PRINT May 1991


CROSS HELTER SKELTER with Mother Goose and you get a sense of the nuanced disorientation that characterizes Karen Kilimnik’s art. Though at first glance her loose spills of eclectic ephemera seem culled from the bedroom sanctuary of an overwrought teenage girl, signs abound that her preteen never-never land is under siege. Patient pastels of regal stallions (remember girls and their glass horses?), stuffed toys, idealized “pretty ladies,” doilies, glitter, toilet-paper streamers, and a generally perplexing mélange of things diaphanous and pink fuel the atmosphere of daydreamy solipsism. Yet Kilimnik’s lexicon also admits a scarcely assimilable roster of demicelebrities and vaguely glamorous locales that suggests a restless relationship to the outside world. Indeed, Kilimnik’s self-preserving filters must be dangerously overtaxed; her efforts to order her world—to synthesize the barrage of tabloid trivia that daily threatens even the spookiest recluse—seem desperate, to say the least. In fact, if Kilimnik’s attempts to mitigate her abjection were not held firmly under the sign of art, she would be a prime candidate for a chapter in Oliver Sack’s latest clinical romp.

Dire acts of mastery have long been the stock-in-trade of Modern art, yet faced with Kilimnik’s mayhem one might legitimately object: “The ‘dire’ speaks for itself, but where’s the ‘mastery?’” In other words, once the floodgates are open, how, if at all, does Kilimnik navigate the deluge of materials and information that pours forth with little discernible rhyme or reason? What, indeed, motivates a practice that admits both a dotty concern with the welfare of abandoned kitties and a sketch of Malcolm Forbes’ Fabergé egg save a, by turns, exasperating and exhilarating sense of the absurd?

A thread does run through Kilimnik’s project that not only belies the initial impression of perversity as her sole motivation but also offsets the impulse to dismiss her gesture as an ante-upping bid on the recent taste for slipshod facture, or as another rehash of the gimmick of the moment—the seemingly random dispersion that harks back to the antiform experiments of the ’60s. The admittance of chance into art—the representation of chaos—is one of the master tropes of Modernism, and yet disorder in art is always bound by some frame, whether it be the edge of a canvas in a Jackson Pollock or the walls of the gallery in the antiform experiments of a Robert Morris or a Barry Le Va. Kilimnik’s twist is that she reanimates this trope, which in the ’60s was substantially formal and unified by materials (all glass or all felt, etc.) or an approximation of natural disorder (dirt or rubble spills), not by making work that is a little rougher or more dispersed than that of her predecessors but by butting “formal” order/disorder up against psychically overdetermined configurations that mock our own parochial attempts to master the world.

Thumbnail sketches with chicken-scratch annotations (presented as both autonomous drawings and as components of the larger spills) feature a roster of glam-types, glimpsed in the glossies, that beckon like so many come-ons from the world beyond Kilimnik’s feeble reach. Though the cast of characters—including the likes of Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Marisa Mell, “la plus belle ‘brunette’ d’Autriche,” Claude Montana at home with Daniella Varenne (hair and grooming by Romain for Patrick Ales), Father Ritter, Linda Evangelista, and Sylvester Stallone’s mystery companion (who, Kilimnik notes, “looks like Haley Mills”)—might seem outside the province of this self-styled ingenue, the quirky line-up suggests a relationship to everyday lust and its frustrations that is more cannily managed than the initial impression of delirium might suggest.

Kilimnik’s works figure comical little allegories of mastery—undisguised wish fulfillments and semiterroristic tantrums in the face of inaccessible power or glamour. In the “Jane/Creep” drawings—simple scenarios scrawled in a childish hand—she puts her nemesis through a series of cruel slapstick ordeals (e.g., “HUNTING SEASON OPENED YESTERDAY. JANE GOES FOR A WALK IN THE WOODS. SHE IS WEARING A LOVELY FAWN COLOR JACKET WITH MATCHING HAT & DEERSKIN BOOTS”). Like a reference to the poor little rich girl plotting to buy a date for the prom that crops up in one “celebrity” sketch, Kilimnik’s works all propose desperate, sometimes pathetically occult, attempts to make things go her own way—at least in the micro-precinct of art. Her wistful view of the trappings of power can turn suddenly ugly, and when her frustration kicks in, as it does in one sketch of the gilded hall of the “institut de beauté” (beauty parlor), she spills blood with the flick of a red crayon. The return here for the viewer is the joke of seeing her desperation figured, and her revenge taken, in such grimly transparent, often darkly riotous vignettes.

Kilimnik’s pose swings wildly between unadulterated abjection and the omniscience of a whimsically infantile deity rearranging reality like a child on a carpeted floor. From desperate vandal to cool, cruel hand of fate, it’s the stunningly sudden role reversal she seems to relish—those moments when all hell breaks loose, and the mythologies that underwrite our normal bondage (to power, to knowledge, etc.) are revealed as contingent, as wholly rhetorical constructs.

Where the genius of Modern artists from Kurt Schwitters to Pollock to the Nouveaux Réalistes was to make us momentarily believe that we were enjoying an unmediated glimpse into the abyss instead of a highly codified cultural experience, Kilimnik relishes precisely the artifice—the art in the matter. It’s no accident that her installations seem more tailored to a window display at Sears than to a gallery at MoMA; for it is precisely this hyperbolic artifice that sustains the low-tech theater in which she enacts what finally emerge as densely layered, mobile allegories of mastery.

Jack Bankowsky is associate editor of Artforum.