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Oh, You're Bunny!: The figure on the right in Koak's 'Two Bunnies' looks not unlike the Santa Cruz artist herself.

Graphic Violence

The new exhibit at Caffe Pergolesi is raising eyebrows--but for Santa Cruz artist Koak, that's par for the course

By Mike Connor

Kristin Olson swears she's trying to move away from the autobiographical heartbreak stuff, but that doesn't mean she's going to start using her real name. She's been signing a jumbled form of her initials, "Koak," on her paintings and comics since high school--it initially caught on as a nickname among her close friends, but it's since become her permanent artist moniker and sort of alter ego.

"It's a lot easier to do personal stuff if you have this--I know it's not really a security blanket," says the candy apple red-haired Koak, "but if you just kinda have this little blockade, you can pretend it's not you. And when you're doing really sexual or open stuff, it's kind of a safe wall for doing stuff like that, especially on the Internet. It just makes it a little bit easier."

For her, maybe. But it doesn't make Koak's paintings at Caffe Pergolesi any less disturbing.

It's partly the playful comic shapes, viciously melting and writhing and fucking in a visceral symbolic world animated by the spirits of R. Crumb and Frida Kahlo. Without all the grotesquely hilarious distortion and super happy fun colors, Koak's art might look as dark and sexual as H.R. Geiger's universe of biorobotic aliens. Lovers abuse and consume one another in a desperate dance of union and despair, penetrating each other through unnatural holes in the flesh like something out of a David Cronenberg film, merging into each other like Plato's "beast with two backs," but with stitches.

The format-busting centerpiece of her current show, titled Modern Day Romance, is an arresting life-size cardboard painting of a woman straddling and literally consuming a bottle of wine, surrounded by comic panels that describe the love story between the two of them from the first blush of romance on to the happy wedding, and all the way through to the bitter, murderous end. Or is it the end? A child lives on--half human, half bottle.

"I don't understand it," says one of the cafe's patrons, shifting a bit uncomfortably in his seat as he sits up straight to analyze her work. He says he finds her paintings unpleasant--outward signs of a sexually deviant mind.

The Ugly Truth

Indeed, a confrontation with Koak's work can be a bit unsettling, but it can best be understood as the result of an insistent desire to be as open and direct as is humanly possible.

"I don't ever worry about what people are going to think about it," says Koak, "I always wanted to talk to people and be straightforward, but I wasn't able to. I'm just stoked because I can do it this way."

Here, at Koak's latest show in the Perg, a peculiar sort of confrontation with the bushes that so many people beat around awaits--sexuality that is at once candy-coated and blatant, enticing to the eye yet repellent to even a less-than-prim sense of social decorum. Some of the more clearly autobiographical pieces look incredibly painful, offering a straightforward glimpse of the artist's sometimes masochistic fantasies and experiences. A comic book titled Sex deals explicitly with her own sexual molestation as a child.

"I'm digging graveyards for the stories that aren't told at bedtime," writes Koak at the end of Sex. "These stories are left for straight-faced car rides that drive on for hours, or unbreathable family discussions late at night ... They're children's stories not told to children, but eventually passed down the same way."

As someone who enjoys making a living teaching children, Koak is acutely aware of the adult nature of her work and is careful to keep the two lives separate. Because she knows that some of her pieces are drenched in rich sarcasm, it can be tough to find the kernel of truth in them--for kids and adults.

"Dark humor is a really good way of pointing out bad things, of putting them in your face," says Koak, "but I think if it's not read by somebody who already has those viewpoints, it's going to mean something totally different. And that's a big problem I've always had with being the type of sarcastic that I am. People who don't have the same type of humor, they're gonna look at me and think I'm a pervert--which I probably am, but not in the same way.

"I just think that it goes back to the whole thing of people beating around the bush," she continues. "It's really safe to joke about things that hurt, and that's a safe way of being honest with other people, but it's not always the healthiest way to do it. I think it hits the point where you end up paying for a lot of poor choices in life if you don't start from the very beginning with being really straightforward--it can fuck up friendships, it can fuck up a lot of stuff."

Another Brick in the Wall

She's learned about the ill effects of repression the hard way. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., she was plagued by a string of obsessive-compulsive behaviors, which she later learned to mollify by drawing. As an excruciatingly shy teenager, she also found that she could express herself more directly through her artwork, which remains largely autobiographical.

But like David Sedaris before her, Koak eventually discovered that drugs, alcohol and especially cigarettes quiet the urges. The chaos of her lifestyle proved fertile ground for her grotesque and increasingly sexual drawings and narratives. Her shows were well-received, so she protected her unhealthy muse.

"I had this subconscious fear that if I learned to talk to people straightforward, I wouldn't have the same stuff bottled up," she says. "So if I was letting it out of this one valve, there'd be no pressure to blow the other one open."

Then, about six months ago, she hit a brick wall. She got so sick she couldn't get out of bed, and was in and out of the hospital.

"It makes you re-evaluate why you've gotten to the point where you're sick like that," says Koak. "A ton of caffeine, smoking and drinking will whack you in the head! Or the ovaries, but it'll get you."

"Being sick and coughing up blood just isn't cool," she continues. "I quit smoking because I want to be able to do this for a lot longer. I'm not at the point I wanna be as far as my drawing skills, as far as anything--there's so much more I wanna learn. I guess I partially gave up smoking for this. Because other than the friends that I have in my life, this is what I got. It's like my rock to cling onto, you know?"

Koak's show Head in the Clouds runs through March 15 at Caffe Pergolesi, 418 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; 831.426.1775. Visit her website at www.koak.net.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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