this issue contains
>> Interview: Stan Douglas
>> Select Eclecticism: Karen Kilimnik
>> Elegiac Landscapes: Elger Esser
>> Drowning in Décor: Adriana Czernin

>> archive

 
Select Eclecticism: Karen Kilimnik


Rococo meets the Swinging Sixties: Karen Kilimnik's art conjures up associations of nostalgia and decadence. In her works, the American artist creates idealized images of bygone times, only to then dismantle them just as quickly. Tim Ackermann takes a stroll through Kilimnik's ambivalent fantasy worlds.



Karen Kilimnik, Winter in Kiev, 2002
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


"One should sympathize with the joy, the beauty, the color of life. The less said about life's sores the better." It seems as though Lord Illingworth's words in Oscar Wilde's fin-de-siècle drama A Woman of No Importance had traveled through time to manifest themselves in Karen Kilimnik's art. For the dandy Oscar Wilde, beauty was synonymous with genius; Kilimnik also pays tribute to the beauty of life in her work.




Karen Kilimnik,
Ausstellungsansicht Galerie Sprüth Magers, London, 2007
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


She paints sumptuous country estates in lush parks, a carriage decorated with violet feathers that rattles down London's magnificent boulevard The Mall, or 5 o’clock tea in the very respectable atmosphere of a British hotel. A hint of dolce far niente imbued Kilimnik's exhibition at the London Gallery Sprüth Magers in the summer of 2007, when she hung her paintings on pink striped walls that startlingly recalled the dressing tents on the beaches of the Lido during the turn of the 19th century.



Karen Kilimnik, The Snow Queen's sleigh, 2007
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


In another recent exhibition at Sprüth Magers in Cologne, Kilimnik showed The Snow Queen's Sleigh: a photographic work depicting a winter forest with a glittering sleigh piled high with presents. To complement this, Kilimnik built an installation of a snowy birch forest in the gallery rooms. The magical sleigh was missing here, however – its absence indicating that the desire for a romantic elevation of life can't be met here. Two stuffed animals, a polar fox, and an owl served as the mute witnesses of a theatrically staged "reality." At the same time, forest sounds played over loudspeakers gave off an odd sense of authentic natural experience.



Karen Kilimnik,
Ausstellungsansicht Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, 2007
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


Karen Kilimnik's art is a double-edged sword; despite this, she is always concerned about engaging her public in a web of sensory impressions that is as smooth as possible. The American artist became known in the early nineties for installations that critics pegged as "Scatter Art." The reviewers, however, failed to see that the seemingly chaotic arrangements were organized according to a painstakingly precise dramaturgy. Kilimnik already proved her stylistic prowess back in 1989, with a work titled The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers that combined black and white copies of stills from the TV series The Avengers with golden baroque picture frames, candle holders, and a soundtrack that ranged from 18th-century chorales to pop songs such as Like a Prayer by Madonna and It's a Sin by the Pet Shop Boys.


Karen Kilimnik,
Ausstellungsansicht Galerie Sprüth Magers, London, 2007
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London




The title of Kilimnik's work is an entirely literal reference to an episode of the Avengers series, in which the two agents John Steed and Emma Peel fight against a mysterious secret society. Beyond this, however, the installation's additional references tell a far more complex story: the "Hellfire Club" was an exclusive association in the mid-18th century whose largely noble members met for sexual orgies and possibly also celebrated black mass in the process. Kilimnik's art carries this bizarre dichotomy of hedonism and religious subordination into the present through the pop songs she chooses.

Karen Kilimnik, What the Hell, 1990,
Deutsche Bank Collection


In later installations, the artist explored the darker aspects of life, such as drug abuse or a female student's violent rampage, before increasingly concentrating on painting from the mid-nineties on. Here, too, she evinces a select eclecticism: she paints portraits, romantic landscapes, fairy-tale scenes, or impressions of ballet. Karen Kilimnik was born in 1952 – yet it occasionally seems as though she were feeling her way into a young girl’s pining inner world in order to be able to express it on canvas. While fairy-tale princesses are the idols girls cherish during grade school, a few years later it's pop stars their hearts cry out for. In keeping with this, Kilimnik also creates artworks of these modern "princes" and "princesses." For instance, in Madonna and Backdraft in Nice, she described the mood after a 1991 concert by the pop singer in the form of an installation: the stage is deserted, and on the ground is nothing but beer cans, plastic cups, and other garbage.



Karen Kilimnik, The 1700's - Dinner Soirée, 2000
Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


Rococo meets the Swinging Sixties and Hollywood cinema: sometimes the individual fantasies in Kilimnik's work merge to create entirely new visions. For instance, she paints the actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Prince Charming complete with musketeer hat; the gossip column blonde Paris Hilton as Marie Antoinette. The artist uses the celebrities' status to bridge the centuries, showing how little hero's roles have changed over the course of time.



Karen Kilimnik,
Planning the Attack of Malta, the Mastermind, 2001
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London

Kilimnik questions these roles by painting, for instance, DiCaprio in a garish side light that alters the complexion of his face and the color of one of his eyes. This lends drama to the painting, making the artist's physical safety seem threatened. On the other hand, the decision to paint Paris Hilton as a French queen surprisingly recalls Sofia Coppola's costume film Marie Antoinette, which portrays the unsuspecting little blonde in a luxurious dreamworld amidst her cream cakes and buckled shoes.

When Kilimnik lends these paintings a somewhat more critical overtone, it should not distract us from the fact that she always treats her motifs with the greatest tenderness. This is something she has in common with Elizabeth Peyton and David Hockney. The perspective Kilimnik assumes in her painting is reminiscent of that of a fan who wants to get as close as possible to his adored idol – as though portrait painting were nothing more than an older version of the teenage star magazine.



Karen Kilimnik,
Rudolph Appearing on Stage in 1999 for Christmas, 1999
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


Kilimnik's voluptuous, sometimes almost kitschy images could easily be misunderstood as being reactionary, a flight into a pre-modern, presumably better time. During the romantic era, artists created wonderfully dramatic works from precisely this flight impulse. Kilimnik's art is also about longing. Her paintings remind one of the famous statement of Henry James, who once declared that for him "summer" and "afternoon" were the two most beautiful words in the English language. It's as though the artist were pining after a distinguished and decadent life feeling of an upper class that today is becoming more and more forgotten.



Karen Kilimnik, Salzburg,
Ausstellungsansicht Galerie Sprüht Magers Lee, Salzburg, 2004
Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers, Köln, München, London


One can suppose that one small dream came true when she was invited to do an exhibition in the Palazzo Tito during the 2005 Biennale in Venice. Kilimnik took the distinguished ambience of the 18th-century rooms with their parquet floors and crystal chandeliers and intensified it by hanging her paintings together with several mirrors on walls covered with elaborately patterned wallpaper; the windows were accentuated with a sumptuous drape. The boundaries between art and exhibition space, illusion and reality are blurred to a point beyond recognition. Yet there were brief tones of uncertainty as well: nests were installed in several corners, and birdsong filled the rooms via loudspeaker. Did nature reconquer the Palazzo?


[1] [2]