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Kembra Pfahler


On Childhood and California


I was born in Hermosa Beach, California in the ‘60s, when the South Bay Surfers were in their heyday, and the Beach Boys wrote about a scene of black sunglasses and white T-shirts, Gidget, Marlboro cigarettes, Dewey Weber surfboards and woodie cars. My parents met each other at Mira Costa High School, they were both beach kids. I was conceived on a surfing trip on the way to Rosarito Beach. So I grew up on the beach, in the water every day. My father was a famous surfer, Freddy Pfahler III, and made Bruce Brown’s early surf films, namely Slippery When Wet. He ran away and surfed the first big waves in Hawaii.


My mother was a beach beauty, she had me when she was young. She was very creative, she made my clothes, I always wore black-and-white houndstooth and saddle shoes, and I had a really severe haircut. The house was red and black and white, on the beach, and my mom was very intelligent, and provocative, and inspiring. She later ran away from Hermosa Beach, making her way up higher, higher north, ultimately to San Francisco. She wanted to learn more about the world, and Mill Valley was more cultured than the South Bay scene. Eventually we landed back in Los Angeles, and my mom remarried kind of a punk rock lawyer.


I had a really interesting, nice artistic childhood, but I don’t think my parents knew that I was going to turn out this extreme. I needed to find my own way, and since they were already into so many interesting things, I had to invent my own culture. I did, by way of going to New York and starting Karen Black. 



On Arriving in New York


I was terrified. I was very studious, I read a lot. The first summer I was in New York they had a Samuel Z. Arkoff film festival at the Museum of Modern Art, so I went there every day and watched every bad movie, which were actually very good to me, I love movies like Boxcar Bertha. Arkoff made these incredible movies with the actress Karen Black as well. So I was there almost every day. I lived in a horror film actor’s home on the Upper West Side, a friend of my mom’s, he had a haunted house. I lived near a club called Hurrah’s, which was an early punk club, started by legendary punk people. Curatorially, they had every major strange punk band and artist performing there, two blocks from my house. But I also had the Met, and the opera house too, so I’d hang out there.


On Her Education


I got accepted to the School of Visual Arts, so I went to school. I just beat the shit out of every day, and worked as hard as I could. When you’re a serious artist, and you’re young, people don’t take you seriously, so it’s like being in battle every day. My professors would confront me aggressively. I remember Joseph Kosuth said to me, “Kembra, as a woman you represent half of humanity.” I was like, “Are you talking to me? I have no idea who you’re talking to.” When I was seventeen, I wasn’t thinking about gender, or being a woman. So it was very aggressive, and I decided I would have to title myself, and create an identity that had some muscle. So I said “Well, I’m an anti-naturalist, and an availablist. That’s what I am.” I began writing a kind of manifesto for this –ism, this –ist that I declared myself to be. My professors cultivated in me an ethic that stayed with me my entire life, and I was grateful to learn at SVA through people like Lorraine O’Grady, an amazing performance artist who I still see and work with, and Mary Heilmann, an incredible abstract painter, who’s known as the Neil Young of the abstract expressionism world. These women prepared me for a severe art life, I’m really grateful to them and I love their work. It was very positive. 


On Her Look


When I was going to Santa Monica High School in 1978 and ’79, I had dyed black hair and looked kind of insane with my makeup. It was like I was going to be murdered every day, it was a surf school. Then in New York I guess I looked pretty strange. You know, I just looked as horrible as I could. I don’t know why I did that, I just did what I perceived to be beautiful. I had this aesthetic that was kind of contrary to what I was born with, to what my mom was doing. I mean, I didn’t want to look like my mom—but I looked exactly like my mom, by the way. Exactly. I mean, ten years later Calvin Klein came knocking and I did a whole modeling thing for them. It’s subjective. I wear pounds of makeup, very drag queeny makeup—it’s a flavor. People are less mean now, they just see it as “Oh, Kembra likes to wear tons of makeup.”


On Kembra vs. Karen


I don’t have a bifurcated, separate existence between my daily self and my performance character. I don’t need to flip a switch on and off and go into a sort of method acting, character driven persona. It’s all sort of like a hand, and each finger is a different medium or métier. I’m just lucky enough that I have a few different ones to access.


Marilyn Monroe, I read, had a bifurcated existence, where she had a difficult time marrying her intellectual, bookish self with her sex kitten self. I’ve studied this before, and I’m not a method actress, I’m not an entertainer. I do this work because I feel like it, and I want to. The show must not go on. If I don’t feel like doing a performance, naked, then I won’t. It’s entertaining, but it’s not entertainment. It’s not acting. So I call that being an anti-naturalist. It’s more like a comic book character, you know? An extreme visual presentation. All I really have to do in my work is get my costume on and remain still. All of the props and costumes do the work for me, all I have to do is show up to let the artwork do what it wants to do. It’s a complete contrast with what a method actor has to put themselves through to channel their work.


When I would read about actresses like Marilyn Monroe I would think, ‘I don’t want to be anything like that. Look what happened to her, she was miserable.’ 


