Interviewed by Dean Dempsey
Her characters have the pallet of prescription pills; blue, red, yellow, pink, white, grey and violet. From the Whitney Museum of American Art to Palais des Beaux-Arts, from Deitch Projects to the Swiss Institute, she has terrorized, seduced and refigured underground music and art since the late 1970’s. Kembra Pfahler has made her home in the world of occult, subverting hyper-feminized and imagined bodies into her own celebratory creations. Known largely for her cult/punk/metal/glam/shock band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, she employs a glamorous ensemble of “Karen’s girls”, a dynamic line-up of colorfully painted women brandishing beastly black wigs teased to the heavens (the higher the hair, the closer to god) and “trademark Divine-inspired high-arching eyebrows” as Bruce LaBruce put it.
I first encountered her work at the Hole, where she and E.V. Day collaborated on an imaginative recreation of Claude Monet’s “Giverny”, transforming the gallery into a living installation of the French impressionist masterpiece this past April.
I sat down with Kembra over tea and oranges (that came all the way from China) at Participant Inc, a downtown gallery here in New York known for its transgressive and alternative program. For the past decade Participant Inc has been a catalyst for new media, performance, literature and visual art that challenges mainstream pop-boundaries. I was thrilled to chat with Kembra about her new show, as well as get the chance to talk with the founder and director Lia Gangitano about the space and her views on art today in New York and the Lower East Side. I was even more thrilled to get a tour of Kembra’s apartment and art studio afterward (imagine the intro to Tales from the Crypt)… Here’s how it went down.
Introduce our readers to your exhibition.
This is my mid-career survey but I decided to give it to myself. Lia Gangitano, as you know, is really one of the most important curators and gallery owners in New York. I was invited to have this show, and since the title is a little provocative, this is really one of the only places in the United States that I could have a show entitled “FUCK ISLAND”. I’m really grateful to Lia for that. I essentially got to do whatever I wanted, which is rare. Her curatorial policies are very unusual and un-conservative in a very conservative time in New York. I feel like New York is almost now becoming a boutique city. It’s so over branded. So I thought I would make a show that is totally unbrandable. If it’s unbrandable -if it has a title that is too extreme – then it won’t be too popular. Yet being unbrandable is popular to those I want to communicate to. It’s like a secret message, FUCK ISLAND.
You mentioned this is the first time you worked exclusively with the male phallus. How’s it been sculpting and painting all these ding-a-lings?
Yeah, cocks! It’s so fun to say cock all the time. COCK COCK COCK.
These are definitely cocks – not dicks, peckers or wieners.
The massive ones we did at the Robert Wilson benefit over at his place, and the artists educated me on how to make a cock with this kind of foam, and we had to shape it for hours. They had initially made it an elegant cock but all I wanted was a Conan the Barbarian cock, immense and really heroic-a lot of girth. And it was interesting because everyone sculpted a different size and shape they liked, and mine was just Conan the Barbarian. I was thinking of something without subtlety, something from a fantasy or comic book.
You describe this show as a “cock festival [that’s] really more like a happy funeral” and that FUCK ISLAND is “celebrating the death of the patriarch”. Do tell!
Well it’s a huge responsibility to say one comic book-like art gesture could instigate the death of the patriarch, that’s a very grandiose statement that we made but we’re willing to try. We’re willing to try and change the world as we now know it. I do believe that art can create public change and that art can be political. Lia and I were just talking about the ACT UP people in the ‘80s, these were a group of mainly artists who really instigated change and educated people about AIDS. ACT UP was comprised fundamentally of artists.
We call ourselves “Future Feminists”, because we don’t really fit in necessarily with the feminists that existed before us. The Future Feminists are more allied with the trans-community, the 3rd, 4th and 5th sex, rather than any binaries. We feel like we would like to have more of a balance in the feminization of our political system, and not have most things run by one kind of person, which tends to be straight white males. We’re not going about it hatefully, although some of us are angrier than others, but essentially it’s just about the importance of integrating other types of people who are interested in making changes. We feel like there is imminent disaster approaching because of all the harm done to the world. So I guess we’re trying to shake our rattlers and make some noise about having this desire to take notice of the different sizes of people, different genders of people, different shapes of people, not just one paradigm of existence.
