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Paris in Versailles Sven Lütticken on Karen Kilimnik at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Some of Karen Kilimnik’s most noted recent exhibitions took place in historical interiors, such as the Palazzo Tito in Venice, to which Kilimnik added paintings and objects in the summer of 2005. While the 1930s pavilion that houses London’s Serpentine Gallery has a traditionalist and classicizing exterior, its exhibition spaces presented Kilimnik with fairly standard white cubes. For her show, these have been painted in various colours; they have also been donned with curtains, potted plants and sundry other accoutrements, as well as the artist’s paintings. In a green “orangerie” and a brown room with horse-riding paraphernalia, the historical references in the décor are somewhat abstracted and generic; in these two rooms in particular, the impression lingers that Kilimnik has been forced to work on a scale that is slightly disproportionate to her intimate paintings, which radically break with the dimensions expected from “ambitious” American art since the days of Abstract Expressionism.

Karen Kilimnik, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2007, Installationsansicht Karen Kilimnik, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2007, Installationsansicht

Smaller and more detailed – even if only up to a point – is the pink classicist interior adjacent to the orangerie – a partial and scaled-down replica of the Great Hall at Ragley Hall in England, which is depicted in the delicate and sketchy painting hung in this space. Another room pairs an architectural folly, “Antechambers” (2005), with drawings and paintings that include a remarkable Fragonard variation, the portrait “The 1700’s – dinner soirée” (2000). Working with and through the debasement of painting styles and techniques in nineteenth- and twentieth-century illustration, Kilimnik’s paintings emphasize historical distance even while seeking to appropriate the past and repeat historical forms. As Scott Rothkopf and Meredith Martin de-monstrate in a booklet published by the Serpentine, Kilimnik’s work contains numerous direct quotations from eighteenth-century art, both English and French, as well as from lesser-known nineteenth-century (animal) painters, such as Landseer and Raeburn. [1]

Even though the cheap-looking water-soluble oil and the often sketchy – though at other times quite hard and brittle – execution prevent Kilimnik’s paintings from appearing traditionalist, the overt quotations and repetitions in her work may seem to call the historical validity of her work into question. After all, Walter Benjamin famously attacked nineteenth-century historicism as the triumphant bourgeoisie’s attempt to present itself as the natural heir to all of history, while more recently the retro trends and nostalgia culture of postmodern culture have been lambasted by Fredric Jameson for denying history by the sweeping reduction of periods to a set of easily identifiable signs – rather than through the minute stylistic borrowings that characterized the more committed manifestations of nineteenth-century historicism.

In the early 1990s, Kilimnik’s art seemed to be very much de son temps, consisting as it did of floor-bound “scatter” pieces invoking abjection. The only two examples of such works in the Serpentine exhibition are to be found in the central space, which is teeming with gothic motifs: an assembly of cards, knives and candles and some crystal balls and feathers, both pieces evoking magical practices as stand-ins for Kilimnik’s historical voodoo. As is evident from these works, even the scatter pieces evoked distant and mysterious worlds; regressively strewn around on the floor in quasi-formless yet elegant ensembles, Kilimnik’s scatter pieces appeared to props in little dramas of projection and introjection. Finding something strange and making it both less and more so by excessively investing part of oneself into it: Kilimnik has continued to explore this mechanism in her painting since the mid-1990s, using ever more direct historical quotations in ways that exacerbate and illuminate the mechanisms of both nineteenth-century historicism and of contemporary retro culture.

One painting in her Serpentine show, in the “orangerie”, seems tailor-made for discussing Kilimnik’s work from this perspective: “Marie Antoinette out for a walk at her petite Hermitage, France, 1750” (2005), in which the French queen is depicted in the guise of Paris Hilton, seen up close against the background of the hameau at Versailles – the proto-Disney fake village in which the queen sought refuge from the stifling court protocol. The comparison with Sofia Coppola’s movie “Marie Antoinette”, in which Kirsten Dunst plays the queen as a modern American girlie to a soundtrack of 1980s new wave hits, is all but unavoidable. Yet to call Coppola’s film “Kilimnikian”, as Rothkopf does, is to neglect certain crucial differences.

Coppola’s film shows the degree to which the nostalgia culture analyzed by postmodern theorists is still indebted to nineteenth-century historicism, which continued to blossom in the twentieth century in cinematic “costume dramas” such as D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance”. Both historicism and nostalgia culture appropriate and normalize the past by using it as set-dressing for narratives that posit contemporary modes of subjectivity as universally valid. However, Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” is typical in largely abandoning historical historicism’s claim to providing insight into the past, even while surreptitiously modeling it on the present. What remains is a play with sumptuous dresses, décors and retro-pop; Kirsten Dunst’s half-hearted pretense at playing a historical figure while appearing as an escapee from MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” strengthens the suggestion that we are dealing with a kind of “historicism lite”. Far from breaking with historicism’s claim of ownership, such a disinclination to take history too seriously – or even to hold up the pretense, as Hollywood did in the past – is in effect the drastic affirmation of ownership; it means that the possession is too cheap and disposable to be treated carefully.

In some ways, Coppola’s film is indeed reminiscent of Kilimnik’s own play with historical signifiers, and her tendency to insert her portrait into scenes from the swinging sixties or more distant pasts; however, Kilimnik’s appropriations seem far less casual. Her work is marked by an over-eager projection on historical as well as contemporary images, on Leonardo di Caprio just as much as on Fragonard and the Ancien Régime, the nineteenth-century ballet or on the swinging London of the sixties (though Paris Hilton is executed in brushwork that is awkward enough to suggest that she does not have quite the same wish-fulfillment potential). Rothkopf and Martin link this excessive projection of desire to eighteenth-century women’s second-hand experience of the Grand Tours made by their male relatives, reading their letters at home and looking at reproductions; a closer precedent for her gaze, however, would be Joseph Cornell, who shared a number of Kilimnik’s passions – including glamorous stars, nineteenth-century ballet, and in general the whole mystique of a distant old Europe. In Kilimnik’s as in Cornell’s work, the desire to appropriate is so strong that the signs lose any sense of consensual “naturalness”; the readymade time of historicism is out of joint.

However, the Serpentine presentation also suggests that it is relatively easy to neutralize Kilimnik’s art, to appropriate her appropriations. The installations in which Kilimnik shows her paintings are an integral aspect of her work; they constitute a dialogue with the immersive aspect of that contemporary historicism lite. However, piling one fake interior upon another turns the Serpentine into a theme park of sorts, and the subversive perversion of Kilimnik’s work is sometimes drowned out by a barrage of effects. If curators and critics keep insisting on presenting Kilimnik as the Sofia Coppola of contemporary art, they may have their way in the end.

„Karen Kilimnik“, Serpentine Gallery, London, February 20 – April 9, 2007.


[1]Scott Rothkopf/Meredith Martin, “Period Eye: Karen Kilimnik’s Fancy pictures”, London 2007.