New York

Karen Kilimnik, the perfumed countryside with perfumed sheep, 2015, collage on paper, 4 1/4 × 5 1/8".

Karen Kilimnik, the perfumed countryside with perfumed sheep, 2015, collage on paper, 4 1/4 × 5 1/8".

Karen Kilimnik

303 Gallery

Karen Kilimnik, the perfumed countryside with perfumed sheep, 2015, collage on paper, 4 1/4 × 5 1/8".

Damien Hirst, a man, claims to make art for “people who haven’t been born yet.” Karen Kilimnik hasn’t bothered to defend herself, probably because she makes art for the true public. Born-again types. The pleasure we derive from her art is that we don’t have to be productive versions of ourselves, but romantics, bovarystes enragées, pleasure seekers, those whom Joan Didion accused in her essay on the women’s movement of having an “astral discontent with actual lives.” Adults who want “eternal love, romance, fun,” but know better than to look in real life. They—I?—love Kilimnik, and were largely happy with her new show at 303 Gallery, particularly the four pastel-lush oil paintings that (literally) glittered under the Swarovski chandelier in the back room. Anonymous knights paused in wooded clearings on hazy summer days and goddesses returned to their stone niches to nap in dainty frames, with floral appliqué, painted right on the canvas. A heavy, forest-green curtain cordoned off the room. Like mise en abyme, this show-within-a-show advanced her plot. It was theatrical, dusky, private, pretty. We slipped behind the curtain, like actors on the stage of her escapist drama, like adults who actually know how to have fun (and are actors in their own lives?). It was an experience, which meant it was not for sale, so worth buying.

Why did it feel like the rest of the show was not part of Kilimnik’s world? Her 2012 retrospective at the Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut, has made me prefer her home shows: those where she displays actual wallpaper, portraits, fountains. The public’s perverse Florine Stettheimer! There was something even more opulent, almost louche, as the term scatter art was right to suggest, in her 1989 piece The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers. (The chandelier was on the floor.) Whereas in 303’s glittering cave I was struck by the studied carelessness of her brushwork, her elegant sprezzatura, out under the track lights of real life, I was soon reminded that I was dealing with an artist whose calculatedly amateurish brushstrokes can read as exactly that: amateurish. But the show’s twenty-nine works—seventeen of them “collages on paper,” suffering bantam-like from the somewhat matte dreariness of photographic reproduction—still play into Kilimnik’s strength as a conceptual artist. My favorites of the elegant, gold-inflected mise-en-scènes were the photographs of Baroque canopy beds from museum exhibitions. In one, a cat sticker sits primly on the duvet, as if knowledgeable of the glib savoir faire of the title: thank you, this is very nice, I like it, it goes with my coloring, 2016. The velvet rope reminds us that the best fantasies are those that remain intact. Kilimnik’s inherent lightheartedness (silliness?) allows for “critical fuck-yous [that] arrive in the form of delicious ladyfingers” (as Bruce Hainley gleefully explained in these pages, seemingly unable to write about Kilimnik’s work as anything other than edible).

And there is no mistaking her art for anyone else’s. Not that there was any doubt that Kilimnik is a mere virtuoso, here marking her territory like all the best artists (animals). I suppose a grown woman has to put her fingers quite far down her throat to throw up the . . . stickers. But Kilimnik has only ever eaten sweets. She could hiccup up an ice-cream cone. What a wan show this was, though. But consumption is after all but two keystrokes’ slip away from consumptive. Which Kilimnik parodied perfectly in the (ugly!) photograph of a piece of white bread on the street, Toast on street, food for waifs,1993. She’s the art world’s best faux-naïf. Her references are wild, varied, adult, and (often literally) Europtropic. Is the collage the perfumed countryside with perfumed sheep, 2015, with bottles of Penhaligon’s Bluebell perfume scattered in a soft-hued classical scene, a fuck-you to me and my desire to possess it? Prior to googling, I thought the “vintage scent” was simply another motif, and missed the well-placed hint of fecal matter: It is the favorite perfume of Kate Moss (historically Kilimnik’s favorite leitmotif) . . . and of Margaret Thatcher. Another despot (Marie Antoinette) was accused of wanting to be the most à la mode woman alive, but that’s a compliment for an artist under capitalism.

Kaitlin Phillips