We’re trying to perpetuate an existence that’s less harmful, and I think we’re doing that one art show, one concert at a time. We don’t really do marches – where can you go to the restroom on a march? Where can you change clothes?
The persona of Karen Black, who is she?
Mike Kuchar [brother of the late George Kuchar] used to say, “Your film work is voluptuously horrific!” Before I had Karen Black I did 10 years of Super 8 film and performance without music. So I was doing stuff without the band, and Mike said I was so voluptuously horrific. And then when I was having a change of life, recovering from a violent mugging, I watched Trilogy of Terror, and that was a Karen Black movie. I thought “The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black”, it was a magical poetic moment. Karen Black, the actress, has an essence that is so broad in film. She’s a great American film actress and the band in no way wanted to parody or satirize her. She’s so brilliant, so beautiful. I love her in The Day of the Locust, in The Great Gatsby, Come Back to the Five and Dime, with Jimmy Dean where she plays a transsexual and of course Five Easy Pieces, the Bob Rafelson movie. She’s not necessarily a “horror” actress, nor are we a “horror” band, even though it’s in our name. We’re just a flavor of horror, and it’s an acquired taste.
This gigantic cock in the middle of the room, “Walpurgisnacht” (and for you readers, that translates into Walpurgis Night, a European spring festival usually on May 1) with the octagon stage encircling it seems reminiscent of Stonehenge. Or maybe BONEhenge!
What a great idea, I should place these as a public installation of cocks! I’m going to think about that. It was so great be able to build this stage because I’ve always wanted to build an octagon round stage that we could do witchcraft on, build a fire inside, roast marshmallows. This was such a dream come true…even “Choking Poster” was a dream come true. I love choking posters…this piece is a subliminal message about cock. Do you get it?
You know what I’m implying?
Do you need one, Dean?
So “Walpurgisnacht”, or the big boner piece, is centered on May Day?
May Day! Maypole! Dancing around the big cock. It’s an important holiday, and that’s where a lot of the cock imagery was born for me, the love of May Day. Dancing around the gigantic cock maypole. This exhibition is actually my gesture, or contribution to that, that’s where the initial desire to make big cocks was born, from May Day, from the witch’s holiday. I’m not a witch. I don’t do any kind of group religion. But I consider myself elemental, which basically means someone who pays attention to things that aren’t Christian.
It’s great you asked me this, because that’s initially what “Walpurgisnacht” was about. I originally wanted to have a big fire happen in the center, where the girls of Karen Black can dance around in a circle. That’s where the octagon idea came from, looking at all the different May Day ceremonies. The fire would go in the middle and you’d dance around the maypole. So in a way, that’s why I say this show is really celebratory, it’s celebrating the phallus. And look what a great time the girls of Karen Black are having around all this cock! What we’re trying to instigate is to make room for a different paradigm or conversation. Our ideas of feminism include men, obviously, and we have a desire to make a world that helps men find their own humanity and not have to grow up to be alpha-males who go and join wars and kill people.
As well as wanting the death of the patriarch, we have intense dick-pigginess happening and celebration and appreciation of cock, because we are all dick pigs, in The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, we are out of the closet dick-pigs. So this show has been about reconciliation for me too, how can I be an extreme feminist and be a dick-pig at the same time, you know? This is some of what this mid-career survey is about. I also consider this show to be a retrospective, but of new work.
Your last exhibition, which I saw earlier this year here in New York, was a collaboration with E.V. Day in which you both transformed the gallery space into a physical manifestation of Claude Monet’s “Giverny”, tell us about it.
I didn’t know a lot about Claude Monet or the history of the Giverny garden, or a lot about Impressionism. But E.V. Day taught me a lot about light and about ways of seeing this type of art movement that seemed like it was for old fogies, so it was really interesting to go into this old-timey world and investigate what Claude Monet did in his life. It’s so phenomenal, to have been so singularly minded and to paint like that for so long. She photographed me in the garden and I was one of the first people even allowed to sit in the actual boat. They were nervous about my nudity, but when I showed up in my costume we were very well received. We made friends with the gardeners and they took pictures. The Karen Black outfit arouses a kind of happiness in people. I don’t know why, maybe people are blind sighted by extreme transformation and the obvious time spent to look how we do – their eye balls sort of pop out of their head, which is nice.
