Larassa Kabel: Juxtapose

Nov 20, 2015

THE FINEST DETAILS OF VULNERABILITY RADIATE FROM LARASSA KABEL’S arresting portraits, demanding an examination of the figures and feelings she renders so lovingly. We came across her captivating animal drawings while curating the new Juxtapoz Wild book. Mesmerizing in their skill and beauty, the undertones of her work creep in slowly—the darkest, most poignant parts of life and death. Artists often aim to help us tackle the tough questions, the uncertainties we avoid, and Kabel gently lures us toward the inevitable, reminding us that life is the narrative, sex is the subtext, and death is the epilogue. She encourages us to appreciate the novelty of existence.

Kristin Farr: What interests you about untamed, precarious moments?

Larassa Kabel: I find them very emotionally engaging as well as intellectually challenging. I do work about the things that I can’t stop thinking about. They just won’t go away, and they often involve unresolvable questions: the differences between men’s and women’s experiences and the confusions that come from that gap, the fear of death or loss, which is really the fear of suffering.
Do these things ever have a clear resolution? I think we all struggle with these ideas. It’s just that I use my art as a way of processing
and understanding. I’ve always been drawn to dark subjects, those close to the bone. I’m actually a pretty happy person, so maybe I have a little more room emotionally to spend on the hard subjects.

KF: Why do you love drawing animals, and do you use them metaphorically?

LK: They allow me to address issues that would be difficult for viewers if I used a person in the composition. Take the Hazards of Love series, for example. After becoming a mother, I became acutely aware of how devastated I would be if my son died. I have a lot of people in my life that I would be terribly sad to see die, but having a child raised that fear to a whole new level. And it does happen sometimes. No one knows how things will turn out, and when you open yourself up for that kind of love, you become incredibly vulnerable. I made several pieces exploring this, trying to really understand and accept it. The fawns in the Hazards of Love are symbols of child mortality. I feel they draw a person in with their beauty and then reveal themselves as heartbreaking symbols. Several people asked me about the drawings when I was working on them, and when I told them about the project, they told me about their own children that had died. It was incredibly moving. I realized that one of the issues around a child’s death is that other people don’t want to hear about it. It’s too uncomfortable, and they don’t know what to say. At the same time, the parents I spoke with wanted to be able to talk about these children they loved. To never speak about them was like pretending they never existed. So sad. As a tribute, two of the fawns are named after children who died.

KF: Describe your personal relationship with animals.

LK: I have always loved animals and had them in my life. When I was two years old, I became enamored with horses. Total horse girl right from the start. Obsessed! And it was always about working and nurturing a relationship with them. Some people try to ascribe some sort of erotic connotation to horse girls, but it is truly a pure thing.
I used to have horses and rode all the time until I went off to college. Now, I live in the city and have dogs instead. They come to work with me every day, and it’s such a wonderful relationship. I can’t imagine not having them around.

KF: Tell me more about your horse drawings.

LK: For me, the horse drawings are a way of learning to live with the knowledge that I and everyone I know will cease to exist. Horses are beautiful and strong and very social—like large dogs. They are also incredibly fragile. When they fall, they break, and when they break, they don’t recover. So to take something I really love and pitch it headlong into disaster forces me to sit with this dreadful panic and just be with it.
I like to think it shows that there can be beauty in tragedy.
I hope I can have some grace about it when it comes.

KF: Do you work in a large scale because of the emotional immensity of your subjects?

LK: The scale varies quite a bit depending on how the project feels. The horses always felt like they should be life-size. I envisioned the project hanging in a very tall space so it could convey a real sense of gravity and impending disaster. A life size horse hurtling down from twenty feet in the air is experienced differently from a small drawing hung at eye level. But some work is very small and very intimate because it wants to pull someone in close. It’s really the difference between whether you want someone enveloped in an experience or you want to lure them in from the outside.

KF: Tell me about an interesting experience involving animals.

LK: A couple of years ago, I had a very strange day. It felt like
I was on some sort of spirit walk or had been placed into
a fable. I was walking my dog around a lake where I go nearly every day, and as we were walking, we came upon a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. It was newly hatched, raw-looking and bald, covered with ants, but still alive and moving around. I looked everywhere for the nest but couldn’t find it, and I realized that the kind thing to do would be to kill it. It was just a horror show. But I couldn’t!

The idea of killing it paralyzed me, and I felt like a coward walking away. I hadn’t gone 30 feet before I came upon a fish on the ground. It was alive and gasping. I picked it up and ran all the way to the lake, which was at least 40 feet away, and threw it in. The strange thing was that I couldn’t figure out how it got there, completely uninjured. I didn’t see how it could have been caught by a bird, and there wasn’t anyone else around, so it couldn’t have flipped out of a fisherman’s bucket. It couldn’t have been there long because it was still alive. After the bad experience with the baby bird, that made me feel a little better.
As I was driving home at the end of the day, we entered a very heavy rainstorm. It was just pouring. I was getting close to my house when I saw a young boy crouched on the ground next to a yellow lab that was lying on its side and not moving at all. I stopped to see if they needed help, and he said his dad was coming and that he was alright. I could see that the dog was too still. When I added it all up, I realized I had found something that belonged to the air stuck on the ground, something that belonged in the water gasping on dry land, and something that needed air looking like it was drowning on the land. Each encounter somehow felt staged. I keep wanting to ascribe some meaning to it all, but I don’t know if there is any. In the end, I guess, it was good that I didn’t hang around trying to kill the bird because then the fish probably wouldn’t have made it, but the suffering still bothers me. By the way, the next day when I walked at the lake, there was no sign of the bird.

KF: That really does sound like a dark fairytale. Does your source imagery come from experience or photographs?

