Emma Kohlmann: The Sum of Herself and Her Fantasy Nightmare

March 31, 2014 | Reed Dunlea

Emma Kohlmann’s art is an abstract, hyper-sexualized version of Raymond Pettibon. Like Pettibon, she is very much connected to the current punk scene; she has done work for Thurston Moore/John Moloney, HOAX and Natural Law. Unlike Pettibon, she is a strong, young 2014 woman, and her work exhibits sexual taboos of a more consensual nature, as opposed to his masculine domination.

I was first made aware of Emma Kohlmann’s work the old-fashioned punk way. She handed me a zine, in the woods between Montreal and Ottawa. The zines were full of drawings of figures in bizarre sexual situations, connected by a stream of direct, dark writing. This interview occurred in an East Village coffee shop, and through emails and texts, clarifications and explorations.

“She is so naked and singular.          She is the sum of yourself and your dream.  Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.           As for me, I am a watercolor.  I wash off.”    -ANN SEXTON

Where does the subject material for your work typically come from?

I like working from photos. I have an erotic photo collection. I went to this paper ephemera show called PaperMania in Hartford three years ago, and there was this guy selling old porn from the 1950s and 60s. Amateur photographs of couples having sex and pin ups. I was just so blown away by the intimacy of these pictures. The images felt romantic and real. Some images were so outrageous, like women pouring milk into their crotches and a tiny kitten licking it out.

It inspired me to start collecting weird compilations, like old sex manuals from the ’60s, instructing the reader how to have a fulfilled marital sex life. There is something about these books; I like the anonymous nature of the people in them. I also refer to other photography like Eadweard Muybridge. Brassaï and Edward Weston. There is something more mechanical about this kind of photography. I can follow its movement and anatomy.

Are you a very sexual person? Is your work that relates to sex inspired more by your own experiences or an interest in the photos you have found or a little bit of both?

My work is not confessional or diaristic. I think it’s funny when people assume that my work conveys what kind of I am person. I am actually a very private person. My work comes from some fantasy nightmare world and it’s transformative to my practice. Our world is inherently sexist; for the most part the media that is digested is often misconception. I think there needs to be some kind of discourse surrounding pornographic imagery especially because people are too often afraid to confront it or write it off. I think about artists like Heather Benjamin, Lisa Yuskavage or Judith Bernstein for example whose work speaks to me through upstaging masculinity. Or, at least, vilifying it.

Can you tell us about your process of making zines and watercolor paintings?

My water colors feel like they materialize in a different part of my brain. They are characters in a world trudging through mud, they feel visceral and tangible. When I work this way it feels more free flowing and chaotic. They come from a divergent form of creation that doesn’t involve as much process or thought. I often feel unfulfilled working in one way or medium.

My zines combine text, image and line. I often have ideas in the most random places. I keep a journal and try to work everyday even if I’m just reading; it helps me keep going. My zines’ writing is important. I try to keep my ideas simple and write very directly, and I often write from different perspectives. Sometimes I think about the same concepts over and over again for days, sometimes even months. I have a hard time writing and it’s something I’ve never felt comfortable sharing. The language I use is often simplistic in nature. I try to write first, and it is often very literal. I am inspired by reading; lately I’ve been referring to Ann Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and Julia Kristeva.

I used to have a studio; now I work in my room and in the basement of my house. I feel all the tools that I need are often just in front of me, it’s just about the execution. When I feel the most confident about something, I usually don’t plan it at all. I just need to push myself to create. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes failing is the best part.

Do you have any shows or projects coming up?

Lately, I have been designing with sharpies my own personalized period underwear. I will be in NYC for the Brooklyn Zine fest, with many of my friends from Western Mass. I will be tabling with HQ press. (My friend Esther White put out the first compilation called Future Thought.)

My work will be featured in a new quarterly called Rine that is being put out by the publishing/production house Dark Chart based in Brooklyn. One of my dear friends Laura Deutsch is putting together this new journal that will be released on Solstices and the Equinoxes. I am so excited for this project, I have to choose my own specific constraints which I have a hard time doing. I like challenges. I will also be showing at Flying Object which is a non-for-profit publishing house and art space in Hadely, Ma. I will be participating in this reaction based show based off the Reanimation Library. Drawing inspiration from the library that is mostly made up of  books that have “fallen out of mainstream circulation.”

What is it like living in Western Mass and originally being from New York City?

It’s been a constant debate in my life about moving back to New York City. I feel energized in both places. My home will always be New York City; all of my family and friends live here.

I feel like the community I have out here [in Western Mass] is constantly moving, making and creating. We’re always finding reasons and means to share our work, as well as connecting with people outside of our own realm. It’s given me the space I could afford [financially]. We make our own venues, and have the space to reflect upon our ourselves. There is healthy competition giving inertia to make more, to work harder and break the confines of conventional art making. I like the earnestness and honesty that comes with working out here. The beautiful rural landscape is just a plus.

Emma Kohlmann is currently based in Western Mass. You can find her zines at big cartel, Farewell Books, Printed Matter, and HeadQuarters Press. Reed Dunlea is the host of Distort Jersey City on WFMU. Follow him on Instagram at @DistortReedDunlea. (Photo: Nina Hartmann)