For those among us who've braved the 70 degree days and thundersnows of the past couple weeks to go see it, it's time to discuss Karen Kilimnik's The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers currently on view at 303 Gallery (thru April 23).
“Interesting how the 1915 Malevich paintings at Gagosian uptown still appear crisp and new, while [Karen Kilimnik's] work from so much later looks worn and dated.”
I think this observation raises an interesting point. Is there something trite about Kilimnik's paintings? I haven't seen the Gagosian show and haven't seen any Malevich paintings in a few years so I won't comment on that. But I do have to disagree with Carol Diehl. If anything, Kilimnik's paintings seem “crisp and new.” which is to say “relevant to contemporary art.” Carol Diehl's comment takes on Kilimnik's work as a whole. What follows are some observations and opinions specific to the show.
Observations and opinions about The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers at 303 Gallery:
The exhibition design plays prominently: there's a lot of empty space. Two groups of smallish photographs on one wall, a group of smallish drawings and paintings on another, organized around Kilimnik's humble re-staging of her 1989 The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers installation, punctuated by a chandelier off-center, hanging in the middle of the gallery.
Prior to the mid-nineties Kilimnik was well-known as an installation artist, her work often categorized as “scatter art.” In the original iteration of The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers, it appears the installation took up the entire space, or at least dominated whatever space it was in (see above images).
In the current re-staging, this original effect is absent. It's not clear to me if the Hellfire Club… installation is being presented as a tidy re-staging of a past piece or being presented anew, an assemblage of things coyly wooing you from the back wall of the gallery. The soft soundtrack emanating from the installation seemed to be whispering and would often lose out to whatever sounds were coming from outside. The installation was decidedly non-aggressive. I think an interesting comparison would be to the recent Stephen G. Rhodes' Gesamtkunstwerk at Metro Pictures, reviewed here, where the audio-visual had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. With the current iteration of Hellfire Club…, Kilimnik basically leaves the viewer in control. It demands nothing of the viewer; it is up to the viewer to engage it.
The manner in which Kilimnik has installed her work, including paintings, has always been important. In more ambitious exhibitions, her intervention on the exhibition environment is obvious and integral to the show itself. For this reason, it's safe to assume that the relatively “off-hand” design of the 303 show is intentionally underwhelming.
“The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers” refers to a specific episode of the popular British television show from the '60s. In my opinion, to know something about this television show or about Emma Peel (the character, played by the actress Diana Rigg, whose image plays so prominently in the exhibition and in the actual Hellfire Club episode of The Avengers), is inconsequential when compared to a more important quality — that Kilimnik's installation, like the self-referential photographs and the “historical” paintings and illustrations, evoke a nostalgia for a non-existent or perhaps ersatz past. It's worth noting how “fake” (or real, depending how you look at it) all the props are in the installation. But it's all real enough, coherent enough, to make you long for something that was never real. Perhaps it invokes a nostalgia for art history and 19th century British paintings, a desire for the good old days we can only ostensibly decipher from popular historical imagery.
The four new paintings are grouped with older illustrations. These are typical Kilimnik works, wispy gestures on a small-scale. The content of these works are fanciful and pseudo-historical, invoking a quietly pleasant feeling. For the photographs on the other side of the space, the three nightscapes are related to earlier paintings, such as The Moonstone (1998), and flank four photographs of an Emma Peel look-alike, named Mari, “performing” the photocopied images Emma Peel from the Hellfire Club... installation. The only “new” work are the four paintings and the photographs.
These are my thoughts. Look forward to seeing what everyone else thinks about Karen Kilimnik's work and the show at 303. To paraphrase Frank Rich, I am sick of hearing my own voice.