Karen Kilimnik’s current show at 303 Gallery in Chelsea is refreshingly spare and conceptually tight. Centered on a multimedia installation from 1989 titled The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers, the show also includes a few drawings from the late ‘80s and a handful of paintings and photographs from 2011. The disparate elements on view gel to create a sort of mini-opera, complete with a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Right before you can scream “kitsch!” the show stakes the claim that performing arts-style drama is relevant in contemporary fine art, and it’s utterly convincing (unless you hate Sofia Coppola and Black Swan, then don’t bother, and p.s. you’re boring).
Carrying much of the dramatic weight here is the audio track in the Avengers installation. Re-mastered to be louder and clearer than the original, the track includes snippets of Madonna, Haydn, and the Rolling Stones, among others. It weaves its way into your experience, tying it in with a mood that could be described as “retro-sinister.” Apparently, the installation is based on a particularly saucy and controversial episode of the British cult classic spy TV series by the same name — but you don’t really need to know that to be drawn into the work. Unlike many installations that still feature the stultifying Bill Viola “art hum,” (a.k.a. pretentiously creepy mouth breathing sounds), Kilimnik understands the power of a good soundtrack. The audio, which is at turns catchy, ambient and suspenseful, lends a bit of drama to a trio of fairly pedestrian full moon photos, and overall imbues the show with a dynamic narrative that would otherwise be absent.
The simplistic term “Scatter Art”, for which Kilimnik became known at the outset of her career, fails to describe how varied and formally acute The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers really is. Despite the staging and use of prop-like materials, Kilimnik knows how to throw stuff around in a way that feels way more considered than clusterfucked. For instance, a faint white chalk drawing of an Edwardian manor on black paper ever-so-gently peels away from the black wall. A black velvet curtain on the same wall leads to nowhere, casually adding an unseen dimension. Plastic axes and Halloween-grade cobwebs are manipulated in a way that transcends a haunted house aesthetic without stripping them of their store-bought oomph. Although it might sound corny, a group of photos, Xeroxes, empty picture frames and shards of glass flesh out what is an immersive theatrical experience.
Few artists assimilate such disparate personal fetishes into their art as seamlessly as Kilimnik does. In any given piece, she implicates widespread historical eras, painterly techniques, and psychological states. The Ragamuffin of Kiddington Hall is as fey and dashing as any Fragonard, but with a touch of Brit rock attitude. Her drawings, which take their cues from advertising and employ a speedy illustrative touch, are impossible to date. They have a ‘60s vibe that looks simultaneously current, yet they were actually made in 1989. Kilimnik’s signature knack for turning animal portraits into fetching character studies is also present in dog and cat paintings that are both fragile and endearing.
In essence, this show seems to be about the fleeting nature of… well, nature. It’s almost like if you were to stare at some of the works too long, they might dash off the wall or fade away like a passing trend. Kilimnik can be equally hard to pin down. According to the current issue of Interview magazine, she recently relocated to Montana from her longtime home in the Philadelphia suburbs. Who knows, maybe this accounts for the spaciousness of the installation. A full moon photo called My Walk in the Woods at Night underscores the noir vibe that prevails in this show, in lieu of her usual regally saccharine interior worlds. This time we’re outside, sort of… under the chandelier-lit night sky.