Sprüth Magers presents beach paintings by Karen Kilimnik for a winter escape.

In a diverse practice that draws upon the tradition of Romantic painting, Karen Kilimnik (*1955) utilizes painting, drawing, collage, photography, video, and installation to produce nuanced and playful observations of historical codes and symbols. Reveling in both mass and high culture, George Stubbs, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, and the ballet are as important for Kilimnik as The Avengers, Kate Moss, and pop music, forcing such distinctions to collapse into her specific mélange of cultural influence and production.

Kilimnik’s early work from the late 1980s and early 1990s are complex mise-en scènes that extend from the wall to the floor. Usually consisting of artifacts strewn amidst the gallery with seeming carelessness, painted backdrops, and scribbled allusions to a narrative, they are often born of a certain fandom or interest in celebrity culture that is evident across her practice. Specific episodes of cult British television programs were the impetus for a number of these installations and in Paris Is burning (1991) / Is Paris burning? (1944) (1992), Kilimnik merges the documentary about New York drag sororities with a Hollywood movie about the pending destruction of occupied Paris. Seemingly incongruous moments and events are rolled into one through the use of props within a stage set, historical fact presented as theatre.

The artist also became one of the main proponents of the resurgence of figurative painting in the early 1990s, coming to prominence with portraits of figures both semi-fictional and real, derived from the worlds of music, film, fashion royalty, and aristocracy. Figures from the present are dragged into historical overtures, becoming characters in scenarios that draw from disparate sources to form veiled critiques of conventional concepts of beauty, romanticism, and glamor. My Sister and Me – by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1986) imagines the artist as a Baroque painting from a Met Museum postcard of the aforementioned British portraits of the eighteenth century, executed with similar blushing cheeks and unfurling fabrics, with The goddess Artemis’s afternoon snack, Moreton-on-marsh, the cotswolds (2009) placing a charming picnic for the Greek goddess in the artist’s beloved English countryside.

Despite what appears as a childlike obsessiveness with her subjects, Kilimnik is primarily interested in their personalities rather than their public-facing personas. The worlds she creates simultaneously draw from major events, a recurring series for example of maps that color in the boundaries of shifting territories across war in the twentieth century, to more general themes such as English country houses, Delftware, or fairies. Often her paintings and drawings come to inhabit carefully produced stage sets, theatrical environments that viewers can experience as though part of the artist’s self-contained worlds, that bear a similarity to early installations.

The Forest in La Bayadère (2003–2020) recreates an enchanted forest from the Russian ballet, replete with music and even a toy owl, offering an environment for her paintings on ballet. Her 2012 exhibition at the Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut presented a variety of installations, resplendent with wallpaper, wood paneling, artificial snow, fountains, and era-appropriate furniture. Works are likewise animated within the existing collections of institutions, creating new narratives with an aesthetic still reminiscent of the private boudoirs or salons of the nineteenth century. Throughout, a reworking of cultural codes and mores reveals an artistic realm where a mystical past is consciously evoked in the present, veiled in an air of earnest mystery and delight.