Art Club: Karen Kilimnik at 303 Gallery

by Guy Forget on March 28, 2011 · 18 comments Art Club

Karen Kilimnik, "The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers", 1989, installation view 2011 at 303 Gallery. From 303 Gallery website.

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).

I'm prone to equivocations, so I'll start with Carol Diehl's comment from the preview post:

“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.

Karen Kilimnik, "The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers," 1989.

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.

Karen Kilimnik, "the village pub, Little storping-by-the-sea", 2011, water soluble oil color on canvas, 8 x 10 in. From 303 Gallery website.

John Constable, "The Hay Wain", 1821. From National Gallery website.

“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.

Karen Kilimnik, "The Moonstone", painting, 1998.

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.


Bryn March 28, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I walked into the single gallery room, a wide-open space and wished for a party. Definitely Champagne in fluted glasses. Besides the fact that it was an opening and many art world celebrities were there, there was a festive feel in the air. Celebration tittered from the work, which is light and playful, but glamorous all the while. Klimnik toys with the adult sophistication of fashion.

The room was cheap glamour, like glamour in quotes, but it was elegant and absolutely convincing. A poor-man’s Chanel fashion show. A few hints here and there to conclude style. Kitch paintings, awkward, gawky teenage drawings, an installation of photocopies, including a boot filled with crumpled plastic and fake pearls, with tinny music playing. Also some dark, amateur-looking photographs and Ikea-esque chandaliers helped to reiterate this theme. This doesn’t sound like the scene of glamour. Isn’t glamour expensive and rich and decadent, not sparse and cheap? She achieved elegance with a surface touch. She achieved depth while entertaining (and being entertained by) the surface.

Kilimnik created a place that felt magical, even if the viewer only catches glimpses and hints, they added up to a world that one can enter into. Fantasy plays a large part in modern society though it isn’t often referred to as such. Dreaming is not something to brag about, results and progress and action are. It is now even the trend for artists, the professional dreamers, to be workaholics. But I cheer the dreamers. I understand Marlene Dumas and Agnes Martin who prefer doing nothing to always doing something. Imagination is fed by dreaming. Just the word, dreeaaming, slow and drawn out makes me think of lying in long grass, in shorts, staring at the sky while chewing a blade. Cramming for an exam does not whisper imagination, but rather screams ambitious goals of a mega-monster artist.

The reason I am drawn to Kilimnik is much for the same reason I am drawn to Ree Morton and Laura Owens. There is an element of space in the work. The work is simple but energized with something exciting, something beyond the material pieces. What is that? Is art adult-life dreaming? Jonathan Meese also considers art making one big play-pen and I find this attitude freeing. It is modest and reduces the creation of art to something a child does for fun, rather than an ego enhancing career-choice. It may sound sentimental to wax on about innocence and purity and playing and dreaming, but the hard shells we grow into as adults could use some of this.

For the most part I tend to think of glamour as a constructed cold hard shell. One I love but have to consciously learn. It is something I regularly use in urban society to protect that playful, innocent and vulnerable child. So, I applaud Kilimnik for combining these two things, the cold with the warm, the adult with the child and the jaded with the innocent.

Anonymous March 29, 2011 at 12:16 am

I feel like this repeats a lot of the positive response Kilimnik receives without really engaging with what was in the space. First of all, why is Kilimnik restaging the work? Is this a secondary market work that’s being restaged for resale or is it now simply deemed sale-able? If either is the case I’m not sure we can really put too much weight on the decision to leave the show empty. That she leaves the viewer with nothing isn’t a particularly compelling statement for the work imo.

And I’m pretty much wholly uninterested in her painting and always have been. I’d say the drawings are influenced by Cecil Beaton but Beaton was a photographer and set designer through and through. I’ve always thought his drawings were crap. Kilimnik offers the like.

Guy Forget makes longing for a non-existent past sound really great, but I’m not sure what that means. Is a fabricated past more powerful than one a viewer can locate?

What is the connection between the Avengers installation, the photographs, and the paintings, past a certain opulence created by light? The moon photographs I buy as being genuinely beautiful and opulent, the rest not so much.

Anonymous March 29, 2011 at 1:46 am

why else does anything happen? it must be for sale. i’m surprised and, frankly, disappointed in myself for only imagining aesthetic possibilities.

i can only speak for myself, but the good past, the idealizable one — like me as a boy when my whole life was perfect and everyone loved each other — is at least half fiction. i get this from her paintings, a detached feeling of past pleasure, i think it takes me back to when art history ended at bonnard and vuillard and HW Janson was right and everyone was happy.

i don’t understand the strong dislike of her paintings. maybe they seem frivolous.

