ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Kembra Pfahler

Interview by
Jeffrey Deitch
From Issue 33 — FW18/19

A downtown NYC legend who moved from L.A. in the early 1980s, Kembra Pfahler fronts a death punk metal band in blue body paint and a bouffant black wig, and makes her own art by the tenet of “Availabilism” to use whatever’s around.

JEFFREY DEITCH  I’d like to talk first about your early artistic formation. People think of you as the ultimate downtown New Yorker, but you surprised me once by telling me you’re a Southern California girl—and, shockingly, a natural blonde. Tell us about the transformation from California blonde to one of the people who shaped the New York downtown underground.

KEMBRA PFAHLER  Oddly enough, where I grew up resembles the Lower East Side a great deal. I was from Venice, but where I spent most of my time was below 14th Street on San Vicente Boulevard. So I always had a reference to being below 14th Street there. I never went to Hollywood or the Valley; I was a real small town beach person who just stayed in one little area. There was a lot to learn there, though. I was fortunate enough to grow up near Kenneth Anger, and hung out in the same spots he did. The Dogtown scene was all around me; they surfed and skated the pools around my school. In Malibu, there was an incredible nest of fantastic artists that used to enchant me, and I dreamt of growing up to be an artist. Being a goth trapped in a Southern California girl body, doing artwork was like a way to reinvent myself, to really express myself freely. I always enjoyed drawing, making things with my hands, creating new objects, little sculptures. Being creative was just part of my DNA, and being exposed to all these other artists around me, I started becoming aware of a historical trajectory and applying that knowledge to what I did. When I was asked by older people what I was doing, I would say, “I am experimenting. I am an artist.”

JD  When did you first start experimenting with performance?

KP  When I was doing performance at the time, I didn’t know it was performance. We used to call them “hijinx.” I would hang upside down on street posts, and I would always involve my family, in the spirit of availablism. I wanted to infuse drag life with meaning and significance. But as far as the creation of a persona, I don’t think I consciously did that. It just sort of happened.

JD  Were you already starting to go beyond a conventional goth aesthetic and find your unique look?

KP  Yeah. People used to think it was terrifying and terribly ugly at the time. But in 1977, punk hadn’t come to L.A. beach kids yet. I was part of the first wave of Los Angeles punk.

JD  So would you say your formation started in L.A.?

KP  Beach and surf culture, films and artists from the area, were very important influences. Even after I moved, I went back as much as I could. It’s impossible to erase L.A. from you—it’s the fabric of what you’re made of. But as I grew up, I started getting very bored there. I never finished 12th grade in Santa Monica…

JD  … and you moved to New York and enrolled at SVA (School of Visual Arts). What year is this?

KP  ’79.

JD  Oh, that’s prime time! I would say that’s the beginning of the more “public” phase of downtown culture—when it started to get international attention. Did you live on the Lower East Side?

KP  I did. I lived on Avenue D, which was hardcore then. But I felt there was a similarity to the warmth that the beach people had in Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu. I was really embraced by the Puerto Rican and Dominican folks of the neighborhood. One of my best friends was El Coco De Alba—“the talking coconut”—who was a 70-year-old poet. Keith Haring was also there; he was a couple of years older than I was, and he used to tease my outfits. The Living Theater was open on 4th Street, the Millennium Film Archives… I got to meet and be in films with all of these wonderful filmmakers—Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas. Around ’80–‘81, I started doing performances. I was doing performances almost once a week.

JD  Really, where?

KP  Everywhere. Danceteria, CBGB, ABC No Rio, I did the Pyramid a lot of times… Everywhere. And my performances were very rough and unentertaining. I did this one performance called ____,  where I came out and painted a backdrop red and black. I had a swing, hung in the middle of the stage. I had candles strapped to my toes that were burning, and I read poetry. My first step was creating a vocabulary of images, setting up a community, and I often used sound in a very found way. Around 1990, I decided I wanted to start making soundtracks with my own music for my performances. Samoa and I had met around 1983—he was my first boyfriend, and we had gotten married. In 1990, we started the band. After getting a glimpse of what the art world was like, I didn’t want to be in it. I wanted to go on tour with my band, I wanted to travel, and that’s what I did for the following decade.

JD  So the ’90s is really the decade of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black…

KP  And touring constantly. We played everywhere. I made posters for every show we did, I still have them. Samoa and I, we’d be out in the middle of the night doing our own wheatpasting. We always stayed underground. Record companies solicited us and had us to their offices—they would say silly things to me like, “You’re too ugly in that topless costume, you should put a shirt on, take that black stuff off of your teeth, and really work that cute angle.” And that would be the end of that discussion.

JD  So by that time, you had created the Kembra character that we know today?

KP  Yeah. Well, that costume was born in the early ’80s. The name “Voluptuous Horror” was invented by filmmaker Mike Kuchar. He said to me, “Oh Kembra, your costume looks voluptuously horrific.”

