It’s A Kevin Sabo World of Femme Characters and Queer Spirit

by | Jun 15, 2023 | ART, MUSEUM & GALLERY NEWS, PAINTING & SCULPTURE, POP CULTURE

Meet Kevin Sabo, an avant-garde queer painter whose audacious and captivating work has been making waves in the contemporary art scene.. With his brushstrokes, Kevin conjures up surreal and exaggerated femme bodies, depicting a vibrant fusion of queer spirit and feminine iconography. His canvases are both playgrounds and battlegrounds where he dares to unapologetically embrace the full spectrum of his identity, challenge the constraints of conventional norms, and explore the boundlessness of self-expression.

Kevin Sabo 2023
Photo by LIGHTPAINTERR @lightpainterr

While preparing for this conversation, I came across this quote, “If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” I liked the idea of starting here because it points out the elephant in the room: intellectualizing art. What draws you to painting, as opposed to other art forms?

Contemporary art can get so cerebral and academic. It’s certainly trickled into the painting world. I’ve noticed you’re sometimes expected to have this rigid explanation for other people to absorb and digest what you’re painting. But for me, it can be hard to sum it up without diving deeper into the span of my life. How I got to painting is a culmination of everything I was doing as a kid. Doodling was escapism, really. I was a chubby gay kid who couldn’t hide any of that—laughs—I just was what I was. My parents have always been supportive of my interests, but nobody could figure out where to place me. I hated sports and didn’t fit into any of the “boy boxes.” Any space where I entered, from preschool to high school, it was really hard to find my niche. So my mom set up this drawing table next to the windows in the living room and stacked a giant pile of computer paper. Whenever it would run out, we would replenish it. That was one of the only things that kept me engaged. Doodling figurative works, mostly femme characters, that I would invent. Back then, I was really into pop stars and reality TV—I still am. I think a lot of what I was doing was regurgitating what I was consuming. The output would be a femme compilation of spirits and characters from the media I was obsessing over, and in a lot of ways, that’s still there. My references are from that time mostly—that era of feminine iconography and queer spirit that has led me here.

Talk me through your process: from conceptualizing to alchemizing your fantasy onto the canvas?

Everyone typically knows me as a quick painter, but recently I have been taking my time. As far as my process with ideas, I’ll be thinking about it throughout the day, but when it’s time to actually be in front of the canvas, it changes so quickly. It’s very in the moment. A lot of the time, I will just throw on shapes and let the figure or form work around that. To be specific, I’ll literally divide the canvas into organic forms that are meeting each other in really awkward, strange, abstract ways—I’m essentially starting with an abstract painting. From there, I’ll find the figurative forms in the abstract shapes. That’s another way I get interesting body shapes, and also supports the idea of distortion in a funhouse mirror type of way. I start with their clothless bodies when sketching it out, and then I do hair and makeup and a clothing situation. It literally feels like I’m playing dress up or playing with Barbies in a more expressive fashion. That scratches the itch of the inner-character we’ve all dreamt of being. I can be a stylist on canvas for a living, which is a dream job.

Kevin Sabo 2023
“Cobalt Timewarp” 20 x 16″ in., 2022

Your art mostly centers femme bodies—exaggerated and distorted. Is this an intentional effort? If so, what is your relationship to femininity? And what is your relationship to body?

My relationship with my own body has been confusing and complicated at times, but I learn so much about myself through my work. When you don’t physically fit the standard at a young age, your impression of your own body can get very disillusioned. I was a round kid, teen, and young adult with long hair. When I was twelve, before I hit puberty, I was asked every day by somebody if I was a boy or a girl. At the time, I felt a lot of shame. All of the classic sexual and gender-based attributes that are assigned in association with your body—I’ve often felt on the opposite side of them. Or maybe just on a completely different spectrum. I want all of that expression to exist in my work. It gives me an opportunity to embrace my queer body and wear it with pride. Glamming up something that is a little cloudy or distorted is exactly what it is to have a human body, in my experience. In my work, it helps me feel pretty comfortable in my own skin laughs on a good day. I’m able to slip into whatever vessel that fits the mood. Queerness and gender, in my experience, is something that can be played with and tried on without having to wrap up in a pretty bow for it to be easily understood. We can just let everybody be who they are. On canvas, I feel like a chameleon, playing with identity and expectations. I’m able to lean into both my femininity and masculinity, and everything in between.

I’ve also noticed in your art that none of the subjects ever appear to be smiling. Is this intentional?

I think on the surface, it’s my way of making them more fierce and “va va voom.” I love 19th- and 20th-century French figurative paintings, and my background is French. That “Frenchy” girl vibe is something I really connect with and always have. It’s kind of like this illusion of seduction or expression in a confident way. Of course, there have been times when I’ve tried a smile or a frown, and maybe that has more to do with how I’m feeling that day.

Kevin Sabo 2023
Photo by LIGHTPAINTERR @lightpainterr

As an artist, I believe it’s our job to create and archive worlds, especially those that do not already exist. If you can, walk me through the world you’re creating?

