New York

Karen Kilimnik

Karen Kilimnik has, since the mid-1980s, been hailed by some for her ability to channel decadence of various degrees—from generic goth to coked-up waifdom à la Kate Moss—with the unabashed, if slightly off-kilter, delight of a true enthusiast. Others locate their love for her work at what would seem the opposite pole, positing that the artist’s Romantic obsessions are served up with a deft critical turn, and that the pleasure principle behind them lies precisely in their maker’s techniques of deflation. Personally, I tend to think of Kilimnik’s subject matter the way I do the tortoise famously bejeweled by Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes in J. K. Huysmans’s novel À Rebours (Against Nature) (1884). As devotees know, des Esseintes’s turtle dies from internal damage caused by the sheer weight of the expensive baubles with which the archetypal nineteenth-century aesthete encrusts its shell. This is a case neither of sadism nor of the inadvertently toxic effects of overweening affection: For des Esseintes, the turtle is simply a mobile accoutrement, purchased and then decorated so as to set off the colors of an Oriental rug. Since the creature is never granted the status of a living thing in the first place, the ethical import of its death is moot.

Which is not to say that Kilimnik’s past and present leanings toward, say, the Avengers, Snow White, Twiggy, cats, cars, and czars are purely decorative (though to discount that aspect of her work would be a shame). But it is to imagine that under her watch, objects and sites submit to the function of furnishings, as though everything that’s there simply accents or is accented by everything else. This is certainly one way to read Kilimnik’s most recent venture, which comprised thirteen small paintings and two structures, one modeled after a Napoleonic tent, the other after a garden folly. The first of these, the debonair general’s tent, 2006, was given over to tchotchkes not quite evoking the reality effect by way of ye-olde-school staples such as piped-in music, a spyglass, and a sword.

Elements of the interior of the second edifice, in the smaller rear gallery, reproduce (though not very believably) a lush garden; a short video, the bluebird in the folly, 2006, projected on one interior wall depicts a Thumbelina-size ballerina flitting and multiplying by way of low-tech manipulation, alighting here and there on forest branches. While I was watching the video—by turns enthralled and embarrassed—a group of young men walked in and stood with me. After about ten seconds, one said huffily, “Like watching a clock’s hands move!”

For a moment I thought to argue, but then realized he was right. For no matter how ostensibly “rich,” depraved, or delightful they are, Kilimnik’s subjects are inevitably—and this is where things get interesting—also a little ho-hum. The vaguely scatological—or at the very least wet—paint application in some of Kilimnik’s work lends itself to such a reading as well. Her canvases are at once over- and undercooked, sometimes producing breathtaking results and at other times muddy mashes. Ruffian, an arabian horse at the side street near the bazaar, Marrakesh, 2006, ostensibly delivers a highfalutin subject but also marks the shameless application of a blatantly overcompensatory title to a little picture of a horse. Emma about to put the miniature Steed in the miniature folly, 2006, is a funny, awkward painting of, well, something funny and awkward. Here, as elsewhere in her work, Kilimnik revels in the dual nature of folly itself: that which is both pitifully foolish and deliciously enchanting.

Johanna Burton