After Drawings (1997), Paintings (2001) and Kirschgarten (2005), Photographs is the fourth artist’s book by the Philadelphiaborn and based Karen Kilimnik (b.1955) to be published by Edition Patrick Frey. It brings together the sporadically exhibited and by and large unknown photographic works of the artist, who gained fame in the 1980s with her “scatter art” installations and later with her paintings.
Karen Kilimnik takes pictures with the same gesture she paints with: an unerring sense of the glut of shiny surface beauty, under which lurk the shades of monstrous things unseen and unspoken. She takes pictures with a shrewd, informed eye. She adores kitsch, but she knows how phony it is and how much this phoniness makes it irresistible. She is a wise old soul but she’s absolutely determined to preserve the innocence and vulnerability of a young and restless mind. In Bourdieu’s words, her photography strikes a perfect balance between the “ritual” and the “artistic.” Kilimnik takes pictures of what she unconditionally loves, and this love is eclectic and deeply darkly romantic. She photographs idylls ad nauseam: the rolling hills of the Cotswolds in south central England, so leafy they almost seem unreal; a ladies’ bicycle, hedge-lined streets, sheep in the shadow of a tree, cows in the morning mist, a squirrel that seems to be nibbling on a flower, sitting ducks on the banks of a stream. Kilimnik views profane reality through the mercilessly wide-open eyes of her camera lens, transforming it in her photographs into a stage for her fabulously dreamy / nightmarish fairytale figurations and arrangements. When reality does not suffice, she embellishes it, trimming the trees in the garden, for example, with glass Christmas ornaments or with fairy lights. Running through Kilimnik’s photographic work are several motifs we know from her painting. And the two come together in her obsession with photographing details from her own paintings over and over again, such as the magnificent palace walls she has painted, as though beseeching us to agree that her painted fictions are no less real than so-called reality. She arranges precious vials, bone china, silverware, costume jewelry and roses on shiny silk fabrics, and captures them as though in a slight mist of the fragrance “Elizabethan Rose” — officially described by its manufacturer, the English perfume house of Penhaligon’s, as “deliciously intoxicating rather than sweet, capturing the scent of high summer.” Kilimnik has a knack for taking magical snap-shots — a tiny pile of snow on the grass takes the shape of a little rabbit. And she knows that the white fog of light in an overexposed picture can make a house look haunted.
She sometimes has a roving eye, with a terrific feel for the allure and for the metamorphic power of soft focus, and then becomes targeted and sharply focused again. She strays through her world taking pictures of what appeals to her: flowers — they never cease to amaze her, the eye of the camera strolls through meadows and seems to be immersed in bouquets and blossoms — ; a basket of fresh vegetables like something out of a Cecelia Ahern novel; ballet scenes, among which her own scenery for Psyché at the Paris Opera; food photography ranging from delicate to dégoutant; a lane lined with old lowslung brick buildings in Philadelphia, where she grew up, photos of a TV screen showing children’s faces in a film about the Holocaust, veritable orgies of chandeliers, fuzzy airport lights glittering like sequins, storm-tossed treetops shrouded in mist, a dead bird, the Venetian Lagoon, winter landscapes with snowflakes falling like little lights, Central Park with a horse-drawn carriage in the snow, or a slightly blurred shot of the Flatiron Building behind leafless trees, like a famous vintage print we’re sure we’ve seen somewhere before.