JD  What was the process of creating the costume?

KP  Initially I turned to body paint because I felt very shy. Samoa is from Hiroshima, so from him I learned about Japanese Noh theater. I loved the ghost face with the eyebrows that went all the way up and the black teeth. So we could say that was the original inspiration.

JD  Well that’s fascinating, I didn’t know.

KP  Yeah. I had traveled to Hiroshima with Samoa—we visited family there, and I got married in a Japanese ceremony. Samoa and I did wonderful work together. We didn’t always have the same doma  style. We had different art studios and we lived very independently. It was a very positive relationship for us to have as young people, as artists. And thankfully, I didn’t have to walk the path of heteronormativity and have a baby. I think that the best thing that I’ve ever done in my whole life, aside from being an artist, is to not have a child. A lot of other people that I knew, they all were making families and moving to the country and stuff. But the Lower East Side wasn’t a place I ever wanted to leave. I never had this idea that there was a better place for me to be than exactly where I was.

JD  So tell me about the development of the distinctive visual vocabulary of Voluptuous Horror and Karen Black, and of Kembra Pfahler as a performance artist. One could say you’re a walking painting, or a walking sculpture.

KP  It’s a uniform. I don’t feel that it’s a character of any sort. I’m not another person when I’m in that costume, and I really enjoy seeing other girls that are in my band wearing the same Karen Black outfit, because the essence of their personality always emerges, surprisingly. I like the idea of us making our own costumes rather than being styled—I think you can always tell when you see a performer in something that they made themselves. There’s something about the energy. Over the years, the costume has gotten more refined, the wigs have gotten bigger and more teased, and the eyes have gotten a little more elegant because I’ve learned more about makeup. When I first started out I was using house paint on my body, I didn’t know about body paints.

JD  From the histories of costume, performance art or painting, are there any specific precedents or references you drew inspiration from?

KP  I guess I did body paint for similar reasons that people use body paints in other cultures: preparing for an important ceremony. It became part of the practice, and it was important for me to transform from top to bottom. It couldn’t be minimal transformation, it had to be total. Everything. I’ve learned an awful lot about painting and the history of costume, but I can’t say that I am necessarily trying to evoke certain parallels. Perhaps some of it came naturally. For example, Kenneth Anger used a lot of body paint in his work… As I said, the teeth came from Japanese horror films, Noh and Kabuki theater. Ultimately, the costume is driven by beauty aesthetic—it’s what I consider a different paradigm of female beauty. That was the impetus for it.
Some people in fashion share my opinions about what I think is beautiful, and that’s what led me to work with some wonderful designers, like Rick Owens in particular, and photographers, like Richard Kern. When I was younger, people would always chase me down the street and scream at me, and tell me how ugly I was, because I drew my eyebrows on with a sharpie marker. And all of the sudden, I would grab the attention of the fashion community. There are many different forms of misogyny in the world, and one of the reasons that I like working in fashion so much is because as an artist, I always felt like people wouldn’t take me seriously if I was too glamorous or too interesting-looking, so I always liked to look as beautiful as possible. To be able to have an academic life wearing lipstick, to not have to disguise my femininity but to pay homage to it, revel in it, and feel good about it… it’s a big “Fuck you” to the establishment.

JD  So we talked about the ’90s being the decade of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. What happened next?

KP  In 2000, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black took a little break. Samoa and I decided to go our separate ways and divorce. We remained friends, and are still friends to this day. Around the same time, I met Colin de Land from American Fine Arts Company, who invited me to do a show at his gallery. It opened in 2002 and was titled “Availablism and Anti-Naturalism: A Feminine Experiment.” It was the first proper show I had in the well-respected art world of New York City. I met you shortly thereafter, and I was in the first Deitch Projects Art Parade. I got to do the Whitney Biennial in 2008. I did a show that was very important to me called “Future Feminism.” Now, I work with Emalin, a young gallery based in London. When I met Leopold [Thun], he said, “Kembra, I want to work with you for the rest of your life,” and I said, “Sounds good to me.”

JD  What are you working on right now?

KP  I essentially run my own record company—I’m the president of my own label for the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. I feel like I have to make a book or something. I just haven’t had time to sit down and stare in the rearview mirror, because I’ve been so busy making new work and stuff, but I think it’d be fun to share my stories with everybody, talk about the people and things that mattered to me. I’ve gotten to do so many delicious projects—it was like taking a ride on all of the “D rides” at Disneyland! So my suggestion for all the young artists out there would be, don’t wait in line. Skip to the front of the line. It takes audacity, tenacity and courage to be an artist, more than anything else.

Kembra Pfahler (American, B.1961; lives and works in New York) is a performance artist and the leader of the band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.
Jeffrey Deitch is an art dealer and curator based in New York.
Photography by Jack Pierson.
Kembra is wearing Alyx, Rick Owens and her own clothes

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