Whenever the American artist Karen Kilimnik sets up an exhibition, she turns the gallery space into a private cabinet of wonder, where painting, drawing, photography and affectionately modified found objects from everyday culture come together to form an atmospheric spatial installation. Kilimnik’s predilection for the stylish painting and decorating of gallery walls indicates her installative approach to the traditional painted picture, which she integrates into a pictorial programme that includes set pieces of various styles, eras and genres of art history and popular culture.
Karen Kilimnik’s world of pictures constitutes the fantastic surrogate of a dream world collaged from media images that we come across in fashion magazines, adverts, TV movies and popular fiction every day. In her drawings, made with delicate, uneasy chalk strokes and occasionally with vigorous acrylic shadings, the artist examines her celebrity idols, commenting on and analysing their crises and scandals with scribbled notes veering between gossip, headline and diary entry, in a passionately affirmative fashion sometimes tinged with a sardonic edge. By disengaging her illustrious protagonists from their habitual context, she has them play a part in her own imaginary world, where she randomly, but in equal measures, mixes fact and fiction, glamorous icons both of current pop culture and aristocratic history to create new dramatic choreographies.
While, in the imaginary realm of her drawings, the artist constructs a narrative network of glitzy fashion and glamour worlds, her mostly small-size paintings provide a romantic and nostalgic glimpse of a lost world. The subdued lighting in the exhibition space and the candles and candelabras create a historicising background for these pictures of beauty, a framework that deliberately evokes the quasi-timeless splendour of a grand and idyllic past. The picture in the mode of 17th and 18th century English painting reveals Kilimnik’s appreciation of Tsarist Russia, and especially for feudal lifestyle, romantic opera and scenes from classical ballet. The assortments of aristocratic portraits and interiors, landscapes, genre and animal paintings and innocent child figures sometimes feel like stage sets for an imaginary drama played out in the artist’s sentimentally romantic mind.
Yet the invocations of beauty in Karen Kilimnik’s drawings and paintings cannot hide the ruin and decay lurking beneath the glamorous and idyllic surface. Thus, the text fragments that turn up in the drawings tell of intrigue and excess, and the figures soon begin to appear strangely empty and absent. Kilimnik’s metaphorical concept plays on the doppelganger motif of the romantic tradition, with its idea of a double in the shape of a ghostly, lifeless shadow, and on ominous dichotomies of aristocratic luxury on the one hand and elementary forces of nature on the other threatening a superficially ideal and innocent dream world. The narrative pictorial style also recalls fantastic tales that blur the boundaries between the real and the wonderful, with uncanny and irrational powers gothically undermining the idyllic appearance.