Anonymous March 29, 2011 at 3:24 am

Perhaps I overstated my disinterest in the paintings but I was thinking that they reminded me a little of Elizabeth Peyton, in that I’m often confused about what makes the work *so* compelling. Peyton relies less on the distant past for nostalgia, but I do think there’s a similar use of detached pleasure.

This detachment is a shift in the case of the installation, as the first time around she’s the uber Avenger fan. Now she’s just re-staging her fandom…that’s not so interesting to me.

Bryn March 29, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I regarded the installation at 303 as a mini-retrospective. Viewing her artistic process as carried out in different media only reassures of a linear content.

I do not consider Kilimnik a painter. When I look at her paintings I regard them as one piece in the puzzle. The paintings look like Sunday-painter paintings but when seen with her other work, they become team players in an overall anti-technique aesthetic. Is Kilimnik lazy to make bad photocopies and toss them haphazard in an installation? The repetition of this dubious artistic skill from adolescent drawings to makeshift installations only emphasizes her exposure of the flimsy farce of childish romanticizations, while at the same time reveling in it. As I went on about above, the power of her work lies in this contradiction.

Kilimnik is not convincing the viewer of opulence or beauty, she is only referencing them. Her technique and material are meant to underwhelm. She exposes her inability to reach an authentic “opulent beauty” but her attempts manage to inspire the fantasy of it anyway.

matthew March 28, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Was in New York this past weekend and, as someone who is pretty interested in anything that contains the words “episode of the Avengers,” I went to the Kilimnik show and was very, very disappointed. The Anglophilia didn’t seem especially thoughtful, and the re-presentation of the 1989 instillation seemed kind of half-assed, honestly. And the “Wipeout” soundtrack–which I wouldn’t describe as whispering at all, at least not last Friday–made me just feel bad for the gallery sitters.

Anonymous March 29, 2011 at 1:35 am

when i was there it was very quiet. if a car drove by or someone pushed a stroller down the sidewalk that’s all i could hear. except for the chimes.

Sven March 29, 2011 at 6:43 am

her paintings, when they work, are interesting because they come from quite a specific place while at the same time being hard to pin down. She unites/ reformulates these opposing poles with the panache and vision of her painting skills. Strong emphasis on “when she succeeds” here, though.

emily March 29, 2011 at 8:45 pm

This show was an affront. I am shocked people take any of this work seriously. Such a lack of craft, such an unawareness of arranging objects in space, such a trite, useless concept. When I went there, Madonna was blaring from a sound system, and, its seemed, INTENTIONALLY skipping. So I couldn’t even hear a good Madonna song from all this. In the portrait photographs: Why do we care that one of Kilimnik’s friends sorta kinda looks like Emma Peel? Even the moon shots, while pretty, were only that. Why does this artist get shown? I could go to a BFA show for this kind of work.

Joel I. March 30, 2011 at 4:14 am

Emily’s snark and envy is almost comical.

John Briner March 29, 2011 at 7:11 am

Although the reviews about Kiliminik’s show is underwhelming, I still wish to see it. I find her artworks really impressive. Thanks for sharing your insights, by the way.

Kelli March 29, 2011 at 8:06 pm

I’ve liked her paintings and drawings a long time. At one time their sincerity and gentleness looked very fresh in comparison to the other things out there. Time has passed and other artists have taken from her style and intent diluting the strangeness of the original effect. However the opportunity to have a gallery show in a secular democracy where artists are allowed to say pretty much whatever they think is a huge privilege. If this is all she has to say and she’s said it before it’s kind of sad.

Ali M. April 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Initially I was really underwhelmed by the show, particularly by the treatment of “The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers”: the repainting of the entire gallery black, led me to believe that the show should be approached in entirety as an immersive installation, and yet, as you say, the installation-proper seemed “tidily” tucked away, like the paintings and photographers, and somewhat neutered of its original performative power. I quickly realized something else might be happening though – it seemed Kilimnik was intentionally jostling between the doxa of the immersive installation and the survey show.

Kilimnik staged the difficulty of exhibiting charged environments within overarching and highly coded spaces. Yet she was unwilling to give over entirely to either kind of treatment of exhibition space. (The blackened gallery, chandelier and soundtrack ensured that “The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers” was never totally reduced to an image.) We might even think about the treatment of her installation as somewhat akin to the artist’s sustained interest in glamor, style, and artifice: here she extends that conversation to include contemporary installation practices. I for one was happy to find out that this was a re-staging of a 1989 installation, and not another totalizing slacker environment.

Jill Lorraine April 4, 2011 at 11:48 pm

LOVE Kilimnik. I want to be IN that painting 😉

Junespirit5 May 4, 2011 at 4:05 am

no, I think it is pretty on point. . . .

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