Karen Kilimnik, Prince Charming, 1998. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

Karen Kilimnik: Taking the Naive Moment to a Poignant Edge

Karen Kilimnik, St. George at the Kremlin, 2003, Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

Karen Kilimnik, The bluebird in the folly, 2007. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.


Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue

Karen Kilimnik
February 23-June 8, 2008

From celebrity portrayals to Old Masters-style art history, Karen Kilimnik's work combines romantic tradition, childhood nostalgia, pop culture, and feminine psychology. This exhibition provides the final opportunity to view Kilimnik’s first solo U.S. survey exhibition filled with imagery that has been culled from the historic and recent past and channeled into an unsettling present. The exhibition spans fifteen years of painting, drawing, sculpture, photographs, video, and installation.

Kilimnik is recognized for paintings that combine art historical tradition, modish topicality, and an awkward intimacy and fragility. The works also draw on literary traditions of gothic mystery and fairy tales, presenting narratives that unfold over the course of a series of related paintings. Small oil paintings of pop culture figures such as Paris Hilton, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Snow White are swirled into classical settings and displayed salon-style in a parlor room constructed in the gallery complete with damask wallpaper and a settee. Kilimnik’s use of copying and "mastering" works by past artists is evident in her Master Hare (1997) painting series after the work by Sir Joshua Reynolds of the same name and subject.

Alternatively, in the Me as self-portrait photograph and painting series, Kilimnik is disguised, with black marker sketches, as famous dancers, models, and movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gelsey Kirkland. The poetics and frustrations of projecting one’s self through media culture are expressed in drawings, which borrow from a wide range of sources, to read as diary-like disclosures. Collectively, these works show how Kilimnik has expended an essentially collage-based practice into a full-scale and theatrical form of production. A recent video project, The bluebird in the folly (2006), is screened in a small gazebo-like structure.

Kilimnik emerged in the late 1980s as part of the “scatter art” scene, presenting patently punk and deconstructed installation art. Scatter art was a proving ground where early 1980s Appropriation Art was given new life by infusions from early 1970s Process Art. Various bits of pop cultural debris are strewn about a gallery space to create a sensibility somewhere between the Postminimalism of Robert Morris and Barry Le Va and the backstage of a fashion preview. The exhibition highlights several examples of this type of art including Kilimnik’s The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers (1989), a mixed-media installation that references an episode of the 1960s British spy television show. Black sheets of paper, ornate mirrors, and a smashed chandelier are arranged in the corner of a bare gallery along with photocopied images of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel and Georgian-style mansions. This installation is complete with a soundtrack of Pet Shop Boys and Madonna songs, as well as The Avengers theme song.

Additional scatter installations include Drugs (1991), featuring bright yellow pills and white powder spilled on the floor; and Switzerland, the Pink Panther & Peter Sellers & Boris & Natasha & Gelsey Kirkland in Siberia (1991), a winter scene that portrays two Pink Panther dolls situated among fake snow and ice, ballet slippers, and a fondue pot.

An artist of international stature, Kilimnik was born in 1957 and is a native of Philadelphia. In 1992, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, presented her first museum show. Since then, she has received solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Ireland; Kunsthalle, Zurich; and the White Cube, London. Recent exhibitions include a show organized by L’Arc in Paris and a show of ballet-inspired installations in Venice and Basel. In 2005, she created two major site-specific installations in Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice, and Kirschgarten Basel Historisches Museum, Vasel. Four drawings are in the MCA Collection.

Karen Kilimnik, Pink Panther Switzerland, the Pink Panther & Peter Sellers & Boris & Natasha & Gelsey Kirkland in Siberia, 2007, Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Karen Kilimnik, Videostill from Heathers.

Karen Kilimnik and Heathers: It's All about the Context

Karen Kilimnik, Videostill from Heathers.

Karen Kilimnik, Videostill from Heathers.

Karen Kilimnik, Videostill from Heathers.

Karen Kilimnik, Videostill from Heathers.


Monika Sprüth
Philomene Magers
Oranienburger Straße 18
+ 49 (0)30 / 2 88 84 03 0
Karen Kilimnik. Heathers
November 11, 2008-January 31, 2009

Karen Kilimnik’s video Heathers, produced in 1994 and presented in an austere and sepulchral physical environment, is based on the cult American satire Heathers (1989), directed by Michael Lehmann and starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, who were at the time idols to a generation of angst-ridden youth.

The original motion picture is a dark and humorous story of teenage conformity and rebellion in picket-fence America. The title refers to three girls of the same name who, with their friend Veronica (Ryder), are at the pinnacle of the high school hierarchy. Just as Veronica begins to question the wisdom of her association with the Heathers she encounters and becomes lovers with a deterministically named juvenile delinquent called J.D. (Slater), whose anarchic and irreverent attitude to responsibility and authority results in a trail of bloodshed, starting with two of the Heathers.

As an acid dramatization of the social and sexual confusions of adolescence and young adulthood, the original Heathers chimes with Karen Kilimnik’s fascination with the uncanny nature of white American mainstream society, trash culture and the emotional, fragile world of teenagers. Kilimnik’s artistic remix of the original is directly filmed off a television monitor, and extends the original three hours long thriller into a six hours tour-de-force artwork by slowing down, freeze framing, fast forwarding, rewinding and repeating individual scenes, sometimes ad nauseam.

Like Kilimnik’s painting practice, Heathers reveals an ambiguous attitude towards the clichéd woman of American mass media, an attitude that sits intriguingly between fetishisation and critique. By breaking up the narrative structure of the film into separate scenes, Kilimnik shifts the viewer’s attention away from the storyline towards a non-linear constellation of key moments, including the opening scene and its famous quote, “What’s your damage, Heather?”

The fragmentation of narrative also places more focus on the female stars, invoking a critical tradition which identifies the representation of female sexuality in classical Hollywood film as constructed around the still image, the pause or pose, which invites the spectator to contemplate woman as a visual spectacle.

Heathers locates Kilimnik not only in a particular kind of feminist tradition, but also within a specific generation of artists’ film and video makers. Kilimnik, like other mid-1990s artists, was fascinated by the advent of digital technology and the way it exposed the limits and the unique qualities of celluloid film and its aesthetics. For Kilimnik, DVD and video technology are based on and encourage a fetish of spectatorship, because they offer the possibility of scene selection, freeze frame, slow motion and other tools which push the spectator out of the "passive" cinema seat into a position of play and control. By extracting short film sequences from the linear narrative of the film, and by repeating them over and over again, Kilimnik exemplifies the concept of the so-called "possessive spectator" of the digital age, whose desire to interrogate, possess and hold the elusive image generates a new form of compulsive repetition.

Heathers is viewed in a chapel-like room, a context which deliberately alludes to the funeral scene in the film. The sacred and reverential atmosphere of the installation environment, with screen as altar, also subtly and humorously points towards the worship of the Hollywood idol that so fascinates Kilimnik. This sense of kitsch morbidity and awe typifies Kilimnik’s use of exaggeration and irony, which have long been central to her artistic practice.

Karen Kilimnik (1955) was born in Philadelphia where she lives and works. Her film work includes Emma Peel, 1991, Remington Steel, 1995, Kate Moss, 1996, and The Bluebird in the Forest, 2005. Her main body of work involves painting and drawing, in which she combines old master painting style with images from popular culture and mass media. Since the late 1980s Kilimnik has created a series of installation environments made from everyday objects. Recent retrospective exhibitions include Karen Kilimnik at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami and Chicago 2007/08. In 2007 her work was presented in a solo exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which travelled to the Serpentine Gallery in 2007.

Karen Kilimnik, Videostill from Heathers.