In the late 90s, art in New York is not partaking in the communal consumerist fantasies fueled by the stock market boom. While bonus babies buy up brash utility vehicles, American art chugs along in its used car, rubbing its rosary beads in hope that old tires and worn parts will see the ride through. When the avant-garde program dies, art stops projecting a cultural image and artists retreat to personal concerns, where meaning is created at a trickling pace, in meandering paths, with fetishized and kitsch-laden charms, in ways often too subtle for any but fellow travelers in the shadows to see.
For hard-core modernists, and even for Cindy-Sherman-generation postmodernists, to enlist art as one of these charms is demeaning, and it certainly doesn't project the type of social program that art must set forth. And yet, in so many ways, this is where art is today.
These thoughts came to mind at Karen Kilimnik's new show of paintings at 303's lavish Chelsea cube. Back in the `80s Kiliminik's scatter pieces projected an image of the young artist into the world, spare installations that were all teenage girl, variously using fabrics, clothes, cosmetics, fashion mags, teddy bears, rock albums (like the Boomtown rats) and drawings of things like horses -- the sort of thing Pruitt and Early were doing for boys, or that Jason Rhoades is doing now. Back then the critics picked up on the scatter and floated bubbles of ironic smartness over it to create a social reading of time and a movement. But now the bubble is burst, and Kilimnik's art is meaningful only on unspoken personal premises.
The subtlety of this shift is nearly undetectable in the gallery. Pictures are lined up in a pretty row in the front; in the back are drawings. While the paintings look fine, they are not connected by any curatorial program. During the opening, the lights were periodically turned off in the front gallery and a dry ice mist was expelled across the floor -- suggesting a mysterious and otherworldly place more suited to her earlier works. Like an effect at a high school dance, the mist throws the portraiture into the dark, into the background of an ulterior motive.
Intellect does not here bravely set forth ideas: emotion alone clings to life, by the high-calorie kitsch-laden method of ready-made and borrowed effects. One green painting of a perfume bottle should not be mistaken as a Warholian gambit but instead, on the level of daydreams, reminds us that advertising of liquor, fashion or perfume can refer to 18th-century or Romantic England, and be ahistorical kitsch at the same time that it can germinate a true cultural interest and get one reading Johnson or Scott.
Most of Kilimnik's paintings evoke English romantic portraits -- from Gainsborough on through Winterthur (an Austrian, I believe, who nonetheless painted Victoria). Some "landscapes" even spy through the telescoped aperture of a perfume-bottle-vision at those old green-and-gold days in royal parks. A world, held away from us by tourism, can, through humble painting (as long as it doesn't overdo it), become a private snowcone world, just for oneself. Her quite cute images of contemporary Shrimptons, `90s girls with a swinging London look in eyeliner and hip hugger, all evoke easy surrender (also a fantasy!).
Kilimnik's perhaps inadvertent Anglophilia (one philia or another is inevitable in fantasy-laden engagements with fashion, art, music, dance) carries through in some of her drawings, most notably in a drawing featuring Liz Hurley, the face of the moment still. Instantly, upon her appearance, emerging as the injured party of a boyfriend's sexual infraction, Hurley became one of those figures that women identify with. And when, soon after, she came out to a premiere in Gianni Versace's "The Dress," we all began to look at her. (Odd, this past summer, Hurley in "The Dress" was the press's most often-used eulogistic photo, exemplifying Versace's recent accomplishments).
Kilimnik traces Hurley's image from a magazine cover, scribbles texts around her, idolizes and iconizes her: makes a drawing as private altar to an alter ego goddess. All her drawings have this kind of overboard-fan appeal. This is common now. It's how people live. Celebrity society is not evil mediated radiation, but commonsense compensation for broken families, unnuclearized family life, moved friends, strangers and more strangers. Kilimnik's tender messages were keenly felt, coming a week or so after the Princess Di death and funeral.
In reality, we all know that we live alone, or in very tiny tribes, among incomprehensibly large masses of strangers. Mediated emotion (a conceit formed by identification between a person's subjective life and the projected one of a public figure's) is not unreal emotion, but real, sincere, heartfelt: a form of self-management. Kilimnik -- in her paintings and drawings -- may not be any more in touch with "real life" as she ever was, but she's managing just fine.
Karen Kilimnik at 303 Gallery, Sept. 13-Oct. 25, 1997, 525 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011