Artist and muse to Rick Owens, Kembra Pfahler sits down with the fashion designer to discuss how she resents art with a capital "A."
With her electric blue body paint and jet-black wigs, Kembra Pfahler is a dynamic force in the New York art scene. While continuing to perform as Karen Black in the band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Pfahler has set herself to working on Future Feminist art and Hawaiian percussion. Here she talks with fashion king Rick Owens. Heralded by Anna Wintour and American Vogue in the early aughts, Owens, an American fashion designer, won the CFDA Perry Ellis Emerging Talent Award in 2002 and now lives in Paris where he works on his own label known for its confluence of grunge and minimalist-sophisticate aesthetics.
Kembra—You look so cute.
Rick—So do you.
Kembra—So they are doing…Someone bought my building and they’re doing demolition downstairs. It’s like being in World War II, which is kind of interesting. It’s kind of fun, but it’s really loud so you might hear this chaotic sound.
Rick—Do they start really early in the morning?
Kembra—Yes, they do.
Rick—Is that a problem for you?
Kembra—It really is but I’m just kind of going with the flow, you know? I haven’t been staying here a lot. I was in Hawaii for a month. Can you tell? I’m not really tan anymore. My tan is gone.
Rick—You can live at the Y?
Rick—Oh, Hawaii! I thought you said the Y and I was thinking, well isn’t that a homeless shelter? Hawaii.
Kembra—I don’t even think the Y exists anymore, like the old school stay-at-the-Y type thing. As you know, New York is a boutique city.
Kembra—So we just shot all day. It was really pleasant. It was like a glamorous vacation.
Rick—You guys shot in a studio?
Rick—Who shot you?
Kembra—Catherine Servel. She was very demure, very quiet, very attentive and sweet.
Rick—Oh, yeah, that’s so great. Justinian Kfoury [Servel’s agent] actually just came over a couple of hours ago and knocked on my office door but I was taking a nap so I didn’t answer it.
Kembra—Is he there for a while?
Rick—I don’t know, maybe he left today and that was my last chance to see him before he left, but my nap could just not be interrupted.
Kembra—Yes, I understand. You’re on a very intense Oleg Cassini schedule. Very rigorous.
Rick—I am so not.
Kembra—Did you ever read the book by Oleg Cassini?
Rick—I totally did.
Rick—Yeah, and he was such a cocksman. I love that he was such a cocksman.
Kembra—Was he? I didn’t get that. I don’t remember that part of the book.
Rick—All he talked about was chasing pussy.
Kembra—I must have blacked that part out. I just remember that he got up everyday at 6:30 to look at fabric.
Rick—Oleg Cassini, am I thinking of a different biography? I think it was called In My Own Fashion.
Kembra—Yes, it was In My Own Fashion by Oleg Cassini.
Kembra—Really? Well, do you think you ever might write a book like In Your Own Fashion, a Rick Owens book? That would be nice.
Rick—I thought about it. But I thought I would come out so despicable if I was honest. I really would.
Kembra—Really? You are so angelic, what are you talking about?
“I’m not really interested in contemporary art in galleries. I would rather go to the comic book store or walk across the Williamsburg Bridge.”
Rick—Underneath it I’m just petty and just wrong. But it could be really interesting. And if I’m just brutally, brutally honest it would just be a horror book.
Kembra—Can you hear [the construction]?
Rick—Yeah, I totally can. It’s really bad! It’s concrete. They’re drilling through concrete right?
Kembra—I don’t know. It’s a mess. They’re trying to make me move, you know, because I have this beautiful home. As you can see I live in this total luxury of glamour here and they are obviously trying to get me out. But we have a high pain tolerance. They don’t really know that I sewed my vagina shut.
Rick—Yeah, that will slow them down.
Kembra—They probably do now.
Rick—But how long have you lived there?
Kembra—I’ve lived here since the ‘80s.
Rick—You’ve lived there a long time.
Kembra—Yeah. So I’ll try to remain focused on discussing important things. One important thing I feel is Ms. Davis [Vaginal Davis] just had an incredible show here.
Rick—Oh! How did that go? I haven’t even seen Ms. Davis for a long, long time.
Kembra—She looks beautiful.
Rick—Did you do a project with Vaginal? Was there something you guys did? Was there a collaboration? Or was it just her coming to town?
Kembra—We’ve been doing work with Lia Gangitano from Participant Gallery, which is one of the last remaining not-for-profit organizations in the city. We’ve done a lot of performances and friends have been doing shows there lately. So I essentially just did a show for Ms. Davis, not with her.