Do you consider Karen Black a form of drag?
Oh totally. But it’s a different kind of camp, it’s not about intentional humor or comedy at all but I do think it’s somewhat humorous, especially this show. To make a cockmobile, choking posters and all that, it’s one of the funnier things I’ve done, but I’m not interested in intentional comedy at all. Whereas the drag persona is sometimes about satire or an exaggeration, which I love, I’m not good at real comedy, or monologues. But it is a form of drag, and it requires the same kind of attention. Like I love the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence from San Francisco, I was just with them at the AIDS ball in Vienna, Austria. I saw their costumes and I thought it was just fantastic. Their attention to detail is so specific, as is the detail of Karen Black. I’m so obsessed with the wigs being a certain way, with the eye makeup being a certain way. Does that answer your question? I’m from Los Angeles, I’m not very bright (she smiles).
I was just in LA!
What did you do?
Poppers. But that’s not important, so anyway show me your cock tea table.
Well let’s have a seat. This is my “Penis Toaster with Tea Set”. I love a nice sculpture that includes an activity, when you can activate the sculpture. That’s why I made the penis toaster, because it’s a sculpture that actually does something. I’ve been doing this for a really long time and sometimes I’m popular and sometimes I’m not. Being popular is very mood altering for an artist and it’s really tricky, so it’s really important for me to be detached from any attention I get. Being more popular elsewhere because I’m based in New York is kind of a turn off to me. I’d rather stay here and be unliked.
Before this space was Participant Inc Lia had Thread Waxing Space. It was fantastic; it was there I saw some of my first and favorite shows. She had a great Vaginal Davis piece there and also a wonderful show with all these beautiful Catherine Opie photos.
Lia Gangitano: We’re turning 10 in November. Before it was Participant the space itself was a carpet store that acted as a front for drug dealers. And then it was a sex club.
Kembra: A real sex club, full blown. Downstairs was a dungeon!
I’m always a day late. Lia, how does Participant Inc. function uniquely from other New York and downtown spaces?
Lia: To start with we’re a non-profit. We’ve always been on the Lower East Side. We used to be on Rivington and Ludlow. But moving to this location we became more connected to the East Village history. But there are a million histories of the Lower East Side, whether it’s graffiti, ABC No Rio, there are a lot of different interpretations of what it is, but I feel like being here we are all this sort of family. I find it exciting that there are so many artists still here. When people look at art and gentrification they think, “oh there’s nobody left”, but that’s not the case. A lot is still here.
Kembra: It’s true. There are still strongholds in New York and downtown, a lot of great artists per square foot. When I first came to New York City, Jack Smith was my neighbor on 1st Avenue. Klaus Nomi and The Living Theatre was on 3rd or 4th Street – and they’re still around the corner on Clinton street now. ABC No Rio is where I first started doing art projects when I was a teenager in 1979 or ’80. I got to do my own art shows there.
Lia: There is so much picking and choosing around old and new stuff, yet in a way I think what is awesome about New York is, things that people might want to historicize are actually not historical, they’re current. There is so much overlap with these different generations.
Kembra: I agree, and I’m lucky with my band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black that by also doing things in the arts has kept our band multi-generational. We started in the ‘90s and we’ve gathered a new audience of kids from the art world. There’re no punk rock music clubs for kids to hang out in anymore and now music is happening more in the dance world and art world, so I’m fortunate to have that interdisciplinary type of audience of all ages. Experiences have a lot to do with one’s value system, what kind of terrain you’re observing, because if New York City is a big wide movie screen, you can focus on so many different aspects of what it really looks like. If you’re in the mind to find shitty corporate art, you will. I’m glad to see people are still paying attention to this kind of grassroots local scene.
Lia: That whole commercial art bubble never really trickled down on us, partly because we’re a non-profit. But it did remind me that being an alternative space at this particular period means we’re changing all time. Understanding that part of our alternativity is that we can do really ambitious projects without a huge amount of money. One of the ways we differ in general is that money isn’t part of our value system, that we need some huge budget to make something happen.
