Karen Kilimnik has been painting for a number of years now in the dialectical area between romanticism and irony, a tenuous relationship of interest to an increasing number of artists. Her most recent show once again showcases small paintings and photographs that seem to have been made by a regressive and obsessive teenage girl somewhere in rural America. Indeed, the pastel walls and white moulding employed in the gallery’s front room brought to mind an adolescent’s bedroom, while lending the pieces an historical air that furthered the artist’s desperate romanticism.
The problem here is that viewers are asked to indulge the work’s poor craftsmanship as an essential component of the artist’s project. It is true that this has been part of Kilimnik’s practice even before the art establishment more recently began to welcome (some would say actively seek) artists employing a more homemade/outsider/untaught aesthetic. And while one could perhaps attribute the stale feel of this show to the current preponderance of badly-made work around New York, it is hard to get excited by this exhausted and finally pretentious brand of work that revels in the bad drawing of fame- and fairytale-focused teens.
The larger issue lurking behind this discussion is the inherent political problem that often afflicts art that borrows stylistic conventions from outsider art. It makes its appeal as more “honest” and less informed, no doubt motivated in part by the large traveling survey of self-taught American art from a few years ago, and Madison Avenue’s subsequent peddling of artists from that exhibition, but dating back at least to early modernist fetishism of African art. Art school MFAs who self-consciously use this material without a focused agenda necessarily touch upon the sticky questions of class (and often race) that surround an aesthetic identified with artists who were often mentally ill, poor, or simply ignored by the high-art establishment of which these artists are trying to become a part. Kilimnik’s appropriation avoids these political problems—she impersonates what could easily have been herself at an earlier age, borrowing from a culture that feels native to her relative background—falling instead into an aesthetic haughtiness. It is frustrating to see more and more paintings by artists who want so badly to be unabashed romantics but who shamefully feel the need to check their presumably unfashionable desires with a variety of ironic techniques. The romantic re-popularization of the figure, for example, (led by bashful romantic John Currin), occurred through beautiful, well-crafted paintings that undercut their visual sincerity with a combination of anatomical fictions—which, for a while, felt like an honest underlining of the way in which commercial imagery has corrupted the sanctity of the body. Kilimnik’s deadpan dumbness, on the other hand, begs the enemies of serious art to once again raise their voices to ask why their children couldn’t make this stuff in school, with less and less aesthetic credibility with which to defend itself. It is hard to understand why anyone would want to look at, nevermind live with, bad copies of bad Impressionist paintings, unless they were done by your own children.
None of this is to suggest that the paintings are wholly without merit. The artist’s use of water-based oil paint both gives the works an interesting surface and more coyly suggests the uncomfortable middle-ground of adolescence, playing a kind of dress-up with materials. This is a smarter and less obvious way into the subject matter, using kitsch without picturing it. A few of the portraits pull off an ephemeral conjuring similar to the best Elizabeth Peyton canvases, radiating a seductive internal light. Whatever encouraging moments one can find among the paintings, however, are obliterated by the artist’s snapshot photographs of Madison Square Park and dead birds and squirrels on the road, complete with the camera-imposed date imprint. The utter silliness of these animal portraits is made clear by titles like “Just Resting” and “Snitch,” pushing the infantile reading of death as sleep or punishment. As is too often the case in Kilimnik’s art, the meat of this project is explained outside the works themselves. She would be better served to see these conceptual remnants as the adolescent props they so often are, instead of the intellectual justification they are assumed to be—and instead, free her imagery and technique from the ironic constraints of these faux-naif fetishes. The argument might be that she’s not being ironic, that all of this is intended sincerely and seriously. But it doesn’t look fun anymore, which suggests it’s probably time to grow up.
Luis Camnitzers One Number is Worth One WordBy Leah Gallant
FEB 2021 | Art Books
The recent collection of the artists writing on art and education concerns a keen interest in conceptual art as communication, museums as places of learning, the political possibilities of creative thinking, and a constant trespassing between disciplines and forms. Camnitzer rarely discusses his own work in these texts, but its through the lens of his visual work that his writing feels most fully formed.
A Language Cairn: Artists on Their PracticeBy Charlotte Kent
MAY 2023 | Art and Technology
Because this month I had the honor of acting as Guest Editor for the Critics Page, where I invited global curators and scholars to contribute a word theyd like to see or never see again in the discourse around art and technology, I thought I would develop this months column around the words that artists use and encounter about their practiceacross media. So I asked them what silly, uncomfortable, or productive term they encountered. It could be something said to them or something they say to themselves. Leaving aside the linguistic debates around performative utterances, words act around art as a network of ideas, a system if you will, or a kind of scatterplot of imaginative relations.
Karen Kilimnik: Early Drawings 1976 – 1998By Nick Marsico-Morea
JUNE 2022 | ArtSeen
120 of Kilimniks early works on paper selected by the artist and split between Presenhuber and Sprüth Magers in London reference everything from European mythology and aristocracy to luxury advertisements, pop culture icons Sharon Tate and Keith Richards, and mass media.
Wardell Milan: Bluets & 2 Years of Magical ThinkingBy Joel Danilewitz
MAY 2023 | ArtSeen
Walking through Wardell Milans new show at Sikkema Jenkins, I felt among his fleeting figures. In his exhibit, Bluets & 2 Years of Magical Thinking, the collages, sculptures, and paintings produce an intimate atmosphere. The audience forms a loose communion as they wander the three large rooms of the gallery, apprehending his vast paintings upon entrance.