Kilimnik exhibit a world of ‘theater and illusion’
December 14, 2007
The installation “The red room in the modern Architecture” is part of an exhibit by Karen Kilimnik, showing through Feb. 3 at the Aspen Art Museum. (Jordan Curet/Aspen Times Weekly)
“The Bluebird in the Folly,” a video that is part of an exhibit of works by Karen Kilimnik showing at the Aspen Art Museum, features a miniature ballerina who randomly disappears and reappears in a deep woods. The background, which seems to float by, includes stuffed animals and flashes of light; the trees themselves seem sometimes real, other times artificial. At one point in the video, the viewer can see a pair of very real feet on the fringe of the screen, causing Ingrid Schaffner, who curated the installation, to remark, “You don’t know where you are.”
That feeling, of not being on steady ground, is true on numerous levels with Kilimnik’s work. The exhibit exists both in the past and the present; Kilimnik’s images are almost invariably borrowed from past artists, then recontextualized. The colors, textures and figures draw viewers in with their warmth, before stunning and disturbing them with what is revealed just beyond the first glance. And as Schaffner, who curated the exhibit for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is senior curator, observes, embarking on the installation is akin to entering a theater ” a place of make-believe and artificial settings.
The exhibit, which travels from Aspen to North Miami and Chicago, must be adapted to each individual space; in Philadelphia ” Kilimnik’s hometown ” where it first showed, the space was significantly larger than the combined space of the Aspen Art Museum’s upstairs and downstairs galleries. In Aspen, the exhibit opens, if you will, with “The red room in the modern Architecture.” Schaffner refers to it as a “museum within a museum.” It is an enclosed space featuring a plush round sofa, rich red tones reminiscent of the Victorian era, and several dozen of the 52-year-old Kilimnik’s paintings, some dating back to the earliest part of her career. The overall feel is comfort, but the familiar, even old-fashioned, images take on a different tone the deeper one looks. A painting of an English mansion, for instance, bears the title “Redlands-Keith Richard’s House, Day of the Drug Arrest, 1966.” And the face under a vintage hat in “Prince Charming” is unsettling in how much it resembles Leonardo DiCaprio.
The space in the back of the downstairs gallery ” including the “Bluebird in the Folly” video, which also gets its own room ” enhances the tension between extremes. The predominant image is of the ballerina, suggesting beauty, grace and youth. But one of Kilimnik’s main inspirations in using dance imagery is “Giselle,” the tragic story of a woman who dies young, before knowing love. One drawing looks lovely, with two demure young dancers. The text (taken from E.T.A. Hoffman, who also wrote “The Nutcracker”), however, subverts the image with a tale of deceit, poison and death. Another drawing appears, from a distance, like an advertisement for a ski resort, with twinkling snowflakes, kids, and a chalet covered in drifts. But there is also a reindeer with an arrow through its chest, and text that references Lisa Steinberg, the 6-year-old New Yorker who was beaten to death in 1987 by her adopted father.
If the downstairs spaces subtly combine elements, the darkness is fully unveiled upstairs. The two separate installations at opposite ends of the gallery could well have been autobiographical art made by the late Hunter S. Thompson. On one side is drugs ” empty plastic capsules, a mirror, needle and spoon ensemble ” and on the other, guns ” bull’s-eyes, human-figure targets, and a newspaper account of the San Diego teenager who explained her shooting spree with the line, “I don’t like Mondays.” On the walls are a series of works featuring images of sexed-up supermodels ” alongside text about death, cemeteries and murder.
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Perhaps the most explicit mix of dark and light is the writing on the wall: “1234567, all good children go to heaven,” followed by the words “Helter Scelter” and a peace sign. The first part originated in a nursery rhyme and was employed by the Beatles in “You Never Give Me Your Money.” All of it was appropriated by Charles Manson, as a signature of his group’s killing spree.
“It’s like Karen has created this world of theater and illusion, and you walk into it,” said Schaffner. (Kilimnik declined to be interviewed for this article.) “It’s warm and familiar, and also tricky and destabilizing. It plays with you, the romanticism and the dark undercurrents.”