With the media flap over Charlie Finch’s “wifebeater t-shirt” remark still fresh, I thought it only a matter of time before other sexist ogres would be duly outed, held up to public scrutiny, and given their just excoriation. Feminism is not my usual posture, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So I will unsheathe my digital Bowie knife and whittle one particularly noxious instance of the phallocracy down to size. The show, thankfully reaching the end of its cynical, manipulative and exploitative run at a Deitch Projects near you, is Brad Kahlhamer’s Girls and Skulls.
The “girls” must conform to a particular physical type. K is only interested if they look like fashion models: leggy, lissome, slim, attractive and decidedly under clad. From testimonials available in the catalogue, he generally corners his intended prey at a party or opening, and utters a phrase known to (scam) artists everywhere: “I’d really like to draw you.” Models are encouraged to come for a sitting at his studio, but must be ready and willing to strip down to the only wardrobe he finds acceptable in his exalted depiction of woman: bras, panties, bustiers, garters, fishnets, sex worker high heels, and other light fetish wear. (As an aside: one has to admire the economy of K’s hustle. Most guys who need to experience a parade of leggy women in dishabille must go to Scores, and pay for it. K has them coming to his studio, for free. If there were artist/model couplings, inspired by the hothouse atmosphere of the studio, I assume it was consensual.)
There is nothing inherently evil in depicting the female nude, semi nude, or scantily attired. But K demeans and objectifies his sitters in service to his lecherous, adolescent fantasies. They are drawn reclining, spreading their legs wide apart, cradling rifles or electric guitars (in not particularly subtle phallic worship), and assuming other light pornographic poses. His drawings also include skulls, buffalo, unintelligible scrawls and daubs, as well as a lot of moronic, sub-Basquiat doodling and text messaging. More on this later.
Sex. Death. Guns. Rock and roll. Dude! Let’s call it art! K does have a background in comics. Perhaps he’s just adhering to the aesthetics of the form, like the graphic novel (and film) Sin City, where the guys talk tough and wear trench coats, and the girls, all hookers or exotic dancers, bust out of their lingerie. Pulp is pulp, and has its particular pleasures. But what is truly pathetic is K’s hypocrisy when he tries to anoint himself as spiritual or heroic, draping his Hustler magazine obsessions and pedestrian paucity of vision in the mantle of high art. This is accomplished with a conceit for the ages, the “Urban Prairie Girl”.
UPG refers not to his Unseemly Prurient Gaze, but rather to a strong, independent and resourceful, yet somehow rootless, waif like (and therefore exploitable) woman, “who only exists in New York”, according to a catalogue statement by Deitch. “She doesn’t exist in any other city, not even LA. And she can only exist in the 21st century.” Seems like a theory concocted a posteriori to justify the work. You be the judge. But I do have some questions. Were the models already strong, independent etc. before they entered the studio to strip down, or only afterwards? Do they maintain a disciple’s relationship to K, and only acquire their particular strength, independence etc. by virtue of donning fetish wear and allowing his spirit catcher paintbrush to reveal their semi nude essence? America needs to know.
In addition to the models, K’s drawings incorporate props that testify to his Native American status. The skulls, mask like and leering (both at us and at the models in the drawings), are often dressed in wigs and hats. They feel like territorial markers, a stand in for the artist himself, making an inherent claim recognizable to any street corner pimp: “These are my girls. This is my scene.” It is the artist’s way of inserting himself into his subject. There is also taxidermy, stuffed carcasses aplenty, and, in the larger drawings, lots of buffalo roaming. And we all know who almost made the buffalo extinct, right? It was the white man.
This is how K plays the “other” card, something he learned from Basquiat. Remind the (generally white, liberal) collector (or dealer, or critic) of your underdog, ethnic status. Inspire their guilt, so they accept anything you throw in front of them, and any claims you make about the spirituality of your work, however unsubstantiated. Use the genocide of your people as a calling card into the higher precincts of art. They will swallow it whole, or else risk being labeled insensitive or racist. Basquiat played this card well, but at the service of an art imbued with genius, poetry, and a unique vision. Not so with K. Judging from his pedestrian drawing skills, his etiolated scrawls and blotches, his demeaning and simplistic view of women as sex kittens hanging around the teepee, and his cynical, manipulative theorizing (UPG? UGH!), I choose not to buy anything from his trading post.