Rick—I know that Vaginal Davis told me that she liked my clothes; and between Vaginal and I, Vaginal wanted to do something nice for [Gangitano] so we sent her a jacket on behalf of Vaginal, and Lia reciprocated with a beautiful whip sculpture from…You know I can’t remember the name of the artist right now but it’s a whip that has two handles for two people to use.
Kembra—Oh, yeah, I know that piece. Participant does really beautiful projects for the shows.
Rick—And I have it in my library right now hanging up.
Kembra—Well, Lia has incredible taste.
Kembra—So, no, I didn’t do anything with Vaginal but it was nice to see her because people can’t really come to New York that often anymore. It’s so culturally genocided that it’s hard for real artists to come to New York. It’s like Vaginal used to say, she used to call it the cultural high white snow. She used to call these boutique people the high whites snow, like the Kennedy’s.
Rick—She always has a little turn of a phrase doesn’t she? What was her show?
Kembra—She did the HAG Gallery. The gallery she had in Los Angeles, which maybe you had an exhibit in as well in the early days, did you?
Rick—I never exhibited, I just was there. I just was a fan.
Kembra—So she kind of redid the HAG but it was so idiosyncratic; she baked bread sculptures. One of Justin Timberlake with a 10-foot cock made out of bread. And they built an illusion so that Ms. Davis would appear dainty and tiny. It was like a circus illusion that you looked inside of a box. Do you remember in Knots Berry Farm they had some sort of illusion room?
Rick—Is it like the distorted mirror?
Kembra—No, it was an illusion room that you looked in and you could become tiny in.
Rick—Dainty Vaginal Davis.
Kembra—Yeah, a tiny and dainty lady. So that was interesting. That was quite a good show and she made wallpaper. And I didn’t really get to see her because of the storm Sandy. The blackout happened and we were right in the middle of Sandy, in the Lower East Side.
Rick—How did that affect you?
Kembra—We were in the darkness. We were in complete darkness.
Rick—I can’t imagine. I’m sure there are things that I’m not even considering that happened.
Kembra—Yeah, people’s homes were flooded. And people’s homes were completely wiped away in Far Rockaway on the beach. So you could imagine, say, like Hermosa Beach had been completely obliterated.
Kembra—So the flooding was really bad, and I missed having my basement and house flooded by four blocks because the Lower East Side is on a landfill. I’m used to it, in the ‘80s when I first moved here the conditions were very dire so to be in complete darkness for a week wasn’t that traumatizing.
Rick—And food and water? Was that complicated?
Kembra—Yeah it was. The government was giving away RCMs, Already Cooked Meals. Essentially it’s like space food or astronaut food they were giving out in the projects.
Rick—I would love to eat that all the time. Does it taste good?
Kembra—Well, I collected it but I never opened the packages because it was hermetically sealed. I don’t know how astronauts can open these kind of food products. It was so difficult.
Rick—But I’ve bought these army surplus; they are so beautiful they are in this army green color with beautiful printing and it’s in a metal kind of plastic thing.
Kembra—Yes, yes. Aesthetically they are very collectable which is why I got them, but I never ate them. And then they have these foods that are self-heating as well.
Kembra—So, I am going to go back to Hawaii. I’m thinking about getting a place there because my parents moved there so I might stay there half of the year. There is beautiful scenery and the water is incredible; I swam everyday. And it’s filled with Hawaiian ghosts. There are support groups for seeing certain ghosts around the island. There is a support group if you saw the green-faced lady with the long black hair and no feet. There is a support group for her.
Rick—I’ve never been to Hawaii. I was actually thinking of it recently because it sounds great. I don’t know why, I just assumed that after all this time it would be a big mess.
Kembra—It is a big mess in a way. Because of the depression the tourism has really diminished so everyone is chasing you around the island trying to get you to go on a turtle watching expedition for half price. So it has a strange dying touristic quality that I find to be kind of interesting actually. It wasn’t very chic at all. People don’t have a consciousness about culture necessarily, but the Hawaiian culture is so interesting. The native culture and the native mythology are very inspiring. The music, the ukulele, dance and all of the folklore I love. Hawaiian people are very warm.
“It started out as a song and then that was the show I had at Lia’s gallery. And it’s the title of the next Karen Black piece. And it’s all about cock, too.”
Rick—Do you remember when The Creatures did that album, that Hawaiian album? Remember The Creatures?
Kembra—Yeah, I totally know what you’re talking about.
Rick—And it was a lot of percussion. It was very Hawaii. They were obviously influenced by Hawaii. It was really nice, that album.
Kembra—I know, I love the visuals for that too. My friend Scott Ewald said this recent Karen Black album that we’re doing, Fuck Island, is reminiscent because there is a lot of tom-tom drum. There is a lot of that kind of percussion. Karen Black isn’t really doing a double-based drum anymore. We’re not doing heavy metal; we have more of a tropical sound right now actually.
