Kembra Pfahler can be considered the godmother of modern day shock art. Her show The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (TVHOKB) has her performing naked, her body covered with red paint. Enormous black wigs and black teeth have become a classic among the New York underground and an inspiration to many artists around the world.
Originally from Hermosa Beach, California, Kembra made New York’s Lower East Side her home in 1979 and has been there since. New York influenced her art a lot, and also her music when she founded her band (TVHOKB) in 1990. But she is not only a visual artist or a musician, she has made many Super 8 horror films and worked in and created an uncountable number of art exhibitions and installations.
Her whole life has been about self expression, a work of art, where beauty, horror and sadness converge. And sexuality, lots of sexuality. One of Kembra’s most impacting and common topics has always been the outright nudity, and sexual references to her show, always breaking taboos and destroying standards of beauty and attractiveness. From giant penis props on stage to Wall of Vagina act in a gallery, sex is a tool to shock, to discomfort and to amaze. Her acts are considered extreme in many circles, a sentiment born in reaction to such performances as having her vagina sewn shut in protest of how women were (and are) treated. The attraction of repulsion has fueled her artistic motors for years.
Her stunning looks and talent got her to model for Calvin Klein in the past and more recently for Marc Jacobs in his fall 2016 collection. Despite her modeling career, she’s always stayed true to her rebellious ways. Kembra is a powerful activist for women’s rights, social and gender issues.
As a member of the underground art scene, movie scene and music scene in the 80’s she saw many of the social problems that assailed NYC, all while playing shows at the legendary ABC no Rio and other venues. She has seen many friends die of AIDS or addiction, but that has only make her stronger and more determined to do her work.
As an artists she follows the philosophy of Availabism, creating and getting inspired by what is closest at hand, but also has had her say in the fine arts, creating canvas art by sitting naked on the piece, making butt prints. But if you think you have read it all, something that we can’t pass unnoticed is her work with New York based artists E.V. Day titled “Giverny,” where they created a series of pictures in the famous French gardens immortalized in paint by Claude Monet, always placing Kembrah in her characteristic attire in the middle of the picture.
Of course all her passion for art wasn’t born in a day, she actually came from a family who influenced her taste in music since she was a little girl growing up in a surfing town. In this interview we dig deep into Kembra’s story and find out more about the passions and motivations behind her art.
How were your days growing up in California?
Growing up in California, we didn’t have any beautiful stories to share with each other, we had only ugly stories in our lives to share. We loved surfing, we loved the ocean, but there was no magic in our lives, there were no beautiful stories. So we had to invent our own stories, our own myths. There were just Taco Bell, and Mcdonalds… but the Beach Boys are from there.
And I think why I started to do The Voluptuos Horrors of Karen Black and why I started to become an artists was because there was no beauty in our lives, we had to invent it, we had to find a reason to live, there was no good reason. If I was to imagine my work with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and my history, I did not studied the occult nor I did study traditional magic but I always gravitated towards mythology and anthropology, rituals.
What records did you listen to back then?
Lou Reed, The rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Nina Simone, classical music such as Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Gustav Moller. I had an interesting musical background from my parents. Even my brother brother Adam is a drummer, he was in a band called Jawbreaker. I also loved hawaiian music. There is a special kind of guitar, called slack key guitar, is a very special because of the tuning and the kind of wood is made out of, so when I was growing up I always like hawaiian music and ukulele.
You are a filmmaker, a performer and a musician. With what form of art you identify yourself the most?
This days they call the kind of artists that I am, interdisciplinary artist. They used to call it multimedia art in 70’s and now they call it interdisciplinary. Basically I just like freedom and I feel really lucky that in the year 2016 we are living in New York City and we have the freedom to write, to make films, to do music. So I’m very privileged because I can basically create in any way that I want.
What triggered your passion for self expression?
Abuse from every direction, shame, abuse. It was not born out of romance. It was born out of abuse and terror and trying to fight to find some reason to continue, find some way to make life more beautiful. I feel very lucky and very grateful that I can meet so many different kinds of people, young artists that are so great, that have energy to start magazines and all sorts of projects. The young artists are really ruling the world.
Are there any artists that you recently discovered that you like?
