanding of the world via the body, especially as a female, both in positive and negative light and I learned to employ it as a weapon and a tool.
Interviewed by Gina Mischianti