Portrait by Grant Delin

Kathe Burkhart is best known for her “Liz Taylor” series (1982-ongoing), a self-portrait project in which the late iconic actress serves as the artist’s double. Speaking about the paintings, artist Cady Noland once described Burkhart’s surrogate, a sexually dominant woman, as a “living repudiation of the fallacy that appetites are the province of men.”1 Combining appropriated film stills and autobiographical collage elements with provocative slurs and double entendres (hole, beaver, up yours!), these large-scale works, with their ribald humor and feminist-punk attitude, earned Burkhart a “bad girl” reputation early on. Whether brandishing a whip, screaming obscenities or possessing a dick, Burkhart’s Liz presciently explores femdom fantasies and evokes the artist’s genderqueer identity as an intersex woman. 

Over time this was expressed through S&M-inflected themes, which soon extended to other bodies of work. “Hardcore” (1999-2013) is a series of digital photos on canvas that present sex shop window displays shot from the street in Amsterdam’s red light district. The XY Portfolio (2012/14), a photographic homage to Mapplethorpe, Hans Bellmer and Unica Zürn, features the bound and corseted body of Burkhart’s former lover, a transgender woman, engaged in fetishistic S&M play. 

Taylor once infamously quipped,I’ve been through it all, baby, I’m Mother Courage.” Similarly, Burkhart’s work embodies a life lived on the edge, one fueled as much by stamina as bracing wit. I’m reminded of both when I visit her 3,000-square-foot Brooklyn loft under the hulking shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s a space she’s fought hard to keep since she moved in almost 30 years ago. 

In fact, when I arrive, she’s at her desk, finishing an e-mail to her lawyer because she no longer has access to the freight elevator or loading dock. “I can’t get two of my girls out,” she tells me, referring to shipping works for her upcoming survey of the “Liz Taylor” series [LTS] in Fribourg, Switzerland. Moving from her desk to a black wooden rocking chair, she slings a leg over one of the arms and rocks as she talks. The chair was left to her by her great-aunt Grace, whose love letters from the late 1920s to another woman form the basis of Burkhart’s novel Between the Lines (Paris, Hachette Litteratures, 2006). She leafs through a copy, reads the opening line, “I was born into a closet full of skeletons,” and shows me photos of Grace and her lover. Burkhart, a prolific writer in addition to being a visual artist, has completed four novels to date. Her latest book, DUDES (New York, Participant Press, 2014), is a short-story collection that, like some memoirs, blurs the line between truth and fiction, as does much of her art. 

We move to the bedroom, where Burkhart’s ornately framed “Torture” paintings (1992-2001)—images of torture devices, ranging from medieval dunking stools to lethal injection beds, named after ex-boyfriends—surround her wrought-iron bed. “Always sleeping with our past, aren’t we?” she effortlessly puns.  

In the main studio, we look at a painting she made as a teen. It’s a surrealistic scene of a nude woman with penises chained to her back levitating above fire. We shift to drawings from her California Institute of the Arts days (1979-82) that clearly prefigure the Liz Taylor works, and Burkhart talks about how the school’s post-studio program helped shape her practice: “Everyone was interdisciplinary at the time, and because Neo-Expressionism and New Image painting were largely dominated by men, I adopted a Situationist approach to painting.” 

When she complains how her approach, exemplified by parodies of media slogans, has led to misreadings of her work as raw, or quickly made, it seems the perfect place to begin our interview.

 

JANE URSULA HARRIS  You’ve cultivated a distinctly illustrative aesthetic in the LTS, which is, as you suggest, just as conceptual in aim as it is expressive. Why do you think people misconstrue it as formally simplistic or “raw”?  

KATHE BURKHART Some people have a stick up their ass about painting. They’re hung up on formalism like it’s 1945, stuck on some outdated idea of form in a content-based world. Form is a slave to content. Always. It’s the relation of a tool to a thing made.

HARRIS  Walk us through your process. How does an LTS painting get made? 

