It’s been 18 years since Karen Kilimnik first showed in London, when her work was included in True Stories (1992) at the ICA. Her small, sometimes eccentric-looking paintings often seemed overshadowed by the John Currin/ Elizabeth Peyton crowd of that era; but since then, she’s had knockout shows at the South London Gallery (2000) and the Serpentine (2007). This summer, Kilimnik returns to London to show past and new work alongside that of longtime influence, Joseph Cornell.
Kilimnik’s paintings are as confident and unique as they are fragile; filled with a dreamy glamour that seeps out of deep red Tudor interiors and the sparkly light of chandeliers. She fixes imagined narratives in a romantic glaze, art history merging with historical events, personal fantasy and popular culture, all within luxurious settings such as stately homes and gardens and Russian palaces. In addition, there is always, always, ballet.

Karen Kilimnik, 'Degas painting hair ornament accessories bag world' (2004) Courtesy the artist, 303 Gallery New York and Spruth Magers Berlin London

Karen Kilimnik, ‘Degas painting hair ornament accessories bag world’ (2004) Courtesy the artist, 303 Gallery New York and Sprüth Magers Berlin London


Her paintings are often exhibited against dark walls, amongst props, creating installations that defy the scale of the works but conjure up remnants of the enchanted world that fills them. At times, the installation setup seems to obscure the paintings, at others they appear to rely on it. Kilimnik’s skill is in painterly gesture, her use of rich colour and layered narrative. The first time you look at her work it looks like a fluke, a lucky trick of the hand, to be so casual and loose but equally bold and deft. It is no accident; she achieves this result time and again. She has something that every artist craves: the ability to make a perfectly-formed painting that looks effortless.
Karen Kilimnik, 'Me, Corner of Haight & Ashbury, 1966' (1998) Courtesy the artist, 303 Gallery New York and Spruth Magers Berlin London

Karen Kilimnik, ‘Me, Corner of Haight & Ashbury, 1966’ (1998) Courtesy the artist, 303 Gallery New York and Sprüth Magers Berlin London


It’s not just the surface of Kilimnik’s paintings that seduce the viewer but also the narratives within them; again, somehow, always slightly out of sync. The decadent red velvet curtains, ostentatious chandeliers and deep drama of the ballet stage are perfect for an artist who turns the subject of every painting into a fairytale and every figure — even herself— into a glamorous hero or heroine. Another leitmotiv is the connection of moments and figures from the past with contemporary faces: Paris Hilton as Marie Antoinette, Nuryev as the Snow Prince, and so on. By mixing and matching time frames and characters, Kilimnik has always been a master of the mise en scène, while her own biography is melded seamlessly into these idealized representations. Her ‘me as’ series has seen her re-invent herself (à la Cindy Sherman) as Isabelle Adjani, Chrissie Hynde and Elizabeth Taylor, among others. These paintings hint at autobiography but unlike Sherman it’s not her in disguise, it’s Kilimnik ‘as’ a character, in turn disguised as someone else.
Joseph Cornell 'Hotel Andromeda' (1954) Photo Courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company

Joseph Cornell ‘Hotel Andromeda’ (1954) Photo Courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company


A shared interest in ballet is the reason behind Todd Levin’s decision to show her work alongside that of Joseph Cornell — another artist who was obsessed with the Romantic ballet era. Cornell was an eager collector of ephemera attached to Italian/Swiss ballerina Marie Taglioni and Tamara Toumanova who appeared regularly in Dance Index magazine. Kilimnik’s theatrical installations echo Cornell’s collages and their quest for escape into a fantasy world of their own making.
Gemma de Cruz
Joseph Cornell Karen Kilimnik, curated by Todd Levin is at Spruth Magers, London,
9 June — 27 August 2010

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