Thursday September 20, 2007

Karen Kilimnik at MoCA

Before you go any further, grab a phone and call 786.735.1945. Ignore the nice recording, and punch in 1-1-#, and you’ll hear what at least one person thought of this piece. I love this because it makes the painting immediate, and it dispels the notion that lay-people often have of contemporary art, which is that you either “get it” or you don’t. (If you’re feeling adventurous, and you haven’t seen the show yet, try also 1-#, curator Ingrid Schaffner’s introduction to the show’s opening gambit, the “red room” installation.)

Karen Kilimnik’s show at MoCA demands unhurried exploration. Strains of meaning and beauty undulate around her paintings, installations, drawings, photos, sculptures, and videos, and they reveal themselves to the patient viewer. Kilimnik is known for her “scatter art” installations, but honestly, those were some of the less interesting pieces in the show. Picture a couple of piles of cartoonishly large yellow and blue pills, a mirror with a white powder, a razor blade, and a syringe. Or picture the most predictable tableau possible based on the Boomtown Rat’s I Don’t Like Mondays (chicken wire, gun-range targets, and a recording of the aforementioned tune on headphones).

Karen Kilimnik It’s all uphill from there, though. Kilimnik’s paintings are genuinely great — she has a feel for gesture, for color, for context, and especially for narrative. They also tell a story. There’s the story of the fenced Stonehenge (above), and there’s the red room installation that front-loads the show with a bombastic show of pure power. A free-standing little room in a large and otherwise-empty gallery contains a circular couch, red wallpaper, and 50 paintings, hung salon-style on all the walls. There is appropriation and anachronism in these paintings (and at least one is left intentionally incomplete), but what drives them is her technique — bold and loose, but extremely lucid. I suspect they would be judged excellent by any painting snob, yet they work extremely well subsumed into this rather playful larger project.

kilimnik, drawing The heart of the exhibition, however, are Kilimnik’s drawings. Employing a single-panel cartoon strategy without any of that format’s smugness or ease, they showcase her love/hate relationship with drawing, and play around with meaning, often leaving it just out of reach. Even after including text (both in the drawing and in the title) and overlapping symbolic references, we are usually left with an intriguing juxtaposition, not an overt statement. They make no attempt to delight the eye the way the paintings do, and often include elements drawn with deliberate clumsiness, stray marks, and a general approach to the surface that recalls the Basquiat school

There is a real magic to most of the pieces in the show. They are beautiful to behold, but their allure goes beyond their visual draw. They are loaded with meaning that walks just the right line of ambiguity — always hinting at a larger truth, but never allowing that truth to be captured and contained (clear-cut meaning is the short road to irrelevance in art).

One installation piece in the show consists of a splatter of red paint low down on a wall, accompanied by four fingerprint-like marks and a hand-drawn “S” in the same paint, all accompanied by a rectangle of pink synthetic fur on the ground and odd playing-card symbols attached to the wall. A nearby (but separate) piece consists of a silk sheet among straw with a black candle and more playing card symbols. What are we to make of this? Did a once-rich person, reduced by some sinister illness (one of the titles makes reference to smallpox), crawl from one space to the other to die, first issuing a vague message to the future? Again, no literal explanation will account for every element, and so the piece(s) play around with meaning without dashing towards it.

The show is rounded out with a couple of large installations, including a large room filled with aquatic objects which is somewhat less satisfying then the rest of the show. The back room collects several pieces that are again quite different from the rest of Kilimnik’s work. A dark photograph of a solitary figure, accompanied by two glittered twigs (arranged somewhat like antlers around the framed print) is especially evocative. Possibly the least interesting element in the show are the five video pieces, which seem to be mostly based on appropriated video. Haphazardly spliced together, they seem like transcriptions of someone experimenting with a collection of tapes and a television remote control, and with the exception of one that features footage from a fashion documentary (which is interesting more for the source material then the treatment), they leave one wondering whether the “meaning” is worth perusing.

The exhibition as a whole is more powerful then the sum of its parts because, while the techniques and media are all over the place, there is a profound and mysterious sensibility that pervades almost every piece in it. It isn’t anything as neatly tied up as “feminism” (though certainly feminist concerns are raised more then once), but rather an approach to the world which is way too subtle to be contrived, but way too distinct and present to be missed.

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  1. Duran    Thu Sep 20, 11:20 AM #  

    Well, you convinced me… dammit, now I gotta drive to North Miami.