I love a woman in a band called Pharmakon. I love actress and model Cara Delevingne, she is an incredible spirit and she is really talented. Anohni [formerly known as Antony Hegarty] she is one of my favorite artists. I also love Rick Owens, his work, his designs, he’s a fantastic artist, and I think he’d be humble about it and disagree with me about being a great artist, but he is incredible. I worked with him in his first fashion show, in the 80’s, the show was called Lack Of Beauty. I was also a Calvin Klein model. I did a lot of modeling which is very humorous because my Karen Black look was always highly criticized. I always loved women in art and film like Carol Borland, Vampyra, Barbara Steele, that kind of beauty is more interesting to me than my real look, which I think is like a little blonde surfer girl. I also recently did a Marc Jacobs campaign that was interesting.
Being an alternative and revolutionary artists like yourself is not easy. And I imagined it was more difficult back in the late 70’s and 80’s. What were the main obstacles that you encountered throughout your career?
I never thought of myself having a career, I always thought of myself having a life. Is either you are dead or you are alive. And I went through the decade of the 80’s and late 70’s when I lost everybody to AIDS, so I feel very lucky that I lived through that. I think of my live in decades, in the 70’s I was in high school and I was a child, In the 80’s was when I left Los Angeles and I came to New York City the same day that I graduated from Santa Monica high school, I came to the Lower east side and I just stayed here.
And how did the Lower East Side influence your art?
I always loved the Dominican and Puerto Rican people so much because the Caribbean culture is so important in the Lower East side and salsa is so huge and all of the singers that sing about all the santeros, we have many santeria, witchcraft stories. When I moved here nobody would talk to us, the white people, when we first moved in, but I stayed for so long here and I never left so I think I bothered them so long enough that they realized I will never leave and they found out that I wasn’t a serial killer.
What was your favorite thing that you used to create art?
Probably certain kinds of flowers. I love flowers .
One of your latest performances/exhibitions was Future Feminism. I saw an amazing show at Webster Hall where you played with Anohni and CocoRosie. What does Future Feminism stand for?
Future feminism was founded by Anohni, CocoRosie and Johanna Constantine and I, and we started it because we were frustrated of doing art exhibits that were just full of projects. We wanted to collaborate on a work that was co-authored. Basically it was our perspective about the current state, not of feminism, but of the earth. If you look up the tenets of future feminism, the way we treat earth is similar to the way that we treat women. We wanted to, as visual artists, to express ourselves using clear and simple language; we went away on retreat several times to work together, coming up with the project. We realised that we wanted these tenets engraved into pink onyx stone. We did the show at The Hole gallery, we invited many prestigious performance artists to participate, like Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramović, Lorraine O’Grady and many other great women. We had many nights of great performances. It was one of the proudest moments in my art career. We did a concert at Webster Hall to raise the money for the show and pay the performers, so we basically paid for everything ourself. The gallery also helped as much as they could.
The artists that worked with me, Anohni, Cocorosie and Johanna, these are people I’ve respect my whole life. It was a really interesting and difficult show to do. I think we’ll be doing the show again next year, perhaps Europe.
It was not very well received, we got a lot of hate mail from people in the community as well a strangers. They had an issue with one of the tenets, that says “The future is female”.
Basically we wanted to change the world, and we thought that we could do it through future feminism. We were very ambitious and sincere about it.
Another tenet is “relieve men of their role of predators and protectors”. Future Feminism needs the collaboration of all men and women, meaning men are a very important part of the movement; men deserve their stereotypes removed as much as women. The problem with feminism is than many men feel excluded from feminism, but in fact if they were feminist men they’d be able to discover their own self, their own identity instead of a preconceived role. Men have always had a place at our feminism conversations. We realized that our ideas weren’t new, they were reiterations of things that unfortunately have not changed despite of time passed, such as misogyny. Racism still exists despite the effort to change it.
There was a big protest recently in In Argentina and mobilizations against gender violence. Is is an important issue that must be talked about.
It is, if you’re a musician and or a visual artist the use of language is important. I am not an academic, and it was important for me to learn how to express myself in clear language, because usually I do these extreme performances, like The Wall Of Vagina or when I sewed my own vagina shut; I spent my whole life developing this vocabulary of images that is very feminist based. But I have never in my life tried to articulate my feelings towards feminism using language, so the future feminism show was the result of us experimenting. It was an art show, not any kind of political movement. It was painful for me to see it so misunderstood, even by close friends in the underground and LGBT communities took the show negatively. It could’ve been that they felt non included, but we only had 11 or 12 nights of performances. It was impossible to include everyone. Anohni has been invited to Europe for a 1 year residency and we hope to do the show again there, take another shot at it.
