Creatively Defiant Divas: A Q&A with Artist Kevin Sabo

The painter shares what it takes to bring the joys and terrors of queerness to life in vibrant color, transcending the typical with unrefined eroticism.

Bold bodies move across the foreground seducing you with faces that don’t let you break eye contact in Kevin Sabo’s work. His paintings transcend limitations of gender, the body and sex-as-we-know-it—and make no apologies for any disruption they may cause. The masculine and feminine unite, fight and make up again in his vivid compositions, as he offers up a full-frontal view of the complexity of the queer experience.

‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’. Courtesy of the Artist

The result is as confident as it is confrontational, drawing inspiration from “quick drag” and the aesthetics of the 1990s and 2000s. Sabo’s works tend to be a raw portrayal of glamour, sans polishing touches, and push the boundaries of what is organic versus what is extraneous. In his art, there’s flagrant flirtation, consensual exposure and above all, a derivation of power from the proscribed. But painting is only one of the artist’s outlets. Sabo is also a cook, musician and curator, co-running his gallery, Pamplemousse, in Richmond, Virginia.

Observer recently had a chance to chat with Sabo about what inspires him, his latest work and why he doesn’t shy away from embracing confrontation.

Gender identity and sexuality play a large role in your compositions and subject matter, with a unique balance of masculine and feminine elements. How do you want people to perceive the body, and in particular the queer body, as it functions in your work?

I want people to see the bodies in my work as beautiful, rare and challenging. I often just let the brush or pencil loosely decide shapes that people describe as “irregular” or “disproportionate” at the beginning of my process, and I find it to be exciting and therapeutic to gussy these shapes up and give some finishing details that are undeniably fabulous and complex. In my personal queer experience, it’s a symbolic process to search for your own esteem in the cloud of expression that you’ve learned is too taboo or fringe. My hope is that queer people can find power in themselves by doing that. That is what my work does for me.

In what ways do you see your subjects as an extension of yourself? How are you similar and different from your ‘divas’?

They’re different from me in the sense that I’m still learning how to go outside with a tank top on without feeling naked and vulnerable. And they’re similar to me in that they are the epitome of the flavor of confidence I envision for myself. I think my most daring fashion choices will happen when I’m old.

‘Screeeech!’. Courtesy of the Artist

While the body centers your work, other objects may appear: butterflies, pets on leashes, cars, cigarettes and flowers. What role does symbolism play in your subject matter? Do you seek out these symbols, or do they enter the painting organically through your process?

They just sort of happen. Sometimes it’s me simply wanting to try my hand at something new but at other times, it feels necessary for the setting. Now and then, I start and then scrap more maximalist scenes with way more context. For instance, I’ll have figures in a room filled with furniture, decked out with elaborate wallpaper. I’ll do the proper lighting with shadows and all that jazz. But I find that simplifying is more fun and more effective at getting my point across. So instead, it’s typically a solid background with floating imagery from these scrapped scenes.

I’ve noticed vast shifts in movement in your work over the past few years—from vivid, almost violent motion to floating figures to rigid stances. How does motion interact with the concepts that ground your pieces?

I’ve always challenged myself to get as loose as possible, especially when I first started painting as part of my daily habit. But over the years, I’ve allowed the urge to refine and ground my work to creep in. I think it’s just all part of learning. Phases are just research. Maybe once I feel ready to bust it all open, I’ll start back at the more frantic part of the cycle.

‘Je me transforme’. Courtesy of the Artist

When I view your work, I often think of abjection: your work disturbs oppressive orders in society (heteronormativity, patriarchy) in ways that are thrilling and, I’m sure to some, terrifying. In what ways do you embrace this confrontation in your practice?

I was just having this conversation with my bestie in the car last night. We were talking about the fear we feel around normies and how we’re conditioned since birth to strive for acceptance. In some ways, I’m a natural people pleaser, as a result of this urge to want to feel accepted. But we all have our boiling point. I want my work to look like what happens right after that boiling point. For me, I started to boil in my early 20s. I fantasized about transforming into a giant middle finger to the harshly normal aspects of my hometown society. Very classic and not-unique experience of a queer person, I know. But it’s important to mention because you can learn some seriously important knowledge about yourself through acts of rebellion. I’m convinced that everybody is an artist, and when you don’t show your unique point of view to the world, it can manifest as doom.

It seems you draw a lot of inspiration from the drama and glamor of 90s and 2000s icons, as well as the ever-developing landscape of drag and performance today. Are there other queer artists you’re working with currently or watching closely who are influencing your work or your process?

You are very much correct in that! Right now, I’m specifically obsessed and fascinated with drag style from, like, 2002 to 2011. More specifically, the “pedestrian” style of drag that was happening at the time. I think my favorite example is Rebecca Glasscock’s yellow shirt and flared jeans combo from 2009. I loved it when makeup wasn’t so airbrushed and perfect: when eyebrows were as thin as they could possibly be.

I think the consensus is that this type of drag style is no longer relevant because of how un-evolved it was, but for some reason, I find “quick-drag” the most fun and fascinating. Like, Mainly Manny right now is someone in the modern day who does quick-drag probably better than anybody I know. She’s just a character on TikTok who slaps on a wig, some secretary glasses and some red lipstick and claims that she’s the “Boss and CEO” of everything. On the surface, it’s just a hoot and a holler because of how funny her voice is and how quick her comedic timing and improv skills are. But I think from a larger vantage point, she’s parodying capitalism and poking fun at how dark it can feel to be a low or middle-class worker in America. I think her comedy is genius and my partner and I are so tuned in to everything she does.

You recently created a series of black-and-gray graphite drawings; can you tell me more about this series? What other new projects and exhibitions are you working on?

I just wanted to catch my breath for a second and go back to basics. I have a bad habit of not keeping a sketchbook. I always tell people my paintings are my sketches—which until now was true! But line drawing is what started it all for me, and I thought it’d be a fun challenge to see if I could do it without color again. I love immediacy and intuitiveness, and line drawing is the most effective way to just lay down what’s in your brain.

‘Untitled’. Courtesy of the Artist

What’s next for me is just exploring the bandwidth of my own practice and skills. More paintings, drawings, ceramics and maybe even sculpture. I’ve got a few group exhibitions in the fall and winter, and a solo show or two next year. I’ve also started renting a small space with my friend, Mary Fleming, and we’ve been curating shows here in Richmond as Pamplemousse. Curating group shows is like piecing together the perfect playlist of music for your best friend. I’ve also been recording music with my partner and besties. Our band is called “Belly of the Heart,” and it’s the gayest thing ever. We’re going on tour in the fall. Other than those more classic forms of expression, I’m deeper than ever into cooking and designing my home. If I ever get around to it, I’d love to host a pop-up “restaurant” in my house—maybe like twelve seats, nothing crazy.

Saying all of this out loud makes me wonder how there could be an exhibition that combines all of my creative outlets into one show. That’d be wild.

Creatively Defiant Divas: A Q&A with Artist Kevin Sabo