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Karen Kilimnik at MCA Chicago, Review

Review of Karen Kilimnik's Mid-Career Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The show, Karen Kilimnik, at the MCA is "the first major" look at the artist's work (1). Helter-scelter scatterings of acid tabs, chopped up cocaine and unidentifiable pills on the floor of the MCA highlight the poignant dialogue between the fairy like dandies in oil paint and the excessive sometimes scary fetishizing of the Kilimnik's other installations. The success of the show is in careful but not fussy display of the work. Most of the paintings in oil or acrylic are placed evenly on two opposing walls with a central vein of the work found on the floor between the paintings. More like spills and happy accidents than highly formalized installations one gets the sense that the formal qualities of the sculptures are as important as the over the top content.
An artist who "emerged in the late 80s and 90s" Kilimnik's work is full of the tension and excess of the turn of the decade (1). Thankfully, the work goes far beyond the confines of that context. A combination of fashion models and dandies, the paintings assert facility. The apparent ease with which the artist puts paint to surface like the spills of pills on the floor reassert the idea of excess but are further complicated by the choice of placement and subject matter. One example of this tension is in a small room. A circular burgundy velvet couch placed in the center of this room serves as a vantage and resting zone to take in the dozens of paintings hung salon style. It is no accident though that this room be filled almost floor to ceiling with small paintings. Sitting on the plush velvet reinforces the excesses represented in the paintings. A pattern develops out from the portraits of dandies, models and ambiguous villas or fairytale landscapes. Found in this room Prince Charming, with an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood playboy Leonardo DiCaprio from the film The Man In the Iron Mask, the painting seems to epitomize the paintings in the room. Complete with a feather in his hat "Prince Charming" is the quintessential dandy. The question quickly becomes: "What do dandy's, fashion models and fairy tales have in common?" How does a painting like Prince Charming relate to sparsely applied black pencil lines of Brigitte Bardot Shopping in Shorts or Snow White?

Kilimnik, in an interview with Frieze Magazine, claims that all this (art) is for her (2). This answer is consistent with the fantasies she creates. As another author puts it:

Kilimnik practices a particularly knowing sort of fantasy. Looking at these seemingly guileless works, the observer is involved in a guessing game. Does she understand more than she lets on, or less? Somehow both options have the same effect - a kind of slightly embarrassing, yet oddly joyous, bafflement (3).


But what is joyous about the remnants of last night's binge? No one likes to clean fresh vomit from porcelain fixtures and given the performative suggestion of the sculptural spills--- vomit seems inevitable. This dirty little secret is the elephant in the room. For all her beguiling childlike answers Kilimnik's work constantly reminds us of the darker side of her fantasy world even if it is just for her. But this stream of creepiness is not just in the pills on the floor. Many of the paintings hold this secret also. The dark landscapes, like The Moonstone, suggest a darkness or danger just around the next turn. The hollowness in the eyes of her models and their anorexic complexions or the aggressive pencil or ink marks point to something insidious. Several drawings scattered on the floor appear to be remnants of a savage perhaps drug induced fight as they lie bleeding with red paint or nail polish on the floor. I recall the film Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas and the ether induced bender, "There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon." Kilimnik has gotten into that rotten stuff, though, she won't admit it.

Kilimnik's work gets into more than just fantasy and nightmare, however. The painted works also indicate an investment in art history. As another critic points out Kilimnik is fascinated by eras (60s, 80s, 1880s) and modes. She has painted Stieglitz inspired images, and French princes, together with current "It Girls" (3). But there is nothing random in her selection of inspiration. Again, fantasy and excess are involved but there is also a larger narrative at play. The point it seems, of the painting current "It girls" and long dead prince Charming's is a masked social critique. After all what are we to make of this comparison? The work seems to say 'I am easy, sweet and nonchalant' but the implied social critique still resonates. The tension and excitement of the work for me is in the not knowing where the artist is in all this. Does she secretly wish to be an "It girl"? Or does she know something about it that we don't. Does she recognize the depravity of her fantasy? I think she does.

works cited in order of appearance.
1. http://www.mcachicago.org/exhibitions/exh_detail.php?id=66
2. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/karen_kilimnik/
3. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_uses_of_enchantment/

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