Rick—But I thought Fuck Island was a show, is it going to be an album now?
Kembra—Yeah, it started out as a song and then that was the show I had at Lia’s gallery. And it’s the title of the next Karen Black piece. And it’s all about cock, too.
Rick—Yes, you sent me the one with little mirrors all over it and I gave it to my pattern maker in Italy for inspiration. I said, “this is the silhouette for the new collection,” and they put it up on the wall in their little workroom.
Kembra—That would be wonderful to have kind of wheels or balls at the base of your feet.
Rick—It was just such a fun celebratory image. It just put you in a good mood to look at it. So I though it was a good spirit.
Kembra—Yeah, that was a collaboration [between] my friend Spencer Sweeney and Urs Fischer. They took my sort-of-papier-mâché cock over to their studio and did the mirrors. Urs Fischer did the mirrors. It became a collaboration. It was fun.
Rick—But then it looks like they [had] shown light on it somewhere, was it used for something?
Kembra—I’ve been experimenting with day-glo body paint so we actually did the show with the mirror cock in the dark.
Rick—So Fuck Island is the name of the whole album? And it’s a show revolving around these cocks?
Kembra—Yeah. Cock. Karen Black has never really been about adult sexuality and I don’t even think Fuck Island is necessarily about adult sexuality, but it just has really loathsome song titles like “Magnum Man,” “Rebel Without a Cock” and “Soldier Female.”
Rick—So cock songs set to a tropical beat.
Kembra—It is really joyful. It’s very joyful. And I got around to doing all this cock imagery and stuff because of my Future Feminist Group. I’ve been so involved with the Future Feminists but I asked the Future Feminists if it was okay to be a dick pig and a feminist at the same time.
Rick—And the answer was?
Kembra—Well, they had to think about it actually.
Rick—That sounds kind of deformed.
Kembra—It is totally. It’s the truth. So yeah, Fuck Island was really great to do at Lia’s gallery. She was really supportive. We made a choking poster, that’s also a name of a song too, “The Choking Poster.”
Rick—Oh, that’s my favorite one I think. “Choking Poster.”
Kembra—I have some to send to you.
Kembra—So let me think of some important things. When are you coming to New York? Will you have an art exhibit here?
Rick—Well, I’m supposed to do a furniture show. You know those are the shows that I’m doing. I don’t really do art, I do furniture.
Kembra—I believe that furniture is art as well.
Rick—I like the idea of it. To tell you the truth, when I first set out I wanted to be a painter but I didn’t think I had the intellectual stamina to call myself a painter. Or I didn’t think I could really qualify intellectually to call myself a painter so I chickened out and became a designer. And I still kind of feel that way; I can’t imagine doing something and just calling it art. I don’t know if I have low self-esteem or what. I have to do something functional.
Kembra—That means that what you’re doing is in the spirit of what is the decorative arts. And at the turn of the century that was the Decorative Arts movement where a lamp from Tiffany, or a door from Tiffany and decoration was considered art. I just think that the language for now, the vernacular for now, is a bit conservative or it has been for a while. Where you know you had this sort of classicist vision of what art was. I believe that decoration is fine arts.
Rick—All of us deep, deep down inside know that art with a capital A is more heroic than decorative art.
Kembra—Well, I think that my decoration is. I mean, it takes a hero to live like this, I’m sorry.
Rick—I totally agree. I mean as far as I’m concerned you are totally heroic.
Kembra—Extreme decoration is an art. How about this, I’m proposing to the culture and to this discussion for us to remove the capital A from art. Capital letters don’t fit anywhere.
Rick—Yeah, I don’t know. If I did, I would just be like sour grapes. Is that what they call it? Sour grapes? Bitter grapes?
Kembra—Well, I do understand that like, say, Michelangelo’s David… Is that art with a capital A? That sculpture?
Rick—You know that in my head, that is kind of decorative.
Kembra—In my world it’s just sexy.
Rick—Do you go to a lot of those art fairs? Like Basel?
“Karen Black has never really been about adult sexuality and I don’t even think Fuck Island is necessarily about adult sexuality, but it just has really loathsome song titles like ‘Magnum Man’.”
Kembra—Honestly, I don’t really like going to art galleries or to art fairs or anything like that. That’s not where I find my inspiration. I’m not really interested in contemporary art in galleries. I would rather go to the comic book store or walk across the Williamsburg Bridge.
