Interview by Clare Gemima
Photos courtesy of Kates-Ferri Projects
The current artist-in-residence at Kates-Ferri Projects recently celebrated the opening of their first solo show in New York, “Kimberly Pepperoni’s Closet.” I talked with Kevin Sabo about celebrating gay “yucks,” the artist’s inspirational figures, from Tekken to Janet Jackson, and the concoction of queer and queendom that soaks through their paintings.
Kimberly Pepperoni, the star of the show: Who is she, and how does she influence your multimedia practice?
Kimberly Pepperoni is a drag character I’ve made up. She’s lusty and bodacious but also often annoyed and pissy. I think she’s this extremely exaggerated version of my personality and also just exists completely on her own. She challenges queerness and fabulosity. I’m always thinking about my own perception of self and how I could personify those feelings into a character.
Kevin Sabo, an equally important character in your works, hello! How would you describe your role as a creative within your practice? Are you a storyteller, composer, painter, puzzle piecer-togetherer?
I’m all of the above! I love sprinkling narratives into my work like a writer. Puzzles absolutely resonate with me, too, because, as you can see, my works are sort of like puzzle pieces with the way they take up space. These figures are being contorted inside the canvas to ensure they get their little moment. I also relate the way I paint to music a lot of the time — tracklists of albums are so similar to composing a show or even choosing the number or style of the characters I make. And, I’m sure, like most painters, music is integral to the painting process.
I love the way you’ve embraced the concept of the closet in this show. The sexy, luxury garments that adorn your figures present one side of the queer emblem, although the closet’s significance invites a vast array of contention from the community. What are your thoughts surrounding (coming out of the) closet, especially as an artist that renders queer identity with such an amusing amount of joy and humor?
Well, I see Kimberly Pepperoni as the embodiment of just embracing all your gay “yucks” in life. Like, for me to be perceived as feminine before coming out was to be worthless and small; and now it’s just the truth. To come out is an ongoing process — it doesn’t just happen once. To come out is to slowly peel off every layer of fear and guilt you’ve felt before sharing with others who you are.
Who are your heroes or heroines? I know Britney Spears is an idol of yours, and Kimberly Hart from Power Rangers. Can we know more about some queens, painters, poets, fashion houses or musicians who inspire you?
Yeah! It’s kind of all over the place and admittedly unsophisticated for the most part, but most of my QUEENS are the women that were always my guilty pleasure before being out. For instance, Nina Williams from the Tekken series was a video game character that I think constructed a lot of the shapes and style of my work.
Gwen Stefani was one of my first OBSESSIONS with fashion and music — and I had to hide my love for her growing up. And then, as I got older, music became more of an obsession, and I started discovering the careers, discographies and videographies of all the icons. It started with Gwen, and then I moved on to Britney. In school, I discovered the amazingness of Janet Jackson and Madonna.
And, now that I’ve run almost completely out of the classics, I’ve graduated to studying the tedious careers of artists like Bjork or even Joni Mitchell. Women in music are truly a force of nature. I almost exclusively listen to ladies. Any genre, I don’t care. Drag itself has really influenced my work, too — if Valentina and Jimbo the Clown had a baby, you’d get Kimberly Pepperoni.
Your character’s limbs, breasts, shoes, lips, eyes and hairdos fill the edges of your canvases and evoke questions about identity and fluidity. Are your figures gendered, or do they possess a sexuality? Are they all in drag?
I wouldn’t say they’re gendered at all! If they had pronouns, I’m sure they’d be She/Her, but it’s more so intended to celebrate my own fluidity and invite people who feel connected to that notion to also find a bit of excitement in being much more complicated than just man or woman, masc or femme.
Are there any other characters hiding in Kimberly Pepperoni’s closet? Anyone else that viewers should be made aware of? If so, what’s their story?
There are certainly a few subgenres of Kim Pepp that make their way onto canvas every now and then. I love turning them into lizard monsters sometimes, and much more recently, I’ve been playing with the idea of time and fashion — like some of them will be dressed as Victorian-era hussies and then also wondering what Kim Pepp would be wearing in the far, far A.I. controlled future.
Throughout your residency at Kates-Ferri Projects, what have been the biggest challenges, lessons and/or breakthroughs that you have experienced?
Working on the spot for a show that would be hung just days later was a fun challenge. I work with speed in my paintings, and as you can see, the linework is very quick and gestural. The idea that I wouldn’t be able to live with these works for a while before showing them to an audience was kind of intimidating because while I’m a quick painter, I’ve learned that I love to sit with works for a while before I decide whether or not they have that special sauce.
How are you celebrating Pride this year?
Cooking, eating, painting, redecorating, dancing and minding my business.
What are your plans for the upcoming future art-show wise? What are Kimberly’s?
I have a solo show in Paris this fall with Bim Bam Gallery. I LOVE France, and I think my work can be read as very French. I speak a bit of the language. I’ve got family and roots over there. It feels very serendipitous and also coincides with my 30th birthday.
Kimberly will definitely be joining. I haven’t made all of the work yet, bI’mI’m imagining Kimberly in just one colorI’mI’m thinking it could be green. When I was just a wee-lad my AIM screen name was @Greenguy2224. It could be fun to pay homage to such a powerful color. Bit’st’s honestly too early to say ... Kim might have a full-body plastic surgery modification by then; who knows.
Kates-Ferri Projects, 561 Grand St. (near Madison Street), is open from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday or by appointment. “Kimberly Pepperoni’s Closet” is up through July 23.
Clare Gemima is a visual artist and arts writer from New Zealand, now based in the East Village of New York. You can find her work here: claregemima.com.