And besides that, did you have any positive feedback? Any good story about future feminism?
I feel that it started a conversation that is contagious, especially through Anohni’s work and her travels. People are now talking more about feminism. We hoped to take off the negative view of feminism. There are many women that identify with feminist thoughts but they will not admit it even to themselves, which is a real shame. I think it is important for being independent and free thinking individual. To be proud and happy with your body, how could you not be a feminist? Why would you say you’re not? I think it is because the reputation of the word feminism.
Another tenet of future feminism is to change male centric language. Mosts things are referred to as “he”, and most times “he” is said before “she”, and that’s a shame. That should be changed. A lot of feminism is about equality, but I am not interested in that. I want to see what the world would be like if it was dominated by female centric language, with indigenous female qualities like intuition, compassion, and emotion more present. I think femininity is not as much about gender or genitalia but what happens in the brain, a feminine way of thinking. What would the world be if it were dominated by feminism? To take out of the equation the judeo-christian pattern, all of those science fiction religions that center of life after death, and go back to something more native and indigenous.
We have to get back to the number 1 problem facing the world that is we’re not treating earth correctly; and things won’t change with only men in charge.
Maybe we’re looking for a change in the political systems, more things being run by women.
The future feminism show was very misunderstood, but through explanation it came to pointing us in the direction to save the world as we know it. I feel everyday like I don’t know how much longer we can sustain the world as it is now. I know that sounds very negative, but you can feel it everyday.
Do you have any upcoming shows or exhibitions?
I have always done work in the the United States, and I toured with my band (The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black) back in the 90’s, and I never toured in Europe, I always thought it was more important to stay here US. Every time I visited Europe it felt that people loved me too much for the wrong deal, they loved me just because I was a New York artist. When I did shows in the U.S. I was essentially doing the same kind of work I am doing now, these really extreme performance works, with music. I did not want to preach to people already converted, I wanted to go to cities that were difficult. I jokingly said I wanted to be as unpopular as possible. For many years record companies always wanted to make me more attractive in a normal way, they wanted me to wear clothes. They said that If people saw my regular self they’d buy my records, but I never agreed to change.
Now a gallery in London called Emalin is having a show for me, it’s opening November 15th, and then I am going to do a Karen Black performance in Paris. The Karen Black show will be solo, we can’t afford to take the whole band and crew to Paris.
Your influence is pretty big and widespread if you know where to look for it. How do you feel about this?
I don’t think about it too often unless I’m really really hungry. I feel like I need to take care of my parents more; It’s never been a problem for me to have not made a lot of money, but now I want to help my family more and sometimes it can be painful if I see someone in pop culture who is making tons of money and I don’t have enough to help my own. My family insists I keep doing what I do. There is this show that I did called Womanizer at Deitch gallery, and a couple of weeks after the show opened Britney Spears came out with a song named the same, and the logo of her album was too similar to mine. Although the idea behind each Womanizer was quite different. My reference was about a writer called Hubert Selby Jr, who wrote a book called Last Exit To Brooklyn and he was someone that I knew. I saw a film about him in which he was described as a womanizer which I thought was very humorous. I know how he loved women and femininity so much that Womanizer was like a play of words, it was more about turning everything into something that was heavily female, not something that was derogatory. So my feeling about the semantics of the word womanizer was totally different that the meaning of the Britney song. It is funny because the letters for her song were exactly the same as the ones we used.
I think that we are now quite different than Marilyn Manson, and I actually love what he does, I just think we are different. I see a little visual reference, such as the black teeth. When we (The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) started out people were more into the grunge look. It’s not like we invented extreme aesthetic, it is simply that when we began that aesthetic was unpopular and you did not see it in pop culture at all. Which is why I did it. I think a great deal about originality and doing things differently is not about copying, it is about doing something different. It is funny, I have students now that will blacken their teeth or use visual elements that remind me if the Karen Black shows, and they tell me that the reason they’re doing it is not because of Karen Black, but because of experiences that they had as a child. Personal reasons. But to me, if I see someone doing something I wouldn’t want to do it myself, originality is important to me.
You can also find this interview with additional pictures by Katrina del Mar in the November 2016 print issue of Too Much Love Magazine