  2. Franklin    Thu Sep 20, 12:59 PM #  

    I’m a painting snob, I guess, and I don’t judge these excellent or anything close to it. The drawing is mawkish, faux-naif twaddle, and the painting doesn’t represent boldness so much as a misunderstanding thereof that results in an anemic poster-paint effect. This mannerism has enough practitioners to merit a category, which I call Wan Figuration, and it includes Kilimnik, Peyton, Tuymans, Bas, Doig, Owens and others. All of them got the idea that capitalizing on a frankly illustrative look would be a good idea, as a kind of antecedent to the Bad Painting work that came up in the ’80s. It has its moments, but there’s little substance behind the style. I promise you that any Kilimnik put next to a Rothenberg would melt off the wall.

  3. Guv    Thu Sep 20, 02:25 PM #  

    Loved the Waters phone commentary! Thanks.

  4. whl    Thu Sep 20, 04:30 PM #  

    I agree with Franklin. For me the drawings & the paintings in the show are a lil’ too naive for my liking…yuskivage, curin, and minter are far superior in painting than she will ever be.

  5. Onajídé Shabaka    Thu Sep 20, 05:57 PM #  

    I haven’t checked out the phone tour but, I asked Bonnie last fall why something like that could not happen here. I got the first taste of that at the Walker, where I’m heading in the morning. No matter what show is up, that facility is one of the best in the US.

  6. Careless    Thu Sep 20, 08:47 PM #  

    Franklin’s comments are always predictable, trite and show his complete lack in understanding of the contemporary art world.

    Yes, the paintings may seem thin, but it is the deeper meaning and associations which lay beneath the surface that is meaningful.

    I’ve seen Franklin’s “paintings” and if you want to talk about art and painting like its Franklin’s high school experience, then yes Karen Kilimnik can kick his ass in the parking lot, give him an atomic wedgie in the locker room and leave him cowering in the corner of the cafeteria with no date for the senior prom.

    Kilimnik’s work is vast, wide, deep, meaningful, funny and thought provoking.

  7. Franklin    Thu Sep 20, 10:42 PM #  

    Ah, it is the deeper meaning that is meaningful. Thanks for clearing that up.

  8. Careless    Fri Sep 21, 06:57 AM #  

    Yes, m e a n i n g f u l.
    The titles, references, subject matter, connections, and continuity, references to art history, popular culture, personal insights all have meaning.
    It is not about who can push paint around on a canvas better….this is not a high school popularity contest. It’s not about you ghettoizing painters you don’t like. Her work has merit. It is well executed, thought provoking and creates a sense of poetry, it is not easy to articulate how it succeeds, but it does and in many way on many different levels.

  9. alesh    Fri Sep 21, 09:21 AM #  


    I wasn’t expecting a positive reaction from you re the drawings (although you’re being a bit absurd . . . “twaddle”? really?).

    The paintings, though. I can see putting the first one (which is not from the red room) in the category you’ve created, and I don’t even mind the term “Wan Figuration,” but the second one is entirely something different. In fact, almost all the paintings in the red room are cut from different cloth entirely. They are much more painterly, and the reproduction doesn’t really do them justice. Not sure if you’ve seen them in person, but I suspect not. I suspect that you’re maybe lashing out at them because they’re paintings in the service of something other then paint?

    Careless~ “Thin?” Have you seen the show, or are you just arguing with Franklin for sport?

  10. Franklin    Fri Sep 21, 10:19 AM #  

    Careless, “thought provoking” isn’t a virtue when it provokes thoughts not worth having, but we can’t blame Kilimnik for that.

    Alesh, I also find your response to them absurd, although I elected not to put it that way. Reproduction never does anything justice; these don’t look good in person, and yes, I have seen Kilimniks in person. You can suspect anything you want. Paintings have been made to serve all kinds of non-art purposes since the beginnings of recorded history. These are just not painted well.

  11. l'elk!    Fri Sep 21, 11:55 AM #  

    what ever happened to “to each their own”? i cant understand people who will go on and on about something they don’t like. if it exists, and its on a gallery wall, then at least someone enjoys it and i think that’s wonderful. granted, i’ve seen a lot of art i personally thought was horrid but i’ve gotten into the habit of just smiling and quickly exiting the gallery(not before grabbing some free booze, of course).

    “the man who tires to please the whole world please no one, not even himself.”

  12. mkh    Fri Sep 21, 01:39 PM #  

    l’elk!, the obsessive waving about of critical wangs is a major contributor to my decision to avoid most discussions of art. Art is that which affects us, and most art criticism is an attempt to tell an audience why the critic’s opinion is more important than the audience’s own experience.

