Role Models

Role Models: Kembra Pfahler

Kembra Pfahler and Andrew Strasser, Femlins series (via

Kembra Pfahler and Andrew Strasser, Femlins series (via

Just in time for HALLOWREEN, I’m resurrecting (rim shot) Filthy Dreams’ Role Models series celebrating the filth elders who led the way for us to realize our own “filthy dreams.” Keeping with the theme of horrifying Halloween camp, our next filth-spiration, Kembra Pfahler, is the role model for all those little girls out there who wanted to grow up to become outlandish, decadent grotesques…or maybe that’s just me.

Lead singer of the glam-punk shock band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, as well as a performance artist and a fine artist, I knew Pfahler deserved role model status after learning that she told her mother that she had her cooter sewn shut in Richard Kern’s Sewing Circle because she was “upset.” We’ve all been there, Kembra!

Kembra Pfahler in Nick Zedd's War Is Menstrual Envy

Kembra Pfahler in Nick Zedd’s War Is Menstrual Envy

A major figure in the New York East Village scene since she arrived in 1979, Pfahler comes from, surprisingly given her aesthetic, sunny California, where her father was a famous surfer. Moving to New York to explore her dark, demented and inspirational artistic aesthetic, Pfahler quickly became known in the underground scene for her extreme performances, which often shocked through her use of her body and sexuality.  Using the artistic philosophy of availablism, meaning using anything and everything you have on hand to make art whether it is your own body or trash, Pfahler’s performances are heavily inspired by the Vienna Action Group, whose transgressive work largely from the 1960s remains difficult even for my contrarian personal sensibility.

Kembra Pfahler and some of the Girls of Karen Black

Kembra Pfahler and some of the Girls of Karen Black

In 1990, Pfahler and her now ex-husband Samoa formed the dementedly wonderful band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, named after campy b-movie sensation Karen Black. Part rock band, part burlesque troupe, part vaudeville act with a heavy dose of terrifying performance art, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black became known for its elaborate performances, featuring both Pfahler and a group of similarly costumed dancers. While each song has its own props and performances, Pfahler’s most notorious onstage act may be when she does a headstand while her Girls of Karen Black crack eggs on her vulva.

Shaking her audience to their core, Pfahler and The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black are perhaps most recognizable for their horrifying and sexual panic-inducing costumes. Pfahler performs, usually nude but sometimes in tiny black shorts, covered in monochromatic body paint, thigh-high lace-up boots, a black wig that would make any 1960s hair-hopper jealous and blacked-out teeth. Reveling in troubling the male gaze, Pfahler becomes, similar to my take on Narcissister, the ultimate sexual glamazon woman, an alluring monster straight out of a b-horror film. Pfahler’s costuming somehow treads the line between oddly attractive and completely horrifying–a peep show for psychos.

Both The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and Pfahler have been embraced in recent years by the art world, performing at the Whitney Biennial in 2008, Deitch Projects, Participant Inc. and The Hole. Pfahler’s recent exhibition, which may win in my book for the best exhibition title, Fuck Island transformed non-profit art space Participant Inc. into a a campy jungle island filled with body-painted dolls strewn around the space.

The Wall of Vagina (via

The Wall of Vagina (via

However, my favorite of Pfahler’s recent performances may be her aptly titled The Wall of Vagina. I’ll let Pfahler explain:

“The Wall of Vagina was born out of a discussion I had with my band while on tour in the US- We traveled in a Winnebego and always looked through men’s magazines at truck stops. Once we bought a Penthouse that showed four girls stacked on top of each other like pancakes, provoking a feeding frenzy from all of us. Not one, not two, not three…but four girls! I thought it would look sculptural to have the Girls of Karen Black as a Wall of Vagina. I did the old turkey-baster-with-plain-yogurt as a topping for the wall, and it provokes a complex reaction from the audience who don’t know whether to applaud or vomit.”

I’m applauding and retching right now just thinking about it. Isn’t that line between applause and vomit what you are looking for in any art show? I know I am.

Kenny Scharf, Kembra in Prettyland (Kembra Pfahler), 2001, oil on canvas

Kenny Scharf, Kembra in Prettyland (Kembra Pfahler), 2001, oil on canvas (via

Not only an artist herself, Pfahler is also an inspiration to many other filthy favorites such as Scott Ewalt, Katrina Del Mar, Kenny Scharf, Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. Her b-movie aesthetic, a mix of sublime and subversion, makes her our role model too.

Why not celebrate the upcoming Halloween holiday with a few clips from The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black? Sure, they’re NSFW but what is of any value these days.

Kembra doing her thing in Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny. I bet Claude never imagined this would happen:

One thought on “Role Models: Kembra Pfahler

  1. I remember reading about The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black as a kid, but I never ever made a purchase. 20 years later, this is looking like just what I need. Thank you for this post!

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