Kembra: This space is about Availablism, making the best use of what’s available. That’s a philosophy I really believe in.
What’s the night in the life of Kembra Pfahler?
I don’t really go out on Friday or Saturday nights in the Lower East Side anymore, it’s too hostile. It’s a really unfuckable scene, you know, it’s an incredibly unfuckable group of people that immerge onto the streets of New York. I prefer to roam around the streets when it’s somewhat empty, I love to walk or ride my bike across the bridge. I’m straightedge so I work out a lot, I do something called Gothletics, which is an exercise routine done at night.
I’m sure everybody asks you about this particular performance but I know the perverse readers of SFAQ want to hear it; did it hurt when you sewed shut your vagina?
No…not at all. I had essentially trained nurses do it. And Richard Kern is such an amazing filmmaker, we did that together. The whole energy filming with him was so incredibly fun that the pain was nonexistent. I became a member of Mensa because of that movie, the high IQ group. They invited me to come and give a speech after I sewed my vagina shut.
Can you close with any good jokes?
Hold on, let me think…hold on, umm, no.
The next day I met up with Kembra to shoot some pictures of her at her exhibition. She arrives holding a cat scratching post she found on the street to give to Lia, the gallery director. “Looks pretty new, doesn’t it?” she says, turning it in her hands. She first takes position on the elevated cockmobile, where she lays prostrate looking up at the constellation of black, white and grey penises. I snap a few shots and she moves to sit with the Karen Black dolls in a Spiders-from-Mars kind of family portrait. “Want to come see my house?” she asks casually.
She’s not in full body paint or three-tiered black wigs but she has a presence that makes everybody – I mean, everybody – take a second look as we walk. Some are intrigued, some are maybe turned on, most are probably a little afraid of her hocus pocus charm.
She opens her front door into a sea of tile red. By sea, I mean ocean, and by ocean, I mean absolutely everything was painted that deep, full red. The walls, floors, ceilings, doors, cupboards, cups, props, computers, frames, shelves, dressers – everything minus maybe her two black cats, Bruno and Archie, and a couple of instruments was coated in red. She showed me some broken ceramic FUCK ISLAND plates that “fell to their death during the show”, asking me to take a picture of her with the fragments haloed around her head in deity formation as she laid in posthumous style on the red wooden floor.
“I’m always loosing things in this place; my brain scrambles to differentiate one thing from another. I actually need to recoat everything.”
Recoat!? “How often do you repaint”? I ask.
“Every couple of months” she says, looking all around her.
I asked her if she’s noticed the apartment (which also functions as her studio) getting smaller over the years, with all the layers of chunky red paint closing in on her. She told me Debby Harry described her apartment as “clumpy” so in gestural defiance to her friend she paper mached over much of the furniture to accentuate the thickness. Take that Blondie!
She gives me a M-A-C Cosmetic gift bag bearing the band logo of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (a bat with ball-like teats) containing some of the signature colors of the Karen Black persona. She had said earlier, “I’m sponsored by M-A-C and Playboy, I get up at 7am to suck the devil’s dick – you gotta get up early to suck that penis.” As true today as it ever was.
I left her apartment thinking about her work, about New York and what it must have felt like when many of the buildings were bombed out and abandoned, when cheap rents allowed for artists, writers, musicians, and everybody else to produce what makes the city what it is today. Before high-rise condominiums replaced dozens upon dozens of classic downtown tenements, displacing neighborhoods and artists with them. But those feelings are partial as I’m reminded New York is probably the same polluted, yet wonderful hell hole it’s always been, and that it’s still overflowing with art, music and people constantly making shit happen. Kembra hit it on the head when she described the city as a big movie screen, and our experiences depend on what part of the screen we choose to focus on. Some of us are actors and actresses, others are the audience. But, for better or worse, we all participate in the same cultural machine of these five boroughs.
Dean Dempsey is based in New York City and is currently a resident artist at Villa Waldberta in Munich, Ger-many, where he is also in the survey exhibition “Next Generation – Contemporary American Photography” at Pasinger Fabrik and Amerikahaus. He is in the permanent collections of the Kinsey Institute, En Foco and Crocker Art Museum. He’s appeared in Art in America, Wall Street Journal International and Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany.