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PRINT September 2005

Palazzo Intrigue

As I made my way past souvenir shops crammed with gold- and crystal-encrusted trinkets toward Karen Kilimnik’s exhibition at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, I began to worry that Kilimnik needed a show in a Venetian palazzetto about as much as Thomas Cole needs a retrospective in a forest. After all, her off-kilter studies in fandom, whether directed at contemporary urban waifs or traditional bucolic splendors, have always thrived on their palpable alienation from the glamorous and tawdry worlds they conjure—an ambience not lived but learned from glossy magazines, a period memoir, a paused videocassette. What would happen, I wondered, once Kilimnik was finally allowed into the fairy-tale castle against whose windows her nose had so long been pressed?

Based on the evidence of her Venetian jewel box of an exhibition (timed to coincide with the Biennale), I needn’t have been too worried. After ascending a flight of stairs to the foundation’s galleries in the eighteenth-century Palazzetto Tito, I encountered a long room filled with generous swags of drapery, three crystal chandeliers, twelve small, spotlit paintings (whose subjects amble the gamut from a fox with his quarry to a portrait of L. DiCaprio as L. Quatorze), and, most noticeably, a chorus of pastoral chirps. At first it seemed that this avian accompaniment was emanating from a pair of casement windows open onto some well-placed foliage, but the birds went on a little too long and a little too loud. It was then that I noticed not just a pair of speakers tucked between the gallery’s exposed beams, but also a flock of tiny fake songbirds that appear to have migrated from an Omaha dime store to perch in the palazzetto’s arched pediments. Other overhead embellishments include a shimmering necklace and a tiny bee-shaped bauble (both, one imagines, in genuine cubic zirconia) that almost imperceptibly adorn the crystal chandeliers. And scattered on ledges and at one’s feet are a number of wreathes and nests made from twigs, assorted feathers, and cheap silk flowers. It’s all rather magical, which is not a word I brandish lightly when it comes to art or anything else.

View of “Karen Kilimnik,” Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Palazzetto Tito, Venice, 2005.*

It could just as easily have been too cute. Yet, as usual, Kilimnik has expertly navigated the perils of preciousness by providing a blue note for every sugary trill. Her birds’ nests, for example, reveal a subtle material wit, some matching glittery Christmas greenery with overzealous glops of flocking straight out of Fautrier. Others pair unadorned plastic Easter eggs with identical plastic eggs now carefully mottled with daubs of paint. It’s difficult to decode these offhand semiotic puzzles—which is more genuine, the real fake egg or the faked real egg?—but the effect is something akin to a suburban ladies’ crafts club applying the lessons of Duchamp and Johns to its holiday handiwork.

The mood darkens further once one wanders from the brightly lit main gallery into a suite of dusky rooms illuminated only by the natural light that filters through the thick round panes of their casement windows, some left ajar onto a narrow canal and blossoming oleanders below. Coming on Kilimnik’s modest canvases in this setting is a bit like happening on forgotten minor masterpieces in an old country house before anyone has bothered to fire up the chandeliers. In one room, a mess of twisted branches and leaves leans against the wall like an abstract sculpture—or trash; in another, just two paintings and a shell-encrusted souvenir mirror hang on dusty-blue floral wallpaper. A gallery of somber flower paintings also contains the earliest work in the show, The Black Plague, 1995, in which a waifish blonde with kohl-painted eyes holds a strawberry between her teeth, while in the distant darkness, the windows of a house no bigger than the fruit’s crown blaze with a worrisome glow. Along the baseboards of this bleak chamber a few fake birds lie dead, perhaps the casualties of neglect or excessive romanticism.

Touring the various galleries, I began to wonder precisely which details—apart from the nests and paintings—were of Kilimnik’s own design. Surely the sound track and the little clusters of seashells, fake pearls, and moss-covered stones that flanked the door frames of the blue gallery in a nod to Venice’s maritime past and costume-jewelry present. But what of the fresh peonies in porcelain cachepots placed on a marble mantle? Or the lack of illumination in four of the six rooms? Were the bouquets the serendipitous flourish of some hostess manqué in the Fondazione’s offices; the lack of lighting, the oversight of a negligent gallery attendant? In both cases, the answer turned out to be no, just as I later learned from the exhibition’s catalogue that even the blue wallpaper, which couldn’t have looked more at home, was chosen by Kilimnik and provided courtesy of Cole & Son, “suppliers of wallpaper,” appropriately enough, to Her Majesty the Queen.

Suddenly, Kilimnik’s mise-en-scène became a mise en abyme, with so many reinterpreted realities stacked inside each other like Chinese boxes. Another wreath of dime-store lilies sits on the floor in the gallery with the fresh peonies, while a simple gold-painted chair nonchalantly echoes the one visible directly above it in the Degas painting hair ornament accessories bag world, 2004. These skewed symmetries and doublings play out in the paintings themselves, whether in a manor house’s blurred reflection in a pond, or in pairs of works, such as the blue room and the pink room of 2002 (which depict exactly the same space, save for the different palettes indicated in their titles) and the two nearly identical portraits of a handsome spaniel from 1999, one called George Crossing the Street at the Strand on the Way to the Haymarket Theater for His Dinner. Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II these are not, but Kilimnik nevertheless proves herself an improbable master (or rather, mistress?) of the serial gesture and ricocheted glance. Without the slightest trace of theoretical didacticism, she exploits to the hilt the uncanny hall-of-mirrors quality endemic to an image world comprised of appropriated appropriations, while the madcap poetry of her titles demonstrates the true nature of a cultural consumer’s narrative projections better than any psychoanalytic text.

All this has, to a certain extent, always been present in Kilimnik’s art, from her ingenious early installations to her more recent painting shows. But in the cold white space of most galleries, the embellishment of a group of canvases with gilt sconces and tulle bows can reap uncertain rewards. Despite the charm such installations exude, there’s always the lingering feeling that the paintings themselves don’t quite need their décor, that they’ve somehow already managed to internalize and distill all the theoretical pay dirt their adornments might accrue. However, working in situ in Venice—a city that, perhaps more than any other, feels at once truly historic and a phony imitation of itself—Kilimnik was able to fully exploit her singular knack for negotiating the mysterious reciprocities between our so-called reality and the fictions that come to define it. Acting as set pieces in the Palazzetto Tito, her paintings achieve a kind of conceptual parity with her sculptures, and both in turn are brought up or down (depending on one’s point of view) to the level of everything else in their surroundings—from the wallpaper and curtains to the golden chairs and peonies, each of which is afforded just as much aesthetic consideration as the supposedly more “considered” art objects. This is the kind of judgment that interior decorators must administer daily, but it’s strange and unfamiliar to see it exercised so gleefully by an artist with regard to her own easel paintings, especially given how close those paintings come to being tricked-out evocations of the very cabinet pictures that might have once graced an interior of this kind. It makes a certain sense, then, that this city of countesses and palazzos of uncertain age and authenticity would show the full complexity of Kilimnik’s refracted realities in a new light—or better, cast them in the most flattering of crepuscular shadows.

Scott Rothkopf is senior editor of Artforum.

“Karen Kilimnik” is on view at the Palazzetto Tito through October 3.