LK: I always work from a photo source, though it is often a composite image that has been altered in Photoshop. For example, the horses in the Any Minute Now series often require the removal of foreign elements, the repositioning or construction of legs or the addition of different manes and tails. There could be three different photographs of three different horses involved to make one image.

KF: What have you been drawing and painting recently?

LK: I’ve been working on a series of drawings that explore how women’s sexuality is subverted by male desires. There is a wide spectrum to the female experience when it is defined by men—everything from happy, consensual partners to violence and even death. Why anyone would rape another person is unfathomable, and the numbers of women who are victims of sexual assault are pretty staggering. I have been looking at how pornography, specifically POV blowjob pornography, shows this wide variety of male desires, albeit in a staged presentation. The BJ Girls are closely cropped with no evidence of the action in the composition with a strong focus on the eyes. I want to reverse the porn from woman becoming flat caricatures and bring the focus back on to her as an individual with an emotional connection to the viewer. The women in the drawings go from happy, to unsure, to—as part of a particularly disturbing trend—crying. This category has been growing over the past couple of years, and though I know it is staged, the fact that some men enjoy this is pretty disturbing.

I have a companion series of paintings that have been photo-transferred onto fleece blankets. They address how women teach their daughters how to be safe and acknowledge that all women have this inner awareness that they could be victims of an attack. None of the men in my life understand what this is actually like. I think it is strange that over fifty percent of the population is very aware that they are vulnerable to a particular type of violence, and that this awareness alters their behavior. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t get left at a party by your friends. Don’t use that stairwell with the blind corner at the bottom, etc. The images on the blankets incorporate victims of violence or symbols of that fight-or-flight awareness. As a counterpoint to the porn, I will be photographing mothers and daughters interacting with the blankets.

KF: The project with the blankets seems like a departure for you.

LK: The Security Blanket project is definitely a departure from my regular practice. While I love spending so much time with my drawings and paintings—drawing is very meditative—there are some issues I’d been thinking about that didn’t fit those formats. The perennial issue of violence against women—which is at epidemic proportions, yet gets very little attention—had just been festering in me. I was talking to my husband about it one day and realized that he, a very progressive and feminist man, had almost no understanding of women’s experiences. He didn’t realize I guarded my behavior to stay safe, and he didn’t know anyone who had been raped. When he said, “Well, it’s not like you don’t feel like you can walk wherever you want,” my mouth fell open. Of course I don’t. I think every woman in my acquaintance is very aware of her surroundings because she knows, mostly subconsciously, that she is at risk for violence. Women are prey. And I do know women who have been raped. So does he. He just doesn’t know that he knows them. I realized that even though sexual violence is depicted through movies and television and the news, because women rarely talk about what has happened to them personally, it feels removed for most men. They think it doesn’t happen to their sisters, mothers, wives or daughters. And when you don’t feel a personal connection to a problem, you rarely feel moved to do anything about it. You may even question its legitimacy. So I wanted to take something that is strangely invisible and make it uncomfortably visible. I wanted to show how we try to vaccinate our daughters against disaster. We tell little girls that they are like princesses, but the flip side is that some people use women and girls as disposable commodities, so we need to put them on their guard. Putting paintings of panicked fawns—to represent that general wariness—and images of actual murder victims onto one of the most basic and ubiquitous forms of shelter and warmth seemed like a natural fit. Then I could photograph women and their daughters interacting with them in their homes to show this gross reality.

KF: How do people react to work like the BJ girls? Is it uncomfortable to research violent pornography, make the work, and then have to explain it?

LK: I get a lot of different reactions to the BJ girls, depending on who’s looking. First, there is a basic bifurcation; some people know what they are looking at and some people have no idea. Most men catch on immediately. They just look at a lot more pornography than women do, and I think POV fellatio pornography is really targeted towards them. Women are far more likely to have a subtle reading of the work. We see ourselves reflected in the image, not as an object of desire. We are far less likely to see them as random actors. The work really is trying to reverse that impersonalization. By cropping out the point of contact, there is nothing sexual left in the image, and with that interest removed, all you can do is look into her eyes. Even if you feel a sexual interest in the woman, you are really forced to see her as a person, not a flattened caricature. You can’t help but read her emotion and know whether she is happy, uncertain or sad. That range of emotion is what makes the research difficult.

I’m not anti-pornography, but I do find certain trends really unsettling. I’ve been seeing more and more crying girls. They are totally made up to look very distressed—running eyeliner, etc.—so it is a theatrical representation, but why anyone would be excited about having sex with someone who is crying about the experience is something I have hard time wrapping my mind around. It feels like a real gap between the sexes. When I have to dig around in those images, I take breaks and watch cute baby goat videos to try and scrub my mind. I wish there were some things I could just unsee.

KF: I was going to ask if you had to take breaks and make something lighter once in a while.

LK: I will occasionally work on something that is just beautiful or silly for some relief. I just finished a lithograph of a jackalope which was a blast. I’ve had a weird fascination with them since I was a kid, and they cheer me up immensely.

KF: Is it true you painted the Obamas’ dog, Bo, for the White House holiday card a few years ago?

LK: Yes. A woman who knew me and had bought some of my work had a daughter who was working at the White House in 2012. They wanted to have an artist interpret a photo of the White House, so they asked staffers if they knew artists who could do it. Around eighty artists submitted work, and mine was chosen. It was very surreal. My husband and I actually got to go to a White House holiday party because of it, and that was a trip.

What’s an animal you’d like to see or interact with that you haven’t before?

I would love to see whales up close. The more I learn about their intelligence, the more curious I become about what their experience of the world would be like. And it would be amazing to be near something so large. That’s as close to dinosaur size as I can get.