Rick—I love galleries, but a lot of it is just about the glamour and about the money and about big white empty spaces with monuments. And kind of the whole idea about mythologizing these monuments and these big white spaces is just irresistible to me. And it’s just so contemplative, it’s so corrupt and kind of sinister at the same time. I love going to galleries.
Kembra—No, I do enjoy going to those galleries, but I feel like artists are not creating art for art’s sake, or art to communicate with other artists. They are making art for curators and collectors.
Rick—A lot of it is very smarty-pants.
Kembra—Yeah, I’m definitely not theoretical or I don’t have an academic interest in art. I like extreme decoration. And in New York what’s also very popular right now is really colorful abstract stuff, and I’m more interested in figurative work. And I don’t know if that’s popular or not. I guess I should try to go to more galleries maybe. I’m being very close-minded but I don’t have time. You know, starting these new movements is really time consuming. We are doing a new Future Feminist movement and it’s time consuming.
Rick—When was the last time that you spoke to [performance artist] Ron Athey? I haven’t seen Ron in years.
Kembra—Ron Athey was here doing something at Participant. And he did an incredible performance for his 50th birthday that was so beautiful. Lia organized for him to do a performance in a loft down near Canal Street. And he did this piece that was a bloody-blood letting piece. It was so gorgeous, oh my god he looked beautiful. And to celebrate his birthday he did this strange contortion at the end of the performance: after a complete blackout he turned around and put his fist up his own tushy and then started laughing.
Rick—You look so beautiful Kembra.
Kembra—I do? You do, Rick, you look beautiful.
Rick—We’re ageing gracefully aren’t we?
Kembra—Yeah, I think so. I mean, really I guess it seems like it. I mean, I’m a lot less ugly than other people my age.
“I’m definitely not theoretical. I like extreme decoration.”
Rick—You and Ron should do something together. You should fist fuck Ron.
Kembra—I know that I built this cock and stuff but I don’t really like doing that kind of realistic bodywork, it is not for me. It’s not in my vocabulary. I’m more of an anti-naturalist.
Rick—Says the women who sewed her vagina shut.
Kembra—Well, there was no penetration in that.
Rick—No, it’s still seems kind of invasive.
Kembra—Maybe there is just something too erotic about fisting that is a little too grownup for me. I still like doing things, like my adult sexual things very clandestinely.
Rick—A hug and a kiss.
Kembra—Well, other things too, but maybe a little less publically or something. I never wanted to do fornication or anything in my performance artwork. I think Ron’s work is more about that extreme, more provocative and sexually referential stuff. I don’t think Karen Black is adult sexual at all.
Rick—Well, it’s there but it’s not the highlight.
Kembra—So maybe someday Ron and I will do something together but I’m not very good at doing performance. I think I’m just not a very good performance artist. Like I can’t do endurance performance, it’s like longer than a concert.
Rick—Well, you know what you need? You need a nap.
Kembra—I don’t want to do endurance performance. It’s not for me.
Rick—Well, I don’t blame you.
Kembra—If you were on a game show, Rick Owens, what would be your prediction for the next 10 years for the world?
Rick—Oh, dear! I wouldn’t presume to predict anything. I can’t even predict exactly what I’m going to do next week. So I’m not a very good predictor.
Kembra—Okay, good answer. I’ll have to say the same thing really. I feel like I can’t really think farther than my next project. I think that your designs are like your babies in a way.
Rick—They totally are, and that was the only way I know how to communicate with the world and feel like I participated. So I do feel like when I die, I’m not going to regret [it]. I’m going to feel like I made an effort to participate. And I think that’s good. And I think I made an effort to participate to add something to the party and I think you are too. I think that’s tremendously valuable and I’m kind of proud of that. I’m proud of us both.
Kembra—Yeah, I totally love what you do and I think it’s very generous. And I think when you have the kind of attention to detail like that and put it out into the world you have to create a climate for yourself that’s protective and maybe a little isolatory in order to have that concentration.
Rick—It is frayed off, I agree.
Kembra—I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I think that you have to have all sorts of boundaries up so that you don’t get distracted. I feel that with Karen Black, if I let too much stuff in the eyebrow changes or something in the wig is not right. And it’s a constant job to keep things within the Karen Black aesthetic because it can so easily flip and become Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Creatures, Vampira or something that is not specifically Karen Black. So that requires some kind of boundary.
So are you going to be in Paris for the next couple of months? I want to have my Giverny show at the l’Orangerie, the classic antique impressionist museum. I can come whenever I want but I want to come when you’re there.
Rick—You know the l’Orangerie is right across the Seine from us.
Rick—No, it’s like a three-minute walk.
Kembra—Really? Oh, that would be fantastic. That would be wonderful. I’m so excited.
First published in Document Spring/Summer issue 2013.