Karen Kilimnik, Christmas service for the forest pets, 2008, oil on canvas, 16 × 16".

Karen Kilimnik, Christmas service for the forest pets, 2008, oil on canvas, 16 × 16".

Karen Kilimnik

Twenty years ago, while teaching the craft of art criticism to undergraduate art students, I asked my class to write a review of a show by Karen Kilimnik. The responses were scathing—everything these kids had been painstakingly teaching themselves not to do in order to become serious artists, Kilimnik was doing. While they were taking baby steps toward artistic sophistication, they saw that she’d been strolling in the opposite direction. And it drove them crazy. Well, Kilimnik hasn’t altered her approach, and she’s still making it work. Even now, she manages to shock me by putting her finger on the impregnable core of emotional truth in anything I’d otherwise be inclined to dismiss out of hand as mawkish kitsch—not by way of a calculated transgression but, worst of all, through sincerity. 

Curated by Alison M. Gingeras, this compact quasi survey gathered twenty-six modestly scaled works made between 1989 and 2020, including sculptures, drawings, collages, and photographs, though the accent was where it should have been: on Kilimnik’s paintings. The show took its title from the 2008 tondo Christmas service for the forest pets, whose sub-Disney imagery (of a Bambi-esque fawn, some bunnies, and other cute critters gathered in a snowy clearing and gazing in pious awe at the one tree that has somehow miraculously been crowned with a star) is done in a clunky painting style that is in fact both efficient and technically savvier than it may at first seem. Rendering the whole setting in shades of pale blue with white highlights, she’s given the slightly discordant greens of the central spruce a strangely visionary weirdness that poetically justifies the painting’s theme of enraptured beholding.

Time and place in Kilimnik’s tableaux are malleable, completely subject to the artist’s whim or desire. Just as subject to revision is the painted image itself. Untitled, 2016, depicts a castle set in the middle distance. The landscape surrounding it looks hastily abandoned after being sketched in, while parts of the building itself appear to have been blotted out, as if creation and erasure were one and the same. By contrast, in the witch’s meeting house in the Malvern Hills, Buckingham, England from Blood on Satan’s Claw, 1604, 2005, the artist has restrained her love of painterly froufrou, painstakingly delineating every bit of half timbering for the picture’s vast, Tudor-style mansion, as if assembling a dollhouse piece by piece. Here, it is the work’s ostensible subject that seems to be up for grabs: The titular 1971 cult horror flick Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in the eighteenth century and not, per the painting’s title, in the early seventeenth. Wikipedia informs me that parts of the movie were indeed shot on location in Buckinghamshire, which is nowhere near the Malvern Hills. And the house featured in the canvas does not appear in the film. The painting is a fantasy of a fiction of a dream, and all the more haunting for that.

Not unlike Joseph Cornell sitting in Queens creating vast spaces inside tiny boxes where his thoughts could commune with nineteenth-century ballerinas and dwell among the grand hotels of the Continent, Kilimnik chronicles the interior life of someone whose imagination wanders among ghosts and fantasies of the ancien régime and the various remnants of it that held out until the early 1900s, as well as whatever echoes of that world she can locate in the tony resort town of Gstaad, Switzerland; Manhattan’s Columbus Circle; or the soigné neighborhood of Saint James’s in London. The imagination wanders all the more freely among recollections that have been ever so delicately unmoored from fact and experience. In this way, the image becomes a setting as amenable to the artist’s fancy as the Arden Forest or Verona were for the poet.