Karen Kilimnik

Galerie Eva Presenhuber

The entrance to Karen Kilimnik’s exhibition featured a fake eighteenth-century portal made of colorful imitation marble. The title of this decorative piece of fanfare, The “Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe” Bomb, 2008, plays on the 1978 satirical murder mystery film Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, which tells of the rivalry between culinary innovators, murderers, and food critics. Such an allusion set the stage for yet another episode of Kilimnik’s continuing mise-en-scène of taste, in which autobiographical reflection and a tumult of cultural references tirelessly camouflage one another. The artist’s sentimental quotations have, over the course of nearly two decades, lost nothing of their ominous sophistication or the coy twinkle with which her unabashedly kitschy fantasies elude one’s grasp.

The presentation of this show relied on an elegant, neoclassical mode. Fifteen paintings and eleven drawings were hung in linear salon style on several walls. With just two exceptions, the paintings (some in opulent gold frames) date from 2008, while all the drawings—portraits of famous women bearing inscribed phrases—date from the 1980s or early ’90s. The paintings included pastiches of classic ballet imagery, as in Degas, the Green Dancer, the Lost Ballet, Paris, 1867, 2008; animal portraits like Favorite Palomino Pony and Friends at the Hovel, in Robin Hood’s Forest, Sherwood Forest, 2008; and pastoral landscape and childhood scenes such as The child in the garden, 2008. In addition, a number of framed photographs of luxurious green meadows and park landscapes (all 2008) were presented in another part of the room, their titles subjective descriptions such as The gainsborough brewery pools, from rain—not really a pond, by memorial hall, the phony pond. These views recalled motifs from English nineteenth-century pastoral landscape paintings transposed into unpretentious snapshots from family photo albums.

Surrounded by these pictures were two sculptures: Lucifer’s Baby Carriage, 2008, a black buggy draped in cloths that reach to the ground, stood in counterpoint to Nest of Isis, Egypt, 2008, a pink, shrinelike column that serves as a pedestal for an arrangement of glittery gold branches with tiny decorative birds. Both pieces could have been props for a theatrical play. Indeed, a turquoise stage curtain adorned with valances and gold fringe invited viewers into the second room, from which saccharine strains of ballet music could be heard, providing a sound track for the entire show: This was the score for Sleeping Beauty and Friends, 2007, the thirty-seven-minute DVD of a ballet that Kilimnik had presented in a single performance in London in 2007. Like her installations, the performance is a disjointed narrative collage, drawn from historical ballets including Diana & Actaeon, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote, a rundown of clichés with a double dose of burlesque pomp, tutus, and pas de deux; Sleeping Beauty itself is not directly cited.

Kilimnik’s deep love of the unnatural and theatrical and her emotional relationship to the past bring her work into alignment with Susan Sontag’s famous notion of camp: The artist’s blatant use of imitation and picturesque motifs, her way of viewing the world in terms of style and style alone, are delicious attacks on the “correct” intellectual tastes of the educated middle class. The artist passionately and frenetically celebrates artificial spheres of extravagant experience that are simultaneously repulsive and attractive, which is what lends her work its singular, unfathomable character.

Valérie Knoll

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.