The Slightest Move: On Two Artists Who Possess a Profoundly Light Touch


For over two decades, the art of Karen Kilimnik has so divided audiences that one might think of her work as a kind of Rorschach test for the art enthusiast. What do you see here? Her fans insist that the painter is Pop Art’s wiliest heiress — the doe-eyed kin of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince — holding up a cracked looking glass through which one crosses into sadistically sweet visions of empires long gone, or never really here. Her detractors claim her aesthetic is inane, her hand immature, that it’s all a performance of a stunted femininity, unbecoming of a mature female artist. Although her
current show at 303 Gallery is terribly uneven, it fascinated — morbidly and otherwise — for the way Kilimnik’s work can so deftly play two sides of a coin.

Take, for example, her collages, in which Kilimnik affixes cat stickers onto images of rococo beds, stately neoclassical rooms, and Renaissance tapestries depicting the Adoration, weaving tiny felines into the scenes. Though her use of stickers almost predates the internet, here it’s a terrifically crafty move: artworks Tumblr’d, transformed into memes IRL. It’s also a funny one. After all, in the imperial order of the internet, cats reign supreme. These collages possess an unctuous creep similar to Prince’s “New Portraits” series, in which he blows up Instagram selfies of hot chicks along with the comments he posts about them. Prince and Kilimnik make it seem so easy to be conceptually of This Very Moment; their gestures are infuriatingly, dispiritingly obvious. (Then again, they got there first.) But unlike the appropriation artist who loudly announces his angle of critique — Instagram! Hot chicks! Dirty old man! — Kilimnik gives no such smirk. Which is all to say that the work is not obviously arch; in fact, it’s rather stone-faced, exiling the observer from the “smart art” comfort zone.

The canvases often feel too unresolved to radiate the desired aura.

What is the bare minimum one can do while still creating a work of art with the requisite interior energy? This question weighs more heavily here in the context of Kilimnik’s paintings, also on view. Some are based on tapestries that re-created Baroque and Renaissance canvases, while others present us with sets designed for the ballet and theater; in other words, Kilimnik has painted reproductions of reproductions of imagined worlds. The idea is delicious, but the canvases often feel too unresolved to radiate the desired aura.

For example, in a sketchy start — “going off to battle” tapestry (2015), she presents us with a loose-handed scene of horses and riders in a landscape. It’s an assured work with decisive brushstrokes, but what’s interesting is how her languid attack creates a kind of visual equivalent of vocal fry, an affected nonchalance. Why play so fast and loose? It doesn’t help that this painting is made difficult to see, hung as it is alongside three others in a room lit by the low glow of a chandelier. Standing in the near-dark, one gets a nagging feeling that these works left the studio a little too soon.

There are exceptions. A serene still life of ceramic jugs and crocks gathered at the foot of a heavy wooden sideboard, titled Velazquez’s potteryware in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Dining Room, Amboise (2015), is an example of the artist at her most satisfying, concocting imagined histories which she paints with force and clarity. Apart from the title, there’s nothing in the piece that drives a narrative starring da Vinci or Velázquez: no sketches for The Last Supper lying around, no signatures on the crockery. So why does Kilimnik paint a corner of an otherwise unremarkable room? The answer — strange as it may seem — is what holds our attention and gives this painting its double life: because it wasn’t there.

Hanging on the wall at Metro
Pictures’ temporary space
Pitt Street is a set of instructions
B. Wurtz wrote in 1973 that reads:

1) Come

2) Go away

Call Untitled (come go away) a wink from the artist, one not to be read too literally, although you may find that his sculptures and paintings command your attention with a similar pull-push effect. Wurtz has long been praised for his unerring ability to transform less-than-luxurious found materials into artworks possessed of great wit and delicacy. Tin cans, two-by-fours, sweat socks, shoelaces, records, plastic shopping bags, and seashells are just some of the things he plucks from the world and places back into our sight, at which point inattention gives way to contemplation. In the words of the artist: “The beauty I’m after often goes beyond aesthetics and celebrates an object’s true nature.”

Currently on view are works by the artist ranging from 1970 to 2012. Despite its feeling a bit thrown together, the show is an absolute delight, in no small part because spending time among Wurtz’s small, spare totems and almost-architectures is always delightful. Seeing how he returns to the same materials over years and years testifies to the penetrating eye and exacting mind that propels each of his distinct offerings. You’ll likely find yourself entranced by the tiniest details. Some highlights: how the form of Untitled (socks with dots) (1994) echoes that of a trophy, though he builds his of wood, dowels, and two wire loops that prop up a brand-new pair of socks; a funny, wistful work titled Great Personal Meaning Only (1970/1989), in which a frame sits on a circular piece of wood, turned around to obscure whatever it might contain or display in favor of featuring the artist’s signature and the date; and the graceful Untitled (yellow tube sock) (2009), on which the searing-yellow garment stands at attention, wired like a banner to the top of a three-tiered pagoda-like construction. In each of these, as in the others, lurks a quiet reminder of just how transfixing the quietest gestures can be.

Karen Kilimnik
303 Gallery
507 West 24th Street
Through March 26

B. Wurtz
Metro Pictures
83 Pitt Street (temporary space)
Through March 20