On Drawing


I feel like a drawing practice is sort of a softer, easier-to-share version of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and the live work. It’s a meditative process, it’s a decorative process. And I draw all of the images not to make souvenirs, but to sketch out the performance, it’s a way of excavating and going deeper with the performances. It’s also a way of sharing the performances with people, as performance is a very ephemeral act. Working on paper is such an old-timey practice, it’s really quaint. I’ve been doing it a long time, and my drawings got to be in a really nice drawing collection at the Museum of Modern Art. 


On Criticism


It is a sensitive process, it’s fragile. People’s meanness feels like murder. I feel like I’m being stabbed in the eyeballs when people totally misinterpret my work, or say hateful things about my art. It’s like being stabbed in your calves with big knives. Of course we train ourselves to become impenetrable to criticism, but at any rate, it’s all part of the same machine, and the same beast, and my job is simply to remain as healthy as possible, to show up for the artwork. I’m not always able to do that, but I try.


On Her Home [pictured throughout], the Color Red, and Anger


It’s not really something that is calculated. I’m a minimalist, I’m not a collector. I don’t have any dust in the house, I usually have under ten books that I cover all in black or white, so you can’t see the covers, because I like the palette of the walls to be very simple. I feel like a state of minimalism is a great incubator for new ideas. I have a bed that just gets pulled in and out, because I need to shoot things in my apartment, like films, and photos. I can’t stand towels for some reason. I think it comes from being a surfer, I don’t need a towel. Or plates. I have a towel, plate, and dish phobia. I just grab a smoothie, I’m not domestic in the house.


I sit around thinking what I could do without. I challenge myself to see what else could I make red. It’s very soothing to me, it’s kind of womblike, red. It’s not blood, and it’s not re engine red. Essentially it’s very turn-of-the-century Lower East Side, it’s the color of the bricks. So it’s kind of indigenous to the Lower East Side, to surround yourself with that brick tone. In classical Chinese opera, all the colors are signifiers for emotions in the masks, and red is definitely anger. There’s a Thor song called Anger Is My Middle Name, I’m just laughing thinking about that song, it’s a great song. I feel like I’m very angry. I’m a friend to my anger though, and being angry points me in a direction to do new stuff. 



On Horror


There are lots of horror premises, and monsters, that are born out of what we’ve done, what we’ve created. Technology. Frankenstein— the universal horror characters are archetypes for everything that’s going on right now. The book The Monster Show by David J. Skal, and Val Lewton’s Icons of Grief, those are two books that have been inspirational to me. I find answers in horror. I also like the classic black-and-white horror films, especially all the shadow films, Curse of the Cat People, and all the really high-contrast movies. Those are like a cool drink of water to me, I find them so soothing.


I also spent time in Germany, and learned about German Expressionism, and realized “Oh, Fritz Lang moved to Hollywood? I didn’t know that.” All the World War II refugees came to LA and started making movies, so German Expressionism informed a lot of the horror that I gravitated towards. Nosferatu, all those things. Slasher movies I have to cover my eyes, I mean I like Dario Argento but that’s just sheer fashion to me, and humor—it’s just funny, it gets to be ridiculous, outrageous, over the top. And then horror can be a sort of panacea, a place to reify violence, and psychosis, and insanity, to watch it on the films and not do it in real life. Work it out in the movie.


Joe Coleman the painter talks about how he would have been a serial killer or whatever had he not been such an extreme painter. Art heals, all creativity heals. 


On Props


Why wouldn’t I want to stand next to an enormous cock? It’s more fun that way. 


On the ‘80s


All through the ‘80s I was making Super 8 films with like, Jack Smith, Mike Kuchar, Nick Zedd, the Cinema of Transgression, Richard Kern—I was in Jack Smith’s last movie that he ever made, called Shadows in the City. But the ‘80s was AIDS. It started a few years after I was in school. It’s a holocaust, the memory of which I still live with. I’m never not upset about AIDS. I cry, and if not outwardly, I think about AIDS every day, I celebrate all my dead friends every day. I realize I’m here just as icing on the cake. I lost everyone in the ‘80s. It pushed me to do more extreme work, to be as honest as I could. Then The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black formed in ’89, ’90, and we went on tour for about ten years.


On Gratitude, Beauty, and the Ups and Downs


It’s a luxury, and a privilege, and a pleasure to be able to do the kind of artwork that you want without going to jail for it. In other cultures the kind of art that I do, you couldn’t do. I like art for art’s sake, I believe that art makes things more beautiful. I’m interested in making beautiful things—one might perceive hanging upside down on a cross or sewing your vagina shut and these extreme performative gestures as not beautiful, but it’s what I perceive to be beautiful. I’m not really interested in art theory or art criticism. In other words, I’m not making art that addresses art history, or addresses an art problem.


I started when I was seventeen years old, I’m fifty-four now. It’s hard, I’ve had to sacrifice a lot, I’ve lost a lot of husbands, a lot of relationships because of the extreme nature of my work. The best relationship is the one I have with my artwork. But I get to design my own life now. Of course it’s a bit difficult sometimes, but I’ve gotten to do essentially everything that I always wanted to do, my whole life. My motive is pretty mellow. It’s not born out of a vengeful desire to conquer and go straight to the top, it’s all about fun—my kind of fun, which isn’t really a laughing kind of fun. I don’t know, when you’re an artist everything waxes and wanes, you get popular for a minute, and then people hate your guts because you’re bending over the wrong way, and the next day you’re in a magazine, the next day you’re running from police in five inch high heels. 

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