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Karen Kilimnik, Neptune’s grotto theater, 2015. Water soluble oil color on canvas. 14 1/8 × 10 3/4 inches. Courtesy 303 Gallery.

On View
303 Gallery
February 18 – April 9, 2016
New York

As children, we create narratives to make life governed by adults bearable. As adults, we learn that we are nothing special in the scheme of things, that there are many things impossible to achieve. Disenfranchisement and disillusion leave little room for the type of curiosity and enchantment that once compelled us through storytelling. And yet, considering fairytales and myth as a foundation of our social history and political unconscious, begs a question of whether enchantment can act as a site for sociopolitical subversion.

In Karen Kilimnik’s latest exhibition, at 303 Gallery in Chelsea, the artworks are petite in scale, pandering to kitsch details with carved and gilded golden frames, yet also encourage intimacy with their embellished mise-en-scène. Discount store stickers of hologram cats, bats and fish adorn the foreground of reproduced vintage photographs extracted from library archives.

We find the use of enchantment at work in the preponderant motif of the delusional cat. Thank you, I’m rested now, I’ll have the lobster today, thank you (2016) witnesses a Persian sitting upright at the center of a bedroom interior taken from the Château de Malmaison, the home of uprooted aristocrat Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon I. This cat, a collage cutout, serves as a proxy for the idle ruling class that engages in homogenous, empty time. Similarly presented as historic beings of worship, in the adoration of the cats (2016), feline cutouts inundate a rapturous moment taken from a book of Flemish tapestries. Celestial figures in the midst of a biblical apparition scene are facetiously sublimated by cat stickers placed on laps and scattered across the holy landscape.

These adages to sacred and medieval scenes posit oppositional notions imposed upon cats: on the one hand, symbols of carefree domestic luxury, on the other, the demonic, emotionally vacant, reclusive, feral, and witchy. Kilimnik’s versions are a puzzle to be reckoned with, just as Baudelaire once proclaimed: “chat mystérieux, chat séraphique, chat étrange.” They adopt humor, mimicry, emulation, and whimsy, each elements of the viral cat meme, itself a contagious ruling power presiding over the internet and our perverse obsession with the feeble and cutesy.

It is through the act of narrative interruption that Kilimnik stages her own performative gesture within a predetermined performance. Given the oft manic, excessive, and repetitive nature of each composition, Kilimnik positions herself as slightly batty and purposefully amateurish in order to create an alienated distance between the viewer and any nostalgia we may have felt for the image a priori. In the artist’s hands, the reproductions of subliminal and romantic settings become merely generic archival images indicative of old Europe and idyllic woodlands. History is subjugated to commodity fetishism, pastiche, and child’s play.

Interspersed among the more tongue-in-cheek collage works are atmospheric paintings that conjure fanciful forests, delicate fauna, and exotic islands with shimmering palm trees. In Velazquez’s potteryware in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Dining Room, Amboise (2015), we have Bergsonian duration in a still life painting. Free from linearity, the present appears as an accumulation of pasts, reconstituted through allegorical and archetypal thematics. A clever chameleon of diverse painterly styles, Kilimnik generalizes specific art historical practices. The delicacies of orientalist painting in the blue and white china landscape world (2015), for example, uphold traditional composition and color while evading ornate precision—even the clouds are caricaturish.

In other paintings Kilimnik’s breezy brushwork comes across as whimsical as her subject matter. The architectural elements in Neptune’s grotto theater (2015) are loosely based on the Palais Garnier, built in the late 1800s for the Paris Opera. (Legend has it that a river flowed under the opera house, in truth, a falsity.) At times more controlled and at others feverish in execution, the stage depictions leave an impression of being a little slapdash and unfinished in spite of their glitter finesse. Each offer some indication of Kilimnik’s inner theater of the mind, further incarnated in the culminating point of the exhibition, a back room enclosure separated by a decadent and mysterious velvet stage curtain.

Entering the darkened room feels like intruding on a daydream, where space and time become supple. A chandelier illuminates shimmering paintings awash with glitter, adding to the chintzy, falsified opulence. The goddesses Artemis & Ceres return to their niches to sleep after a hard day’s work (2016) presents us with Artemis, a Hellenic goddess of wilderness and Ceres, a Roman goddess of agriculture, as we witness them returning to their statuesque poses. There is a sense of respite and of refuge in this room. It’s not quite enchantment, moreover, a re-enchantment with mythology and nature, tainted yet enriched by the lacuna between an imagined past and a precarious present.

Kilimnik’s work can be construed as a coalescence between erfahrung and erlebnisse—of integrated experience and isolated experience—both entrenched and estranged from art history. The still life and scenic landscape paintings are uncanny valleys, simultaneously familiar and foreign, banal and romantic. In these strange and somewhat esoteric works, memory and imagination conflate, conveying the words of Luis Buñuel: “Our imagination and our dreams are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course fantasy and reality are equally personal and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.”


Jessica Caroline Holburn


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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