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Karen Kilimnik has a knack for picking at the scab of the national psyche.
Beneath the deceptively saccharine blush of her artistic production oozes celebrity-addled America's obsession with Page Six gossip, fashion glossies, purple tabloid prose, and Court TV.
Her complex work reminds us why a has-been wreck like O.J. Simpson can still dominate the 6:00 news.
The first American survey of Kilimnik's career is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) and features more than 90 works spanning the past 20 years. These include paintings, drawings, photographs, assemblage, and installations, snazzily arranged to peel the layers off of this perplexing artist's insatiably inventive mind.
The show was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and curated by Ingrid Schaffner, who also wrote an erudite essay for its catalogue.
Kilimnik has become known for rifling 19th-century Russian ballet, British romantic painting, classical literature, popular consumer culture, and even the Brothers Grimm to feather her image nest.
She effortlessly mixes childlike naiveté with sordid fantasy in a messy collage in which polar opposites seem to simultaneously contradict and complement each other. It's a heady brew.
Consider her many twisted historical trails in the first stop at MoCA, The red room in the modern Architecture, a white cube within a white cube near the museum's entrance. It's a Kilimnik backhand to the minimalist convention of displaying contemporary art in a pristine white room.
Step through the cracked door and you'll find yourself in a twilight zone, part Victorian parlor, part Best Little Whore House in Texas.
It houses a survey of the artist's kooky figurative paintings hung salon style on red brocade walls. A poofy, guava-tinged circular divan anchors the space.
Some might dismiss the derivative hokiness of her paintings; others will embrace their Barbie-brained charm.
Curl up on her gaudy couch and it's easier to become sold on Kilimnik's romantic hooey, given the suspension of belief the instillation invites.
Ornately framed works depict Leonardo DiCaprio as Prince Charming, while others serve up the artist as jet-setting minx ready to party in Moscow with a friend. A photo of a dead squirrel contrasts with a portrait of Mary Shelley before she wrote Frankenstein. Saint George stomps on a dragon outside the Kremlin in one work, while another offers a strangler's point of view of a headless woman's exposed neck. References to fairy tales, witches, and precious pictures of animals abound.
Throughout the exhibit, Kilimnik juggles schizzy identities and dipsy-doodles between time periods and genres as she concocts a baroque potion that elaborately mixes fiction with fact. We are left wondering what gears are turning in the artist's head and why she goes to such lengths to draw us into her Mittyesque world, only to dissolve into thin air when we think we've pinned her down.
Ultimately Kilimnik leaves it to viewers to drink the Kool-Aid, embrace her skullduggery, and jump aboard for the magic carpet ride. Make no mistake, though: An unbridled passion for her subject matter and wicked paint skills ring clear as a church bell in her work here.
An interesting new wrinkle at MoCA allows visitors to use their cell phones to dial up commentary by curators, artists, collectors, and critics discussing Kilimnik's influences from art history and pop culture. The 12 audio tours range from one to two minutes in length and even include film director John Waters's take on the work. It's a nifty way to bone up on the artist's oeuvre.
Next up is The Hellfire Club episode of The Avengers, 1989, one of several of Kilimnik's "scatter" installations that first brought her attention.
She emerged in the early Nineties as part of the scatter generation of artists such as Félix González-Torres, Mike Kelly, and Cady Noland, whose work of the period was known for spit-together installations cooked up with every conceivable material from the scrap heap these artists could lay their mitts on.
Kilimnik's tribute to the Sixties British TV show was modeled on an episode called "A Touch of Brimstone," on view on a monitor at the rear of the museum.
In it the dashing John Steed and a hyperhot Emma Peel are seen fighting a wormy cabal of aristocrats who get their jollies through murder and mayhem. Inspired by the 18th-century Hellfire Club, the episode features period sets and costumes.
Kilimnik uses a trashed chandelier, photocopies, fabric, candelabra, toy swords and poleaxes, gilded frames, shattered mirrors, fake cobwebs, and a solitary riding boot stuffed with a string of pearls to stage her version of the secret agents' escapades. Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys warble from a battered boombox on the floor, fleshing out the tableau.
Another early installation that gets under the skin is I Don't Like Mondays, the Boom Town Rats, Shooting Spree, or Schoolyard Massacre. It riffs on the 1979 shooting spree in which 16-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on an elementary school playground across the street from her San Diego home. She used a rifle her father had given her for Christmas the month before.
A janitor and the school principal were killed when they tried to shield the kids; a policeman and eight children were wounded. At the end of a six-hour siege, Spencer told cops: "I don't like Mondays," adding she favored victims wearing red or blue jackets.
Kilimnik's bone-jarring installation features shooting targets, chicken wire, a lunchbox, a jump rope, notebooks, pencils, and a mechanical toy dog. It also includes an enlarged news article about the attack and a soundtrack with the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," which popularized the crime. This 1991 work eerily presages the 1999 Columbine shooting and the Virginia Tech massacre this past April.
Some of her works delve into glamour's seamy underbelly. One glittery drawing depicts Kate Moss in her scanties while contemplating murder, and a video captures a gaggle of supermodels cutting up during a photo shoot.
Drugs is yet another early scatter piece in which the artist has piled pills, a syringe, a spoon, a lighter, and suspicious white powder with a mirror and razor on the museum floor. It evokes the orgy of hedonistic excess that knocked bimbos off the catwalk during the supermodel heyday, and still speaks to the revolving-door visits to rehab for which imploding tartlets Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have recently earned headlines.
Arguably one of the most poignant drawings here is Lisa Steinberg (could have been a model), from 1988. The crayon-and-pastel-on-paper piece is tucked into a room painted powder blue and brimming with evidence of Kilimnik's love affair with the ballet.
Lisa Steinberg was a beautiful six-year-old child who had been beaten until nearly dead by her coked-up adoptive father, attorney Joel Steinberg, who left the unconscious child with his battered wife and then disappeared for a night on the town. When the case broke in New York in 1987, the girl became the face of child abuse in America. At Steinberg's trial, following Lisa's death, a doctor who had examined the injured girl testified the defendant commented, " I guess she won't be an Olympic athlete if she survives."
It's not surprising to see Kilimnik place the image of Lisa diagonally across from The bluebird in the folly, a beguiling video featuring a lovely gazebo inside which tiny fairylike ballerinas dance in an enchanted forest. It makes perfect sense that Kilimnik, whose inner child remains forever alive, would honor a prematurely lost soul in such a way.