Interview with Kari Cholnoky


Kari Cholnoky’s paintings feel toxic and synthetic, yet visceral and sensual in their suggestion of the organic body. Grotesque, vibrant, messy, sexual, and funny, her works incorporate Fleshlights, furry orifices, and gooey, pseudo-somatic shapes and textures. Inadvertently activating a sort of physical discomfort, because white-wall audiences are so often squeamish and conservative, Cholnoky’s work challenges the faint of heart, just as it challenges the conventions of paint as a medium.

Can you talk about your interest in Fleshlights?

They’ve always been interesting to me—I can’t tell you exactly when I became aware of them and started looking at images of them. Maybe around 2007 or so? It’s strange, I never actually bought one and held it in my hand until 2013. One of those situations where the thing is so bizarre and alien that you forget that for $8.99 it can be yours, in discrete packaging and everything. When I did actually buy one and hold it, I was blown away—there’s so much information you don’t get from the image. For example, they’re usually covered in really fucked up powdery shit that leaves nasty residue on your hands forever and they stink like a mixture of perfume and cancer and that smell sits on your hands all day too. They’re also ridiculously gloopy goey wobbly squishy and that immediately makes them comical because their movement is so clumsy and uncontrollable. They’re interesting to me for all of these physical reasons, and also because, to me, they are one of the most direct manifestations of the abstracted body that exist today. I like imagining a group of people in a room with a block of Play-Doh asking themselves “what have we not had sex with yet,” and coming up with things that will go on to be called “The Sexflesh Trifecta,” or “Tracy’s Dog Male Masturbator Pocket Pussy Realistic.” The comments sections of these Amazon product pages are incredible too. People go from being really devotional to sadistic to very business-like about the whole thing—talking about making modifications to the masturbators to ease cleaning or improve suction. There was one guy who thought the product was so objectively ridiculous and funny looking that he claimed he was buying it as an actual coffee table object. It’s easy to see how, at some point, these just become sculptures.

Yeah, they are like artworks.

My interest in the masturbators is sort of a metaphor for my interests in general—they perfectly encapsulate an object that gives people real, meaningful, romantic satisfaction (where they may not be able to accomplish the same thing with actual human beings), while at the same time absurdly mangling the human form into something almost teratoma-like. They are potentially helpful and harmful simultaneously. And even further, they are fetish objects made of toxic material by people fetishized for living in historically “exotic” places where the effects of globalization and capitalism have resulted in hazardous work environments devoted to making abstracted human forms with which people pleasure themselves. It’s an insane loop.

Would you say you’re obsessed with holes? I see lots of openings and goop in your work. Can you talk about that?

I used to be obsessed with holes. I think more about the body in general now, but because our bodies are held together by the skin, I think about holes subconsciously because they are, in my mind, vulnerable openings in that huge organ—the skin. I had cancer on my face last winter and when I was lying in the operating room having it cut out of my forehead I became really aware that my skin was holding in my whole body (because I was completely lucid during the procedure), and that holes in my skin would mean that my body would fall out of the skin-bag. My approach to my own paintings is basically the same—I see them as being as fundamentally vulnerable as objects, and as the paintings take form they each develop ways to protect themselves, show warning signs to anyone who might get near them, or camouflage themselves within themselves.

Are you experimenting with our societal notion of what’s “gross”?

Assaulting the viewer isn’t really a specific interest of mine. I understand that it happens with my work because people’s understanding of acceptable aesthetics or form is still so fucking stunted and conservative, but I think my work is actually pretty beautiful. I’m not going through some personal form of sacrifice in terms of my sensibilities when I make work—I’m making what I want to see. I think about this a lot in terms of performing gender. My understanding of what it means to be feminine is not my mother’s understanding of what it means to be feminine, for example. My understanding of beauty isn’t the standard, I guess, and I’m continually surprised by how disturbed people are with the physical manifestations of the paintings. So I guess I am, but it’s not a specific interest of mine.

What themes are you working with?

I guess I’ll just ramble here in no particular order things that I’m thinking about when I’m making these paintings—micro/macroscopic, poison, parasite, defense mechanism, machine, growth, foreign policy, sex, deflation, optics and haptics, reality.

What do you call your artworks? They’re kind of like 3D paintings.

I don’t really care what they’re called. I guess I call them paintings most of the time because most of the people the work points to are other painters, but whether they’re sculptures or paintings seems boring to me. Lee Bontecou made her black hole death masterpieces in 1959 and people are still asking whether something is a sculpture or a painting. This stuff has been going on for a long time.

What are they made from, and where do these materials come from usually?

All of the material is synthetic with the exception of the rare piece of cardboard or plywood, though I guess both of those materials are pretty heavily processed. Almost everything comes from the internet, with the exception of some paint and stuff from the neighborhood. I routinely use faux fur, urethane foam, epoxy putty, and synthetic hair.

Would you say your work is dystopian? I’m thinking of Chernobly in particular.

I always think it’s funny that movies and TV and other sources of story-telling weave tales of future “dystopias” since the planet is so clearly already experiencing dystopia. I think of my work as being rooted firmly in reality. Even when the work touches on fantasy, or the absurdity of costuming or something, it’s still the physical, real presence or residue of those elements. Chernobly is a nickname a couple friends from Montana gave me a number of years ago because one of them initially couldn’t say my Hungarian last name—Cholnoky—correctly. I think it’s funny because it’s almost like a pet-name for a nuclear meltdown and ecological disaster.

I saw you posted a photo online of Saccorhytusa newly discovered ancient ancestor to humans. I find this creature says a lot about your work!  Could you tell us about your interest in Saccorhytus?

I totally agree with you! [Laughs] I think the discovery of Saccorhytus is incredible and prophetic. Ashes to ashes. When you look at a specimen like Donald Drumpf, I mean Trump, you see how the human race can move towards eating and shitting out of the same hole. Also, Saccorhytus is the perfect combination of animal/object, or animate/inanimate, as it has such a strong image with almost a cartoon alien face, but also represents our earliest known ancestor. I think the fact that Saccorhytus is part of our genetic code should be a good reminder to the human race that we are not as proud and pure as we believe ourselves to be. And also that we were born into the world as something that is disgusting and hilarious and miraculous.

Do you have a day job?

LOL. Yes. I am in the category of Brooklyn artists who has to work for a living. I work during the week as a studio assistant and I pick up random freelance work doing art moving and handling here and there.