Tuesday, 2 October 2007



A show earlier this year at The Serpentine Gallery, London and a touring survey prompt this post. Kilimnik’s work centres on painting, extends to photography and installation and concerns a kind of bemused worship or ardent identification with glamorous and fanciful roles and stories drawn from unlikely sources. Her work is not restricted to popular or topical subjects, her paintings do not underline print sources, so while her work nevertheless derives from Pop Art in some respects, focus lies elsewhere.

The target is not just cherished fiction for the young or vulnerable, but a kind of painting that answers the identification a little too wholeheartedly or not quite wholeheartedly enough. And where Kilimnik finds her range, the effect is not quite cheerful or sentimental, but rather an uneasy pathos. It is this acute, psychological dimension that finally distinguishes – and recommends – her work.

Kilimnik’s style developed slowly. An early example such as Brigitte Bardot Shopping in Shorts (1985) significantly looks to a star from an earlier era, invests her with a further nostalgia. The drawing, like a fashion sketch, notes the belt over a loose blouse, hot pants and sandals, is not just of a star in France, but essentially costume and attitude. However the drawing does not convey much more than the dress illustrator’s sketch as yet, does not acquire the neurotic attachment to remote icons of her mature work. A slightly later work, the photograph Me as Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet Before Horse Race (1988) squarely focuses on the relationship between fan and icon, the discrepancy between child star and adult woman (notably against an abstracted background, in soft focus). But the work is in some ways eclipsed by similar themes in the photography of Cindy Sherman at this time, and, one suspects it sacrifices too much of her source material in the interests of self-portraiture. Her subsequent photography does not pursue this direction.

Kilimnik’s drawing can include anecdote and strengthen the sense of spontaneous and intimate engagement, but it is as she broadens her range of subjects and uses a looser treatment that the work finds a subtler genre, makes a more incisive attitude. The works are small scale, even at a time when the trend is to easel-scale painting, and now include historical pastiche as well as images of sentimentality. The work is often dismissed as dealing in the faux-naif, inspired by Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings, perhaps, or the slacker indifference of Luc Tuymans, and her work overlaps with these certainly, in Chloe from Blood on Satan’s Claw (1996) and Me Getting Ready to Go Out to a Rock Concert with Bernadette in Moscow in 1977 (1997) the latter work, not to be confused with a larger, 2006 version. But importantly, the range of subjects and treatments increasingly comprise ensembles, are exhibited in salon-like clusters, and usually in an installation providing elaborate décor, an all-encompassing framework for this diffusion; sometimes called the scattered approach.

Kilimnik’s work is often bracketed with that of Elizabeth Peyton, and the differences are illuminating. Peyton’s work is more narrowly concerned with celebrity portraiture, in particular with contemporary young men. Her treatment stresses bright lips, an effete or effeminate expression and often passive pose. Peyton sentimentalises, in a knowing parody of adolescent girl’s depictions of male idols and this has no parallel in Kilimnik. Even where Kilimnik covers similar ground, her picture conveys an emptiness rather than prettiness, literally struggles to depict Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, much less render him on adorable terms.

The difference points to a more general feature to Kilimnik’s work; the fixation on distant or childhood icons, their hasty or casual treatment. In works such as Steed Leaving for Costume Party on Deserted Island - Emma Stays Home to Work (2006) drawing remains surprisingly accurate while painting looks rushed or a travesty. To some extent Kilimnik uses painting to translate the figures (from The Avengers TV series of the 60s) into a desperate folk art, beyond that demonstrates an inadequacy on both sides: as painting and mythic couple. There is finally, a crippling vacuum between them. Kilimnik seizes and hordes old identifications but there is anxiety in what use they might now provide, in the overload. Tellingly, the arrays prompt décor, furniture, perhaps summon old episodes or more recently, a whole ballet of ritual gesture, but the sense is of an absence of more than that, the fuller person or picture, the more assimilated enterprise. The work clings to relics at the periphery, for compensation.

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