A spotlight on the third Kembra Pfahler solo show at London’s Emalin Gallery by Maria Abramenko. On view: 09 July – 03 September 2022.
Where can I start talking about the legendary Kembra… I shall begin with how I first met her a few years ago at London’s Frieze art fair and how I was completely hypnotised by her and her artworks (a series of colored prints of her bottom) presented at Emalin’s booth at the fair. We then became friends in three seconds. Sometimes you don’t need much time to recognise one of your pack.
I shall first mention Kembra’s extraordinary practice as a visual artist, performer, musician, actress and filmmaker. Influenced by Viennese Actionism and low budget horror movies, she is kind of goth punk pinup, some even call her the queen of horror. She was sewing her vagina as part of Richard Kern’s radical 1992 film, Sewing Circle. Performing at the CBGB with her band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, (a dead-rock project she started with Samoa Moriki in 1990). Modelling for Helmut Lang, playing with Lou Reed and hanging with Lydia Lunch. Her long term collaborations with Bruce la Bruce, Nick Zedd and of course taking part in our beloved Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 cycle in 1999.
So, born in Hermosa beach, California in the sixties Kembra grew up in a sporty family on a surfing board. About 20 years later she moved to the Lower East Side, NY and there has become an icon for New York City art punk culture. She is now a muse for everyone from Rick Owens – whose new book, Legaspi: Larry Legaspi, the 7Os, and the Future of Fashion, features Kembra on the cover – to Mugler’s designer Casey Cadawallader, who tapped the artist for the brand’s SS20 runway.
Walking into Emalin’s Gallery space last week or so I had the pleasure of visiting my first Kembra’s show. At the entrance next to the most extraordinary Kembra’s shop (Emalin Vitrine) created by the artist, selling some polaroids, cups, t-shirts and mini sculptures of liberty holding a faced down pentagram. There I already sold my soul to the devil, as a big fan of merchandising at gigs I thought it was a brilliant idea to bring punk into the gallery space. Trying to carry myself away from that vitrine, entering the gallery I then found myself in front of a screening of a performance. Participant Inc 2021 was live streamed in NY that year during the pandemic. The video showed Kembra and her girls wearing black bushy wigs, painted colours and naked singing on stage. While observing I had a very trash glamour sensation.
Talking about her performances in her recent interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kembra said she uses her body as different from painting and drawing instrument:
I feel it’s necessary to make performances that are aggressive with such strong content that they have another life altogether in the retelling of the story. Sewing my vagina shut was a good example of strength in the retelling, and it was essentially a ‘one-liner.’ The strength lays in the conceptual simplicity of a new creation myth. My intention is never about showing off sexuality as much as using my body as a tool. Says Kembra.
Proceeding to the main gallery space, walking through the stairs with six American flags with Kembra’s band logo hung on the wall. That symbol as I then learnt is a kind of a bat with the addition of a pair of very large breasts. That originally was a sticker seen by Kembra on a truck somewhere in America. She then said for her this would represent America. Batboob logos were also centrated on giant vinyl sculptures spread around the room and leaning on the windows with Shoreditch high street as a background. This and some other visual elements were repetitively used. Figures such as Playboy’s ‘femlin’, or gestures as the attachment of bowling balls to her feet, have been staple motifs in Kembra’s performances from the 1980s until today.
Some photocopies of Kembra’s handmade black and white collages were also shown in the main room. Those were used as posters to announce Karen Black’s concerts and featured her collaborators such as her husband and guitarist of the band, Samoa Moriki, or the sex work activist and educator Annie Sprinkle.
Some brand new drawings were there as well. Very accurately Kembra is using recirculation of materials in her artworks such as for example she draws with the colours she paints herself with, or even uses her lipstick. She calls this ‘Availabism’, basically working with all the materials she can find. In my opinion this idea of punk minimalism is brilliant. Kembra here is raising awareness to the consumption of our society while using a very familiar to our readers language.