The worlds I’m creating are these exaggerated, glam hellscapes and heavenscapes, archiving the styles and experiences of my 30 years of life. All of the joy and strife that has happened until now. I use flair and fashion to help share my interests and experiences. Sometimes, this can mean creating a sugary-sweet heaven or a sharp and tangled hell. In today’s world, it’s never easy to be a queer person. It’s a tough road, but on the beautiful side of things, you get to be anything you want to be. I think that’s why I feel my work is somewhat parallel with the art of drag. We are telling an elaborate story through style.

You emphasize the power of color in your practice, even saying you find a balance between silliness and elegance with color. What is your relationship to color, and also to duality?

Color is such a good way to tell a story. You can be loud and soft all in one piece. For me, fluorescents and electric pink are almost irresistible, but I’ve learned that mellowing things out a bit with some delicious neutrals can really sharpen your point of view. The way I use color is like the way I eat chocolate chip cookies—too much and you feel sick. It’s a fine line between fun and serious, campy and elegant, too much and not enough. I enjoy the game of embracing color theory and also challenging it. It’s often the thing that somebody is initially mesmerized by, and invites them to stick around and stay awhile to absorb what you’re saying through color.

That’s interesting that you use color as a point of entry for people. I feel like with your work, a kid could interact with it and be very mesmerized, but also an astute painter who is 80 years old could also appreciate it.

As an artist, I have so many years ahead of me. I know the feeling of what I want my art to look like one day. Essentially, what I’m doing now is trying different techniques very subtly. We work very hard for our signature style, and that’s something that we, as painters, hold close to us. Breaking that can feel very scary, but it’s also something that’s necessary. I’ve been taking baby steps because I always tell myself that I have my whole life to achieve my full potential. I want my best work to be right before I die, which hopefully is not until my 90s or 100s. I’m trying to live a long time. There is so much more to learn, not only about the style of my paintings and how to make them look more masterful and painterly but also to master things like color even more. I want to make my intention clearer with every painting without completely spelling it out—there is such a fine line with that. You want an entry, you want a viewer to want to know more, but you also don’t want to be so obvious and surface-level. Anything that is quickly and easily understood can’t even be a unique idea. It’s been done a million times. You lose the nuance and inventiveness.

Kevin Sabo 2023
Photo by LIGHTPAINTERR @lightpainterr

You mention having clarity about where you want to end up. This journey of life, archiving and creating worlds, and ultimately having a glimpse into where you want to land. Does that journey feel daunting to you? Are you comfortable where you are now, or do you wrestle with the dream of what you want your art to become?

The worlds I’m creating are these exaggerated, glam hellscapes and heavenscapes, archiving the styles and experiences of my 30 years of life. All of the joy and strife that has happened until now. I use flair and fashion to help share my interests and experiences. Sometimes, this can mean creating a sugary-sweet heaven or a sharp and tangled hell. In today’s world, it’s never easy to be a queer person. It’s a tough road, but on the beautiful side of things, you get to be anything you want to be. I think that’s why I feel my work is somewhat parallel with the art of drag. We are telling an elaborate story through style.

You emphasize the power of color in your practice, even saying you find a balance between silliness and elegance with color. What is your relationship to color, and also to duality?

Color is such a good way to tell a story. You can be loud and soft all in one piece. For me, fluorescents and electric pink are almost irresistible, but I’ve learned that mellowing things out a bit with some delicious neutrals can really sharpen your point of view. The way I use color is like the way I eat chocolate chip cookies—too much and you feel sick. It’s a fine line between fun and serious, campy and elegant, too much and not enough. I enjoy the game of embracing color theory and also challenging it. It’s often the thing that somebody is initially mesmerized by, and invites them to stick around and stay awhile to absorb what you’re saying through color.

That’s interesting that you use color as a point of entry for people. I feel like with your work, a kid could interact with it and be very mesmerized, but also an astute painter who is 80 years old could also appreciate it.

As an artist, I have so many years ahead of me. I know the feeling of what I want my art to look like one day. Essentially, what I’m doing now is trying different techniques very subtly. We work very hard for our signature style, and that’s something that we, as painters, hold close to us. Breaking that can feel very scary, but it’s also something that’s necessary. I’ve been taking baby steps because I always tell myself that I have my whole life to achieve my full potential. I want my best work to be right before I die, which hopefully is not until my 90s or 100s. I’m trying to live a long time. There is so much more to learn, not only about the style of my paintings and how to make them look more masterful and painterly but also to master things like color even more. I want to make my intention clearer with every painting without completely spelling it out—there is such a fine line with that. You want an entry, you want a viewer to want to know more, but you also don’t want to be so obvious and surface-level. Anything that is quickly and easily understood can’t even be a unique idea. It’s been done a million times. You lose the nuance and inventiveness.

