"Sexual greed is so aligned with capitalism, the cock is just everywhere, I can't believe how much power men have because they have a dick." - Kembra Pfahler
You might not imagine such a statement emanating from the artist of FUCK ISLAND, an exhibition billed as a "Cock Festival," and featuring erect phalluses of all sizes sculpted from foam and brightly painted, but if you understand it as an exorcism, a funeral of sorts (as Pfahler intends), it begins to act on the senses in the way porn does, numbing through overstimulation. Soon one begins to take in not just the lurid parade of phalluses seen everywhere but the host of Karen Black-styled dolls posed within and around them in various mis-en-scenes -- a lemonade stand, a tea party on kid-sized furniture, a crib-mobile, etc. -- that feminize, infantilize, and otherwise domesticate the almighty cock through Pfahler's legendary brand of "voluptuous horror."
Prior to the show's opening at Participant Inc., I visited the artist's Lower East Side apartment where I found her in the final stages of preparing for this "self-appointed contra retrospective" with her friend, Rosalie Knox. They were painting ceramic plates for the show, each hand drawn dinner-sized plate, bordered by the words FUCK ISLAND, depicting a Karen Black cartoon in its center, trademark black wig-hair pouring over a giant phallus. Reflective of Pfahler's concept of availabilism, which aims to make use of what's at hand (as Fluxus-era artists once did), the plates were offered to her by a local pottery studio that were also able to fire them for free. Like the Karen Black-styled dolls, consisting of paper-mache, paint, mini-wigs, and glitter, their deliberately simple facture makes their transformation all the more magical, imbuing them with a DIY punk aesthetic that's fed Pfahler's work since the beginning.
Its important to note that most of the art objects Pfahler creates here (and elsewhere) derive from a functional purpose, serving as studies for performance works. Indeed there's a seamlessness between life and art that pervades FUCK ISLAND, from the title itself, which comes from a song Pfahler wrote in response to a dream, to several elements in the installation -- the loft bed, the upside down cross -- that come from Pfahler's home where every surface is painted the same red as the gallery walls.
This echoes another key concept of Pfahler's, that of "extreme decoration," or what she describes as the elation and arousal of drag fever. For fans of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, the cult band Pfahler has fronted since 1990, this over-the-top phantasmagoria may be nothing new. Yet in the context of her embrace of "future feminism", a term first articulated by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons in a desire to reinvigorate feminism and "remove the veil of apathy," Pfahler's gesture takes on particular resonance and urgency.
photo credit: Rosalie Knox
Feminists have long understood the critical value of camp/drag for its destabilization of gender just as queer theorists have acknowledged their debt in return. As Pfahler's personal take on "future feminism," which she along with Hegarty, Coco Rosie, and Johanna Constantine (all performance artists and friends), will continue to collaboratively explore and elucidate (the recent Meltdown event in London being one of the first related manifestations of this shared vision), FUCK ISLAND is nothing short of a protest anthem.
For a society that has come to regard feminism as a dirty word, or worse, an obsolete movement, it stands in refusal of this fate, humorously and subversively re-dressing the cock in a drag send-off that turns our "dick piggy" world on its head (no pun intended). And if you doubt this artist's conviction, consider that she is most infamous for sewing her vagina shut in reaction to reclaim her body from the shame and disapproval she first experienced performing as VHKB in the early 1990s. Still not convinced? Go back to the quote at the top and consider how true that statement still is.
photo credit: Kristy Leibowitz
FUCK ISLAND will be on view at Participant Inc. through Ocotober 14, 2012.
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