BURKHART  Usually the [film, production and publicity] stills I work from are already on the studio wall. They come from an archive I’ve built over the span of the whole series. I sit and look at them until I gravitate toward one, and then I eventually match it up with words. Or it could be the reverse, starting with a word I am fixated on and connecting it to an image. I also have a list of words that I add to, like my ever-expanding trove of film stills, movie magazines and tabloids. Also, the text has to be designed and printed out. Usually I set it in five or six different fonts and choose one when I’m ready to project. I like to say that the work is done at that point. I mean, the conceptual work is done, and then the labor starts. The rest is labor. 

I use an old-school opaque projector to enlarge the images and the text and draw them onto the canvas. All the collage materials are then assembled.

HARRIS  Many of your collage elements—some of which are actual objects, like fake fur, and others photos of things—are autobiographical, symbolizing personal experiences and events that are transformed and embedded into the work through a kind of code. Can you share more about this coding system?

BURKHART  It’s similar to the way I use fictional names for characters drawn from real life. Each work relates to my life in its own way. Some of them have a very high degree of coding, and some of them have less. It’s organic and specific to the piece. For example, Junkie [2008, a large painting made of acrylic, fake tattoos, mink stoles, veterinary syringes and personal ephemera on canvas] has so much coding that it has a legend with numbers and descriptions exhibited to the left so that the items can be identified. To a certain extent, Liz overall is code for me, singular, and/or plural, functioning as a type. And the male figure in my work is generally “the big Other”—the symbolic order in Lacan’s schema—but hey, if the shoe fits, wear it.

A lot of the collage elements have become motifs over time, like the temporary tattoos, fake fur, trompe l’oeil-patterned fabric, keys, faux gems, etc., while others—such as cotton balls, rope, head pins, veterinary syringes, playing cards with naked figures and condoms—have been used in particular pieces. Many of the photos collaged into the work are personal snapshots, whether of my genitalia, books, tarot card spreads or landscapes. These are sometimes scanned and then printed onto canvas, or cut out and glued in.

HARRIS  The majority of the LTS, over 200 works to date, have been produced in your Brooklyn studio, where you’ve resided since 1986. How important has this space been to the work’s ongoing creation? 

BURKHART Making large-scale paintings requires a serious financial commitment to a big, traditional studio. The privacy it affords is sacred and gives me the space to process information, images and lived experience. In a live/work space, there is no separation between life and art, just as there is none in the way that I work. If the works can be thought of as cells or organs or memories, this place is their body and spiritual home.

It’s also great for being able to split up various bodies of work: the photos in the front, the torture paintings in the bedroom, the number paintings and prints in the print room, etc. It allows me to give people a walkthrough of my practice. Then, when they realize how interdisciplinary and interconnected the work is, they get it on a palpable level.

HARRIS  Fuck You (1984), one of the earliest paintings in your upcoming survey, depicts Liz in Cleopatra mode on a turquoise ground with the title words in big red letters across the canvas. Earlier in our conversation, you called it the most important work in the LTS. Can you explain? 

BURKHART Well, it’s the first fully realized single-panel work in the LTS. There was a bit of formal thrashing around until I found the right combination of image and text; this was the first one where I thought, OK, I hit it. Fuck You was the first cuss-word painting, a strategy I then parlayed into a “signature style.” At the time, there were not many cuss words in art, believe it or not. I seem to have unlocked the door because suddenly lots of artists were cussing in their work, much to my consternation. 

HARRIS  What’s it like to see so much of what you’ve been exploring in the LTS—particularly genderqueer sexuality and notions of self-portraiture as conceptual practice—gain traction now, both in the art world and the general public sphere?

BURKHART  It’s completely weird. It’s gratifying to see gender-nonconforming subjects enter mainstream culture, and yet they’re often distorted through a light, stupid, trendy, anti-critical fun-house mirror that makes me wince because of the political and personal complexity of these issues. Now we get it watered down through people like Caitlyn Jenner, and cameras in phones that make everybody think they’re artists. The notions of performativity and self-reflexiveness that were so important to artists have entered daily life in a strange way. 

