Kembra Pfahler: Born 1961 in Hermosa Beach, California; lives in New York, New York. The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black: Formed 1990 in New York, New York, by Kembra Pfahler and Samoa
Kembra Pfahler is the woman behind The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, a theatrical rock group that links a hideous monster aesthetic to a dark, hysterical feminine archetype. Named in honor of cult horror film heroine Karen Black, Pfahler’s band performs heavy-bottomed punk-metal songs amid elaborate hand-constructed sets where she engages an animalistic, fetishistic practice of acting out transgressive physical feats. Pfahler’s stage persona has been described as a dominant “lady devil” who relishes destroying notions of female beauty rooted in purity and innocence. Wearing a teased black bouffant wig with blacked-out teeth, black stiletto boots, and black underwear, her nude body painted blue, pink, or yellow, Pfahler heads a team of ladies appointed in similar campy glamour while male band members including her ex-husband, Samoa, maintain masculine rockabilly stylings. Pfahler and Samoa formed The Voluptuous Horror in 1990 after ten years of making Super 8 horror films and visual and performance art that they felt would benefit from a musical soundtrack, looking to Viennese Actionists Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler as original influences. Rebelling against a degraded, polluted world, Pfahler developed an “anti-naturalism” platform on which to promote VHOKB reflecting their desire to reveal the attraction of repulsion.
The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black fashion their props and sets from low-tech, readily accessible materials under the rubric of Pfahler’s theory of Availablism, creating structural items and costumes such as ladybug and flower head uniforms as visual accompaniments to their songs. For Chopsley (1996), an oversize animal trap controlled by a female band member snaps open and shut on Pfahler as she sings about a “rabid bikini model.” In a 2006 performance at New York’s Deitch Projects, The Sound of Magic, band members danced with Mylar-covered boards shaped like giant razor blades and shark heads before a backdrop of starkly striped paintings. Members Pfahler, Samoa, Adam Cardone, Magal, Adam Pfahler, Dave Weston, and Karen Black Girls Bijoux Altamirano, Alice Moy, Anne Hanavan, Jackie Rivera, Laure Leber, and Armen Ra writhe and jump throughout these ritualized ceremonies-cum-rock shows.
Recently Pfahler has directed her interests in bodily transformation to curatorial practice. In Womanizer (2007), also at Deitch Projects, she co-curated a show that demonstrated an “evolution beyond gender” by showing works by women seeking to explode the dualism inherent to male/female opposition. Pfahler exhibited a suite of photographs in which, dressed only in thigh-high lace-up boots and blue body paint, she mimes fornicating with a skeleton symbolizing her recently deceased boyfriend. Conflating horror, death, and female sexuality, Pfahler and VHOKB tantalize the viewer by exemplifying an abhorrent sublime, terrible as it is irresistible. TRINIE DALTON
Kembra Pfahler / The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Kembra at Home, 2007. Chromogenic print, 14 x 11 in. (35.6 x 27.9 cm). Collection of the artist. Courtesy Jeffrey Deitch.