“Pamela Anderson’s huge tits, Britney’s shaved head moment… Britney in GENERAL, the Spice Girls, TLC’s hairstyles, Lil Kim’s outfits… just to name a few examples of how those acts of rebellion and fashion have shaped my artistry.”Kevin Sabo
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Kevin Sabo, an American artist known for creating expressive, whimsical multi-media works. Using acrylic, ink, spray and collage work, he addresses themes of queer identity whilst experimenting with form, character and fashion. In this interview, Kevin tells me about the influences driving him towards those themes, including his own struggles with identity and pulls towards acts of rebellion and celebration in artistry.
It’s written that you describe your paintings as “large sketches, as they are never predetermined ahead of the end result.” How did you arrive at this creative process?
Honestly, I work like this to avoid getting bored. Maybe it’s my short attention span that directs me this way… But even when I think I have the most spectacular idea and it starts taking shape as a multi-day or multi-week painting, I lose interest so quickly.
95% of the time, I’m only interested in what my brain comes up with in the moment, which is why a lot of my work stays pretty raw, or sketch-like. That being said, I do enjoy sharpening up my forms with some clean edges a lot of the time. I usually start with a red-tinted background, then go wild with some dramatic and frantic sketchy lines, then finish it up by cleaning up the edges. This process usually takes 1-4 hours depending on the complexity and size of the painting.
Framing is where the tedious moments happen – and I have to make sure I’m in the right frame of mind to focus on something that’s a bit more technical. I’ve noticed I’m getting better at committing to making frames more and more refined – even though “refined” isn’t a word that comes naturally for me.
“Themes of queer identity, satire and existential revelations” are seen throughout your work. Which influences drove you towards those themes in particular?
I think a lot of my identity lies within the pop culture I grew up with. If I were to analyze it further – the fashion and aesthetics that were celebrated back in the late 90’s/early 00’s weren’t necessarily something I felt comfortable with, or was allowed to celebrate myself back then. Now that I’m older, just like so many other queer people – and also people who just generally enjoy eras and style – I allow myself to look back and revel in those iconic stylish moments – spaghetti straps, zig-zag parts, chunky platforms, etc.
The figures I paint are probably the archetype for what I imagined as a kid as being totally rebellious and scintillating. Pamela Anderson’s huge tits, Britney’s shaved head moment… Britney in GENERAL, the Spice Girls, TLC’s hairstyles, Lil Kim’s outfits… just to name a few examples of how those acts of rebellion and fashion have shaped my artistry.
I’ve always had a fascination for Bimbo culture, because Bimbos are the most expressive and daring humans in my eyes. They were always my secret role models that are now not so suppressed and hidden. With that comes a lot of satire and celebration – I want my paintings to be as fun and as cutting as the women I looked up to and still look up to, and I want to showcase how these unlikely figures really changed my life. There’s a lot of unpacking and emotional elements to why I’m so drawn to these feminine goddesses, but on the surface, I enjoy my art most when I keep these references and admiration nice and light.
What changes would you like to see in the queer art world?
If I were to try and answer this honestly, I don’t know if I confidently could. Likely just because I don’t feel a part of the big fish queer art world. I understand that my work exists under this umbrella somewhere, but I’m running this whole thing by myself really.
I’m not represented by any galleries, I’m not in contact with that many “important” figureheads of power in the art world. I just live in Virginia and rent a cheap garage out and do what I do. So, I guess my understanding of what’s hot and what’s being represented in the art world is just based on who I choose to follow closely on the interweb.
Naturally, I want all queer artists to be largely celebrated and make a shit ton of money and be respected, but I don’t really have any confident way of knowing if that’s happening on a large scale or not. Just like most structures – I assume it’s the most talented, most marginalized artists that have the least amount of opportunities, and it would be nice if that could change.
What do you think your art says about you?
I hope it says that I like to have fun, and that I’m smart and respectful. If I dive into this question too much, it might kill my buzz for spontaneity, so I’m going to leave it at that!
Which ethical considerations most impact the choices you make as an artist?
This is something I think about a lot. Especially since I’m portraying feminine forms, and forms of all shades and sizes and proportions. I aim to show respect. I know my figures can seem completely absurd to the average viewer – their bodies aren’t always exactly anatomically sound and their faces are messy and weird but I do try and make it clear through my imagery that the figures I paint hold a lot of dignity and power and SAUCE.
I try to stay aware of not trying to tell any stories that are not my own to showcase. More specifically, I never want to find myself in a position of assuming the narrative of a person of color for example. So, I find it important to include a variety of skin tones, without trying to twist the narrative into anything else but respect and celebration. As a young adult, I was introduced to appropriation and inclusivity, and the line between the two is something white artists- regardless of their queerness – should always try and be very mindful of. Bodies will always be sensitive to portray, but there’s always a way to be a figure painter or drawer in a considerable fashion.
Is there an experience in your life that has altered the way you look at art, or perhaps the way you view yourself as an artist?
I think for a lot of visual artists, we can be outcasts (nothing new or profound)….
On top of being overweight and debilitatingly insecure and confused of my own sexuality and even perception of gender as a kid, I didn’t fit in ANYWHERE else but by myself – alone at my drawing desk. School was fucking rough of course; I made more friends as I grew up and learned how to become socially appealing, but no matter the instance, I always felt most myself when I was alone.
My mom set up a micro-studio for me in my formal living room next to our big window and I would escape reality for hours and hours. Funnily enough, my work back then when I was just say … 8 years old, wasn’t all that different from my work today which I think is pretty freakin rad. It confirms to me that what I’m making is true to me – and although it may naturally wax and wane with certain elements of current trends, the blueprint of it all will always undoubtedly be me. And that brings me a lot of confidence and productivity. I get the feeling that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing every single day.
So, maybe if there was one instance that changed the way I looked at art, it could very well be my mom just allowing me the space in the house to have something like that for myself. That right there is massively impactful. Imagine if I wasn’t even able to express myself in the house that way… I’d be dead or something.