    I like Alesh’s commentary here because even though I am poorly educated on the historical and technical aspects, I get the impression that I might come away from the exhibition entertained, if not actually enlightened. But don’t get cocky, Alesh — you’ve come across as an insufferable art snob often enough in the past. I am encouraged by this change. ;-)

  13. Franklin    Fri Sep 21, 03:22 PM #  

    Mkh, discussions about art can be interesting and productive, even (or especially!) between parties that disagree. Art criticism can be elevated and illuminating. The trick is to actually discuss the art. Once people start discussing each other, things go to hell pretty quickly.

    L’elk has a good approach, though – if there’s no buzz to be had in the work…

    I tend to agree with Whl about Currin et al. regarding the images above. All of them would make for damning comparisons.

  14. l'elk!    Fri Sep 21, 04:03 PM #  

    so if there is “buzz” about the work you can get away with calling it “mawkish, faux-naif twaddle” without looking completely silly for taking life too seriously?

  15. Franklin    Fri Sep 21, 05:46 PM #  

    L’elk, I was talking about scoring the free booze. Sorry if that was obtuse. As for looking silly (or predictable, trite, etc.), who cares?

  16. alesh    Sun Sep 23, 11:34 AM #  

    Franklin~ I’m saying that if you gave the works in Red Room a look, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised. They’re much less fussy then her other painting work (which is primarily represented in the show by the first image above), and they’re not constrained by the inclusion of those narrative elements (Stonehenge behind a fence, etc.).

  17. Franklin    Sun Sep 23, 04:34 PM #  

    can has pix pls?

  18. Careless    Sun Sep 23, 06:07 PM #  

    Try this:,GGLJ:2006-28,GGLJ:en&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=X&oi=images&ct=title

  19. Franklin    Sun Sep 23, 10:31 PM #  

    Specifically, the pictures that Alesh is referring to.

  20. Careless    Mon Sep 24, 07:02 AM #

    Try these.

  21. Franklin    Mon Sep 24, 10:05 AM #  

    Thanks for assembling those URLs, Careless. They reinforce my opinion of her work, but I appreciate the effort.

  22. Careless    Tue Sep 25, 08:58 PM #  

    well, you know what they say about opinions……

  23. Jacqueline    Wed Sep 26, 10:55 AM #  

    For any of you that are interested there is a video sharing website (uVu) targeting the South Florida area that has a bunch of MOCA exhibit videos. Right now the Optic Nerve and the New Art: South Florida exhibits can be viewed. These are some really interesting exhibits. You can check it out at and search keyword “MOCA

  24. alesh    Wed Sep 26, 11:09 AM #  

    Franklin~ I tried. The second image I have above is the best I could do, and it just doesn’t do the painting justice. There was a much better reproduction of the piece on the invite, but I threw it out. Maybe someday you’ll see the show in person, but there’s a good chance you won’t change your mind anyway.

    Jacqueline~ I’m working on a post about uVu.

  25. Franklin    Wed Sep 26, 01:50 PM #  

    True, Careless. That’s why it makes such a difference when you sign your real name to them.

    Alesh, when you say I probably wouldn’t change my mind about them, we’re discussing me, not the art. Please reread #13 to Mkh. But since you bring it up, you also likely won’t change your mind about them. This is either a problem for both of us or neither of us.

  26. knowless    Wed Sep 26, 02:24 PM #  

    be reasonable and see the show; it’s art within the market and, if not for any other reason besides what’s hot right now, you should see it and then rip it an(other) ass. this kind of work, in all its daintiness, annoys me beyond belief. nonetheless,i think i benefit from seeing it, at least because it informs me on the persistent preoccupation most (middle-aged especially) artists have with the current fads, celebrities, and maybe even their own fame…you’re too smart to abide strictly to selective practices or examples of meaningful art, and its processes.

  27. Jacqueline    Wed Sep 26, 04:05 PM #  

    Oh that’s great. Can’t wait to read it :)

  28. Franklin    Wed Sep 26, 06:55 PM #  

    Knowless, all things being equal, I might. I live on the other side of the country now, though. And I’m pretty well apprised of how artists are commonly preoccupied with the current fads. You can hardly escape the evidence.

  29. knowless    Thu Sep 27, 03:24 AM #  

    are you in new mexico or california?

  30. Franklin    Thu Sep 27, 09:44 PM #  

    California. Contact me for the full story.