In red and in ‘Horror of Black,’ a master of breaking the rules

Kembra Pfahler in her East Village apartment with red piano, red dollhouse and forever-empty red shelves. The rest of the artist’s home is red, too. Photo by Bob Krasner

BY BOB KRASNER | Kembra Pfahler is an artist. Which is not to say that she is someone who makes art; it’s simply who she is.

Every aspect of her life seems to be a different part of an overall project that is Kembra Pfahler. She refers to herself as “interdisciplinary,” which is certainly backed up by her résumé.

Since she moved to New York in 1978, when she was 17, she has been (and continues to be) a filmmaker, actress, model, performance artist, sculptor, visual artist, teacher and writer. Although she grew up in a family of surfers, as a natural blonde on the beaches of Los Angeles, she found herself fascinated with the horror-movie genre.

“But not the slasher movies,” she explained. “I was educated more by films than school or literature. I was attracted to the mythological storytelling, and the women in horror films were a completely different kind of women.”

Especially alluring was the actress Karen Black, who Pfahler has described as “beautiful and horrifying at the same time.”

Armed with a love of punk rock and a supply of black hair dye, Pfahler first settled into the Upper West Side, and “saw a lot of great punk shows” at the club Hurrah’s, on W. 62nd St.

But she quickly realized that the East Village was the place for her — not necessarily for the legendary CBGB crowd, but because the Hispanic community made her feel right at home. She settled into a building near Avenue C.

“It felt like a real community here,” she said. “The buildings were lower to the ground and the people always made me feel safe.”

The apartment became the center of her art, frequently functioning as a movie studio.

“I made at least 50 films here,” she said, adding, “It’s not much of a domestic space.”

For the last 20 years, that space has been painted entirely a deep red — not just the walls, but the furniture, the piano, the lamps, everything. It was all black for a while and at various times it was light blue, green and even chiffon yellow. (That last color, understandably, was the briefest period.)

Pfahler prefers the evening hours.

“There is a peacefulness and calm in having a nocturnal existence,” she said. “The darkness is colorful to me.”

Even her exercise routine is tied to her philosophy. In a workout she calls “Gothletics ©,” she prefers to run at night and use whatever she finds — bars or lampposts, for example — as gym equipment. Her concept of “Availabilism” is also part of her creative process, as she tends to use whatever is nearby as inspiration or as material for a costume or a sculpture.

In other words, it’s entirely possible that the ribbon that Pfahler wears in her outrageous wig onstage was previously part of a curtain at home, and that the bowling balls she notably wore under her feet in performances were found one night on the street.

Since 1990, with her then-husband Samoa Moriki, she has been pushing the boundaries of performance art with her best-known project, a band called The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Frequently performing in body paint, a wig and not much else, she presented a stage show that put forth her themes in a contradictory mix of shock makeup, nudity and references to childhood (flowers, ladybugs, tutus).

Kembra Pfahler performing with Samoa Moriki on guitar in front of his painting at the Howl! Happening gallery last month.

Some of her more shocking performances involved spreading her legs while upside down, so that another performer could crack an egg on her naked crotch, followed by Richard Kern’s film where the same area was sewn shut.

Samoa is also her writing partner.

“Kembra is a master of breaking rules,” he said. “She was her when she arrived here. New York did not influence her — it was the other way around.”

Touching on the subject of visual symbols of youth, he said, “Artists should be like children — open and free.”

Stephanie Hwang acts as Pfahler’s “head art administrator.”

“The world needs more artists like Kembra,” Hwang said. “Her art is all about being empowered as human beings who have a right to exist.”

Pfahler frequently mentions the marginalized members of society — as well as what is left of our planet — as being in need of our attention.

“The subjugation of women and the earth are one and the same,” she said. “My work has a lot to do with the female presence. But the “#metoo” movement should include Mother Earth; capitalism has raped and devalued her.”

Kembra Pfahler in her apartment with red lamp and mirror.

Over the years, Pfahler has spent time in a wide variety of jobs, taking something away from each one that has contributed to her outlook and her art. In her teen years, she worked in her mother’s clothing store, her dad’s warehouse and an art gallery. She moved on to everything from construction work to a position as a writer at the Oxford University Press. There was also a stint performing as “Mistress Kembra” in a series of S&M videos for Gotham Gold Video.

“Just another day job,” she shrugged.

There have been modeling gigs for Calvin Klein, Helmut Lang, Rick Owens and Givenchy. Most recently, she has spent much of her time curating and promoting Samoa’s first solo painting show at the Howl! Happening gallery, as well as organizing events and performing there. In addition, she teaches “Performance Art 101” and is currently at work on a new feature film and the next VHoKB record.

Pfahler has an interesting habit: She tends to listen to the same record over and over, and read the same books again and again. They have become her standards, as much for the content as for who gave them to her. Her stepfather was hugely influential in her musical tastes, turning her on to artists she still enjoys repeatedly (on vinyl only), such as Captain Beefheart, Leo Kottke, Lou Reed, Parliament-Funkadelic and Iggy Pop. Her library consists mostly of these works: “The Book of Symbols” (a gift of her niece), “Right to Exist” (from Jonas Mekas), “Male Fantasies” (from her brother) and the Miles Davis autobiography (from her stepfather).

Kembra Pfahler taking a stand, with Samoa Moriki, left, and Stephanie Hwang, at Pfahler’s all-red pad.

As for her neighborhood, she doesn’t really miss the decades past.

“The East Village has always had a kind of warmth,” she mused.

She has fond memories of the ’80s. Hilly Krystal of CBGB, for one, would always greet her, “Hello, superstar!” But things weren’t always great. There were plenty of times when she had no heat, she recalled.

“And so many friends died of AIDS,” she said. “I’m grateful to be here in the present. I’m so busy doing work that takes me into the future, that I don’t like to take the time to look back.”

Nostalgia has no allure for her.

“I call it yesterbating,” she said.

Once again turning her attention to her apartment, she noted the lack of clutter and, specifically, the empty shelves.

“I have a self-described disorder,” she said, “ ‘Empty Shelf Syndrome.’ Having too much is like overeating — it makes me feel sick. I tend to give things away and keep the shelves empty. I think of it as a place for new ideas to live. And there is nothing more valuable than a good idea.”

Samoa will be performing at the Howl! gallery on Feb. 8. Check the Web site for the possibility of a closing party. https://www.howlarts.org For more on Pfahler, visit https://www.facebook.com/kembra.pfahler, and for more on The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, visit https://www.facebook.com/TVHOKB/ .

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