Kevin Sabo 2023
“Teeny Weenie Green Bikini” 20×16″ in. 2022

You mention having clarity about where you want to end up. This journey of life, archiving and creating worlds, and ultimately having a glimpse into where you want to land. Does that journey feel daunting to you? Are you comfortable where you are now, or do you wrestle with the dream of what you want your art to become?

It changes every minute, not even every day, every minute. When I was painting earlier, I was thinking to myself, “I need to switch it up.” And then I reminded myself it’s the long game. That provided me a lot of peace. It’s so shifty, and that’s honestly the beauty and madness of being an artist; you just have to stick with it. I have so much respect for artists who have found their thing and haven’t let it go, even if it becomes boring to other people, even if they’re doing the same thing over and over again. They invented it, so all there is left to do is find the new inventions within their invention. I’ve heard early on that sometimes, if they’re lucky, an artist will find their one thing and sometimes that doesn’t even happen for them. That’s something I always remind myself of, but it’s something I don’t feel limited to. If there comes a day where I would want to exit what I’m doing, fine. But since it’s so instinctual, something I’ve been doing ever since I picked up a pen, then I can’t imagine why I would abandon everything I’ve worked towards. I’d like to continue introducing new iterations of my work until one day I look at the span of all my iterations, and realize how far away I am from that original iteration.

From what I understand, painting as a practice can be a very solitary act. But you do participate in galleries like Future Fairs and Pamplemousse here in Richmond. What’s your experience with showcasing your art? Do you find that people get it, or does it become something else entirely?

The phrase that immediately came to mind is “hypercritical of self” because every time I do these exhibitions, I look at the way it’s curated, the way I painted them, and I envision them as an audience member. Up until that moment, I’ve spent all my time alone with the work, so sharing your work can be a little intimidating. What I’ve noticed at exhibitions is that most people start with the allure of the colors, and then get closer to the work and ask themselves what the “je ne sais quoi” is all about. I think the reason why people have connected to what I’m doing is because it’s a relatable topic. The imagery I’m showing is eye-catching and bold initially through its spunky nature, but people always tell me it’s the distortion that they feel most connected to and most seen by. I think that’s a really beautiful way to connect, and also something that not everybody has to understand or get. Figurative work isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Those who get it, get it.

Kevin Sabo 2023
Photo by LIGHTPAINTERR @lightpainterr

In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, especially with advancements in AI, how does that impact your practice?

This may be the most naive take, and I hope that I’m right laughs. I feel incredibly unthreatened. Through an optimistic lens, it’s just going to make what we do more valuable. In many ways, I see it as maybe we’re one of the last generations that will have experience with the fundamental teachings of 2D art, without any shortcuts used with AI. That being said, I hope I’m wrong in that real art foundations might not always be taught from scratch by real humans. Regardless, painting isn’t going anywhere; everybody is going to want an art piece on their walls that was made in a more primitive way. At the same time, I am definitely concerned about how AI could be harmful in other areas of human existence. In my eyes, AI in art doesn’t pose a direct threat to my own practice though.

Is there any advice that you would give to a younger artist who is interacting with your art, who may not have a practice or vision that is fully formed?

One of my friends told me that I was a queer elder the other day laughs. If that’s what you think that I am— I love that. If everyone could do something expressive for their life’s work, I think the world would be really cool. If we could leave AI to do all the really unfun things, and everybody else could be artists, farmers, and healers, we might be in better shape. The advice that I have for someone who is looking to do something more creative, and even make a living from it, is to just allow yourself the opportunity. Carve out the time, even if it’s only for an hour a day. All you have to do is just make something. And do it again. Then make different versions of it. And continue. You have to have fun, and if it’s not fun, then find a new medium. If you’re a creative person, I would ask yourself: what are you already good at? What have you been working towards? How can it evolve? It’s about exaggerating and emboldening the natural instincts and abilities that you were born with.

So, what’s next for Kevin Sabo?

If my art practice were The Sims, I’d be in the “Build a Sim” stage of it. I’ll probably continue to add objects, furniture, settings, pets, food. I want to get more painterly too. I’ve been dipping my toe into light sourcing again – giving things more form. Haziness and atmosphere are two things I’ve been wondering how to integrate into my paintings. Also, I’ve been on the wheel! I’ve fallen in love with clay this year. Something about vases captivates me, and I can’t wait to see where clay takes me. I just finished transforming a section of my studio into a clay work area. Other than that – I’d like to encourage myself to stay in the moment and not plan too far ahead. I think it also takes a lot of downtime and regular life experiences to make good art. I should book a trip to an island.

Kevin Sabo 2023
Photo by LIGHTPAINTERR @lightpainterr



Give Kevin Sabo a follow @kevin__sabo
All photos by LIGHTPAINTERR @lightpainterr

Justice Smith

Justice Smith

Justice Smith is a writer, editor, and multidisciplinary artist working at the intersections of art, culture, storytelling, and design. Justice’s work is inspired by their devotion to the Queer community, and is in service to the liberation of all marginalized people




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