New York

Karen Kilimnik

Karen Kilimnik came to painting via the scatter installations she made ten years ago. Though these occasionally included paintings, they were never more prominent than the ornaments with which they were festooned. Before you knew it, scatter art was dead, and Kilimnik became known as a painter, discussed in the same breath as Elizabeth Peyton, Rita Ackermann, John Currin, and Sean Landers under the rubric of “slacker art”—which turned out to more aptly name a moment than a movement. Peyton et al. survived the misnomer; their work matured, and they’re all—Kilimnik included—well on their way to becoming “the older generation.” And yet, even though today Kilimnik holds her own as a painter, her art refuses to grow up by remaining steadfastly dedicated to a debased aesthetic that echoes the sensibility of a teenage girl.

Kilimnik’s recent exhibition consisted, in part, of a dozen or so small paintings (produced over the past two years) installed in a tacky, Barbie baroque decor. The red walls, cheap wall sconces (decorated with big, flouncy bows), and floor-to-ceiling leopard-print polyester curtains overwhelmed the paintings, as though to block anyone from taking them too seriously. One felt tempted to rescue the works from the installation, especially since they are compelling and sophisticated in their own right, even as they play with the notion of their credibility by being painted on prestretched starter canvases (with staples on the sides) in a style that screams amateur. The naive rendering in The Worship, 1999, for example, a skyward view of bare trees, belies the deft management of something kind of kitschy and kind of dumb yet genuine-looking and loaded with expression.

But the real kicker comes from the narrativity, its channeling of an adolescent girl’s consciousness. A self-possessed wannabe who’s as obsessive and delusional as the personas animating, say, much of Mike Kelley’s work, Kilimnik’s teen doppelgänger is the artificial intelligence of her art, seemingly in charge of every aspect of its conception, production, and presentation. From imagery and titles we learn a lot about this “me.” She runs with the jet set and also travels across time, a virtual “that girl” who’s always on the scene, no matter the decade or century. She fantasizes virtual lives for “herselves” in celebrity roles, alternating between good girl and bad. In one painting, Me—I forgot the wire cutters getting the wire cutters from the car to break into Stonehenge, 1982, 1998, she’s a foxy supermodel; in another work, Me, at the Ranch Waiting for Charlie, 1968, 1998, she’s a dark-haired girl in a blue shirt, a breezy next-door type who may well be a murderer, too.

The abiding “me, me, me” in Kilimnik’s work is amplified in an older series of photographic self-portraits, “assisted” with a wide-tip Magic Marker. Here, as though through a peephole, we catch Kilimnik in what appears to be the private act of posing for the camera as she imagines herself as Isabelle Adjani, Elizabeth Taylor, Chryssie Hynde. The Magic Marker is crudely used to “make up” the photographs the way mascara or eyeliner might do up a face. This pretense of taking us behind the construction of glamour seems to confirm the existence of a thoroughly awkward Picrrot whose yearnings spill into something at once comic, pathetic, and palpably real. Like “Suzy,” the persona who inhabited Ashley Bickerton’s art in the late ’80s, Kilimnik’s “girl born without a mother” is synonymous with the condition that everything is potentially something else—which works pretty well as a conceit for Kilimnik’s art as a whole, too.

Jan Avgikos