Upon arriving in Giverny, France to begin my residency in the Munn Artists Program of the Claude Monet Foundation, the program director gave me a key to Monet’s gardens with the benediction that the key would allow me to enter the garden for reflection or inspiration at any time, day or night.
I tied the key to a swatch of fishnet-stocking the same bright green of the garden gates, and after the gardens had closed to the public for the day and the last tourists had filed out, I let myself in to the water-lily pond (le bassin aux nymphéas) that Monet immortalized in his series of water-lily paintings. The garden was utterly serene, its Japanese bridges bathed in the bright light of early evening in Normandy. I fantasized what kind of mischief might transpire in this tasteful landmark of tranquility. One image that sprang to mind was of the performance artist Kembra Pfahler’s alter-ego Karen Black (punk-rock goddess incarnate of the band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) inhabiting the garden. I’ve collaborated with Kembra before, but I’m not certain why I thought of her in the garden that day—I imagine it had something to do with my being in such an intensely iconic landscape and Karen Black being such a similarly iconic figure, even though her typical turf—dark black-box stage of a rock-club, awesomely loud and clangorous—would seem discordant with the calm of the scene before me. And maybe that apparent dissonance is what drew me to the image; I often explore in my work the propulsive energy that results when powerful entities—whether brides, or cats, or airplanes—come together.
In early August, thanks to the collaboration of Kembra Pfahler, the support of Beth Rudin DeWoody, curator of the Munn Artists Program, and program director Jan Huntley, I realized the vision I’d had on my first day in Giverny. So on a sultry day, with the garden at its productive peak, Karen Black strode through the green gates, her nude body painted bright pink, her wild black hair showered with red glitter and piled impossibly-high. As she walked the meandering footpaths in thigh-high patent-leather stiletto boots, she possessed the garden as though she had returned home to her natural habitat. We photographed her perched at the pond’s edge like a rare bird, reclining in the long green bark, clambering over the rail of one of the Japanese bridges as though she were a creature who lived underneath.
In my conversations with Kembra before she arrived in Giverny, I don’t think either of us imagined just how completely Karen Black would possess the garden. The project was born of an intuitive desire, but the more I think about it, the more the presence of Karen Black harmonizes the spectacle of it. While most bodies in this imposing landscape dissolve into it, the symbolic impact of Karen Black creates a visual equilibrium.
And it seems to make a certain sense. Karen Black embodies a tension between nature and anti-nature—her figure is nubile, completely natural, but her skin is coated, painted in vivid monochrome pink or red so she is nude but not exposed. Wigs upon wigs add up to extreme hair, matching her shiny, thigh-high stilettos. Similarly, her realm in these photos is a garden the beauty of which is overwhelming—the thousands upon thousands of flowers (reproductive organs) renewed by the frottage of bees; and yet the gardens’ apparent naturalism belies the work of its team of gardeners and their assistants, tending and curating the garden from dawn until dusk until the necessary death and darkness of winter overwhelms their power.
Karen Black represents stereotypes of sex and death, feminine beauty and horror, a sense of humor and the macabre. Where the typical allure of the “nude” is often the suggestion of vulnerability, Karen Black is alluring, but not vulnerable. She enriches the mystery, the lore of the garden, lures you into the landscape but keeps you at arms length. She remains the keyholder of the garden. My favorite image may be the one of Karen Black standing before the greenhouse—a studio of sorts for manicuring and perfecting nature—as though she owns the place.