I learned about Karen Kliminik’s work in 2000 from Philadelphia curator Sid Sachs, who had asked me to be in a show called Conceptual Realism. It was one of his first exhibitions in his new role as curator at UArts’ Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery and it included Karen’s drawings. Sid was excited about Karen’s work — he loved its mystery and humor — and was thrilled to discover that she lived in Philly. Shortly after, I went to see her show at 303 Gallery in New York City. I don’t remember encountering her work before that time, but she was already a mature artist.
Karen Kilimnik, Mari as Diana Rigg – 1965 – 2 great actresses, 2011, C-print, 13 3/8 x 20 inches, 34 x 50.8 cm
Her paintings have a kind of female rage in them. I feel it intensely, for example, when I look at her work entitled “me — I forgot the wire cutters getting the wire cutters from the car to break into stonehenge, 1982”. I recognize the feeling: it’s the inability to control everything and then saying, in a kind of humorous way, to hell with it! I’m going to go about my business as usual. Her videos and installations are masterful, and her subject Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg) was my mother’s idol and my boyfriend’s first love! My favorite local conceptual photographer, was infatuated with Kate Moss too in the 1990s. Kilimnik’s work emerges from a particular set of experiences but connects to everyone, and reaches out for me, like the arm sconces in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.
In Kilimnik’s paintings, she uses brushes that are too big and her canvases are about half pre-bought. The other half have extremely developed grounds that alchemically manifest the color and feel of the painted subject. Ochres rub against violets with muted raw umbers; terre vertes, mars reds, and prussian blues slide past each other, creating passages of light that grab me like a fire ring on a cloud filled night.
In her effortless wit and lightness of touch, I am reminded of Marcel Broodthaers’ poem ‘The Mussel.’ This clever thing has avoided society’s mould. / She’s cast herself in her very own. / Other look alikes share with her the anti-sea. / She’s perfect.
I feel like Kilimnik does a million paintings, then picks the one that is anti-perfect. And she does a million things I do that I can recognize, but do others see them too? She uses Victor Hugo; she thinks porcelain marks or coats of arms are great subjects to release linear and spatial arabesques; she resorts to pearlescence when all else fails. She loves Renoirish nothings, but she stops abruptly when things get kitschy or familiar. She has a beautiful hand that is ruled by a fairy, but sometimes a demon gives her a stick to paint with.
And I think of Joseph Cornell: a story I heard in college in the 70s. He made boxes in Queens where he lived; then he fell in love with a movie house ticket seller, because she was in a glass box.
Karen Kilimnik, Installation view at the 57th Carnegia International, 2018, Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art; Photo by Bryan Conley.
(‘The World at War’ video was part of this exhibition.)
Kilimnik’s paintings remind me always to acknowledge the viewer. And if the audience is mostly European, she reminds us of the importance of interpretation and who is doing it: George Lamming, the Barbadian novelist, called WWII a civil war. At the Carnegie International, Kilimnik’s ‘The World at War’ (2018) video was composed of musical moments from World War II films (such as the scene in which the Germans break into “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary,” from Das Boot (1981). The spliced-together footage of wartime dramas where bivouacked soldiers sing sentimental or patriotic songs, solidifying nationalism, becomes an ever expanding arabesque. Kilimnik’s montage cuts short the path to war. The brevity and the unfinished qualities in Karen Kilimnik’s paintings cause them to live inside a mute cosmology, and I love that.
Jane Irish, Antipodes, 2017, Distemper and oil on linen, 56 x 52 inches. Photo Karen Mauch
Installation view: Jane Irish, Antipodes, 2018, Philadelphia Contemporary in partnership with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Fairmount Park Conservancy, and the Friends of Lemon Hill. Courtesy Locks Gallery. Photo Nicolas Tosi