HARRIS  That reminds me of some fourth-wave feminists—artists included—who often seek empowerment in the selfie and sexual exhibitionism these days, as if the means of control were all that mattered. I think your LTS scrambles that equation with its entanglement of self and other, power and deviance, politics and play.

BURKHART  Yes, I try to disrupt subliminal desires by subverting the images I appropriate with curses: the language of angry resistance, the iconography of the loud-mouthed bitch. Liz Taylor as an actress was often gender nonconforming, and unlike Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland or other Hollywood victims, she survived.

Also, I don’t think sexual exhibitionism is particularly empowering for women, unless it’s a personal fetish rather than a cultural prescription. It’s usually a sad, desperate grab for attention, with a limited shelf life, because no one looks at women past 40. In most cases, it’s just an extension of porno culture. Be a webcam girl for 10 cents a minute—very empowering! 

HARRIS Are there any exceptions?  

BURKHART  Within visual art, Lynda Benglis’s ad in Artforum [1974], Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll [1975], [Dutch Fluxus artist] Phil Bloom’s appearance on TV in the Netherlands [1967], certain works by Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono, Francesca Woodman and Hannah Wilke, they all nailed it very early on, when it was still radical to take your clothes off. But taking your clothes off as an expression of freedom in the ’70s is different from getting dressed up like a skank to compete for limited cultural resources in 2016.

HARRIS  I really like your tell-it-like-it-is attitude. It recalls that loud-mouthed bitch you mentioned earlier. Does the art world still find a dominant female threatening? 

BURKHART  Society in general finds dominant women threatening, unless they’re assuming the role on a contractual basis as a compliant service top, which is, essentially, a masquerade. The real work to be done, on the street, so to speak, and in the studio as well, has to do with achieving economic parity for one’s work and cultural contributions. 

HARRIS  Speaking of masquerade, earlier in our conversation, you clarified your own sexual identity as a dominant female by saying, “It’s not showtime, I don’t turn it on and off like a performer.” It made me think of that phrase “elegant pervert,” which you’ve used to describe yourself. What exactly does the term mean to you?

BURKHART  Well, it’s just a joke, really, that I certainly don’t define myself by. But it’s a way to express that what has been called “different loving” doesn’t have to be cheap or transactional or a creepy carnival. It can be dignified and chosen and beautiful.

And when I said, “It’s not showtime . . . ,” I meant it’s a lifestyle thing that is 24/7. The performativity is sort of grounded in an awareness that it is a political act for me to be able to live this way on my own terms. The notion of masquerade is actually a much deeper one than that. You’re taking me back to the days of teaching feminist theory, specifically Joan Riviere’s “Womanliness as a Masquerade” [1929] and the work of Michèle Montrelay. But then I’m not interested in that kind of femininity, I find it oppressive—I’m interested in feminism. Social change. 

HARRIS How do you see your practice in the context of feminism and social change, especially with regard to your use of language? I’m thinking of the expletives and confrontational slogans in the LTS, but also your sculptural haiku made out of chocolate—such as “yes is the new no / no sex is the new sex / men are the new women” and “yesterday I plucked / a very stiff and bristly / white hair from my cunt”—which seem to reconfigure the language of desire.

BURKHART  The haiku connect my poetry to visual art by taking on sculptural form. I started writing a lot of haiku after 9/11. They serve as a bridge between the literary and visual in my practice, but they lean more toward literature. They have been made with wooden letters, chocolate letters, foam letters and chalk on the sidewalk. In the LTS, the curses are mobilized as rallying slogans, affirmation in the mode of negation, and they offer a place where viewers can begin to unpack the image. That part depends on what they bring to it. Sometimes I see people who don’t know me looking at the work, and they’re either smiling and laughing and gaining some empowerment from the experience or really disturbed and threatened. Of course I prefer the smile, but the work is making change regardless of whether I see horror or recognition. Either reaction is a strong one.

 

A survey of Kathe Burkhart’s “Liz Taylor” series, at Fri Art, Centre d’art de Fribourg/Kunsthalle Freiburg, Mar. 13- May 8.