Crystal Dyer’s studio is made up of a several small rooms, one leading into the next like a series of dimly lit caves. The ceilings are low and many of the walls are ripped up, exposing puffy insulation and thick metal wires. A large black sheet of peeling wallpaper hangs off the wall; this is Crystal’s newest canvas. Ivory muslin is draped over the corners in the main room, where a candle burns.
To Crystal, a multimedia artist, spaces often act as a representation of the mind, and in this case her space also reflects a great deal about her work. Her drawings indicate a sensibility that is at once methodical and mystical, clinical and expressive. Her current project, “Hypnosis Drawings,” is characteristic of both late 19th century occult practices and medical anthropology (picture a séance held in a doctor’s laboratory). And past projects have similarly involved such a pairing of the spiritual to the scientific. Process isn’t the only objective though—her work, and its primary intention, is based on self-discovery: “It’s a process of knowing, studying and learning myself, ” she explains. Far from self-important, however, her work draws more from Jungian concepts of the self and psychoanalysis than from the pool of narcissism. Her thirst for knowledge is her motivation and what makes her drawings so interesting. She locates a point between spirituality and science that is seldom visited in contemporary art, and her patience with her work, or “experiments,” is remarkable.
Eugenie Dalland: Tell me about what you’re working on right now.
Crystal Dyer: In November I went to see a hypnotist at Theta Springs Hypnosis on 27th Street [in Manhattan]—I’ve never been hypnotized before. I’d read a lot about it, and I’d been thinking of doing this project for a long time. The hypnotist was really into my idea so she hypnotized me, recorded it and let me use [the recording] for post-hypnotic suggestion—that’s technically what its called. So I listen to it and I do drawings.
Eugenie: So you hypnotize yourself?
Crystal: Yes, but it’s different than self-hypnosis. It’s a deeper state. I’ve tried doing self-hypnosis, and it’s more just relaxing. This one is specifically for me and for doing drawings.
Eugenie: It’s specifically designed for making art?
Crystal: Yes, it’s for doing a drawing by getting information from your subconscious.
Eugenie: What is it like being hypnotized?
Crystal: Well, you’re conscious of what you’re doing but you’re like, “Why am I nodding my head right now?” It’s really fascinating. I want to be honest with my artwork, and hypnosis makes you more focused and less distracted. It really is an amazing experience, one where I’m fully conscious that I’m being hypnotized but feeling and seeing visions that the hypnotist dictates.
Eugenie: That sounds incredible..
Crystal: I definitely recommend it! People have been studying it for a long time. Actually, most of my research has been reading books I get off eBay from the 1940s and 1950s about hypnotherapy.
Eugenie: Which in particular?
Images by Dan McMahon
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Crystal: How to Hypnotize by Melvin Powers is one of my favorites. The photos are the best part. It teaches you how to hypnotize someone, gives a brief history of hypnosis and describes the various stages of hypnosis. Actually, everyone has been in a state of hypnosis—falling asleep and waking up are both states of hypnosis. But a hypnotist can send a subject into deeper states of hypnosis. Another book, Man of Jasmine by Unica Zurn, has been a huge influence—and Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle. I’ve looked at hypnosis portrayed in films too. Everything from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” to every Nosferatu film. The most inspiring is “The Woman in Green” which is a Sherlock Holmes episode, and “The Search for Bridey Murphy.” These are more theatrical views of hypnotism about controlling another person through hypnosis, but the imagery is very inspiring.
Eugenie: Can you give me a step by step of how you make your hypnosis drawings, or what you remember of the experience?
Crystal: My process is very ritualistic, and I only perform it a couple times a week. I prepare by setting up and arranging all of my tools—a bowl of chalk powder or flour, white ink pens, black ink pens, pencils, graphite powder, various brushes etc., and the paper. Then I set up a chair to sit in and I turn off/dim the lights. I listen to my hypnosis recording, which is about 20 minutes long, and then I draw for about an hour or two until the trance has worn off. I think I remember everything.
Eugenie: Did you study psychology in school?
Crystal: No, I studied art. I’ve just always been interested in these things. [Carl] Jung was a big influence. I write down all of my dreams, and I feel like it’s a process of knowing myself. It’s about studying myself and learning myself, and thus my connection to the world and everything else.
Eugenie: How would you describe your art? I was looking at images of your work online and it seems like it’s a very technical, process-based performance art.
Crystal: I guess I think of all of them as drawings but it is performance and installation, but you know its not like Marina Abramovic. [It's] not in front of an audience. It’s very secretive. I feel that it would change it if I did it in front of other people. I’ve done some pieces in front of close friends, but they’re usually helping me to document it. With my work, I’m the doctor and the patient at the same time—I’m studying myself and learning. It’s a mode of self-discovery.
Eugenie: That’s a great analogy. I’ve noticed that you document a number of your drawings with short films and photography. When did you start documenting your work, and why?
Crystal: Three years ago my work started to shift from symbolic object drawings to the experimental drawings that I now produce. My installations are intended to be one big crime scene, where every fragment is a clue used to solve the mystery. After a while it became apparent that I needed a way to show what was going on other than a piece of text on a wall. Most of the films are visual explanations. The 16mm films are shot and then transferred to video and edited. I’ve made videos since high school, and at Bard [College] I took some video classes. I borrowed a 16mm camera from the film department and I had my friend help me load and shoot, because I didn’t trust myself. The uncertainty of film is what drew me to it, that you had to wait for it to be developed—that there isn’t an instant gratification. But it was, and is, always a miracle when the film actual turns out and isn’t ruined. The end product of film is usually so much more satisfying. There is something so magical and mysterious about it.
Eugenie: You have this really interesting way of explaining your work that is kind of clinical, as though the pieces are scientific experiments.
Crystal: I set up controls and parameters and go from there. So, yes, I do think of them as experiments.
Eugenie: Could you tell me about the “mirror drawings” you do with both hands simultaneously drawing the same shape? Is that an ongoing project?
Crystal: Yes, I’m still doing drawings with my left hand because I want to make it stronger and equal to my right hand, but I’ve put that on hold just because, right now, I have the space to do the hypnosis drawings.
Eugenie: Do you see a thread between the Mirror Drawings and the Hypnosis Drawings?
Crystal: Definitely. With both of them I’m trying to attain this mystery of myself, this part of myself that I don’t know. I mean, I’d like to do more left-handed drawings—I like how they’re different. My right hand is very dominant and my left hand [drawings] looks like a third grader did them. It would be interesting to build up my left hand.
Eugenie: Doesn’t drawing and writing with the hand that you’re not accustomed to using have to do with a certain part of your brain?
Crystal: Yes, it does. When I talked to this hypnotist, she told me that your brain is connected to your hands in a specific way and how using your left hand, or your non-dominant hand, releases a primitive type of expression. In school you’re taught how to make letters and how to write, but everyone’s handwriting is different, like a fingerprint. I’ve always been interested in handwriting analysis and hypnotism. I feel like it’s all very Victorian-scientific, kind of occult. The space where religion and science intersect is really interesting to me.
Eugenie: Do you feel like the space you’re working in now influences your work?
Crystal: I’ve always been interested in space as a representation of the mind. For my senior project [at Bard], I did an installation that looked like an abandoned mental institution. I’d actually visited one with a friend in Poughkeepsie, near where I went to college. It was really frightening, of course, but also a little bit romantic and inspiring. I want people to look closely [at my work], and in an abandoned place you’re always searching for things left behind, lost things. You look closer and things have a greater meaning to them. That’s what I wanted to replicate.