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Karen Kilimnik
Sprüth Magers London
7A Grafton Street, London W1S 4EJ, United Kingdom
May 20, 2015 - June 20, 2015

Karen Kilimnik: The Distant Admirer
by Marianne Templeton

Karen Kilimnik's third exhibition at Sprüth Magers London is suspiciously restrained. There are no added period furnishings or colored walls—just two rooms of carefully sequenced paintings, with a pair of photographs (blue poppies and aging white roses) arranged either side of the doorway as a sort of parting flourish. A closer look reveals that the artist's trademark theatricality is still present, though subdued: the show is peppered with duplications, paintings masquerading as plates, and odd conflicts of scale (the paintings are small with cramped compositions, while the photographs are blown-up macro shots, large and breezy). It's a neat little cabinet of curiosities that should have the usual polarizing effect on its audience—Kilimnik's paintings tend to inspire equal parts love and despair.  

Kilimnik's own excessive affections are always center-stage, in lieu of the artist herself, who is content to remain a distant admirer. She loves things that are popular, evoke sentimentality or adoration, or openly declare their attachment to eras or periods, genres or fashions. Her fondness for the mawkish is both embarrassing and infectious. Recurring motifs in her paintings include: celebrity waifs, pets and wild animals, picturesque views, Gothic mansions, ships, ballet, ornaments, flowers, and hundreds of other small fixations—each rendered with disconcerting intensity in Kilimnik's amateurish technique, so that it's difficult to tell whether her silky dogs and wide-eyed girls are sweet, menacing, or indifferent. 

Karen Kilimnik, Fox With Winter Cache of Food in the Winter Cave Fox Den, 2013, C-print © Karen Kilimnik, Courtesy Sprüth Magers


Her source materials are photographs and pictures in books and magazines—often images that are heavily staged (fashion shoots, publicity stills, theatre) or reproductions of reproductions (oil paintings, "authentically restored" period interiors, tapestries, collectables). Images that are popular or valuable enough to have been copied before appeal to Kilimnik. Not the cheap replications of branding, or consumer products—she prefers to appropriate images of things with an "aura," things that people revere for their originality or rarity, whether a painting by Degas or a supermodel. At the same time, her own thrift-shop painting skills and rejection of "tasteful" discrimination deflate the value systems that allow such hierarchies to evolve.

Recent fascinations on display at Sprüth Magers are Europhilic (where better to find old and rare things than in the Old Country?), Leonardo da Vinci, medieval tapestries, heraldry, World War II, and Delftware—a blue-and-white Dutch ceramic clumsier than porcelain, and with a history characterized by appropriation, translation, and reinvention. There is whole room dedicated to Kilimnik's Delftware-inspired landscapes of bridged canals and tree-lined paths, but any pretence of a "collector's set" is superficial: palettes of blue and lilac are not-quite-matching from one canvas to the next, and a tree is never painted the same way twice. Many of the wistful illustrations featured on Delftware plates and tiles are themselves based on works by Dutch landscape painters: a few strokes with Karen's magic brush and they are transformed back to paintings again, rescued from beneath the glaze.

Karen Kilimnik, hiding out in the cold winter polish countryside, the old country2013, Water soluble oil color on canvas 25,5 cm diameter © Karen Kilimnik Courtesy Sprüth Magers


Kilimnik's long-standing interest in theatrical scenery, props, and backdrops is extended to the odd pictorial space of tapestries, and the touristic tableaux of stately homes, in which fashions and tools of diverse centuries are bricolaged together as "the past." This sort of compression is reflected in Kilimnik's claustrophobic compositions, in which even the air seems heavy with matter. A pair of paintings depict a hall in the Château du Clos Lucé in France, in which Leonardo da Vinci undertook his final "artist's residency": Leonardo da Vinci's last home—the dining hall (2014) and Leonardo Da Vinci's living room, Amboise 1500 (2014). Seeing these duplicate versions side-by-side, one is lured into a game of spot-the-difference—which soon turns into a game of spot-the-similarity, as Kilimnik's approach is fundamentally unstable.

Nearby is another double act—two close-ups of a woodland cottage scene cropped from a tapestry: the medieval cottage tapestry (2014) and the green fairie's cottage in the tapestry (2015). The latter includes a couple of lumpy fairies, doused in glitter; it's hard not to cringe. But it's also hard to look away: this conflation of the woven phantasmagorias of the Middle Ages, and the glitter-and-glue fairy paintings that adorn little children's bedroom walls, somehow makes perfect visual sense.

Karen Kilimnik the medieval cottage tapestry, 2014, Water soluble oil color on canvas, 41,3 x 51,4 cm, © Karen Kilimnik, Courtesy Sprüth Magers


The exhibition's theme of domestic display is most clearly and cleverly distilled in the Fairy cleaning the copper pot with Fairy Dish Soap (2014), a still-life-with-fairy derived from Chardin's Still Life With Herrings (c. 1731). Proust wrote in a letter that “Before having seen some Chardins, I had never realised what was beautiful, in my parents' home, the table disarrayed, a corner of a napkin turned back, a knife against an empty oyster shell....” For Kilimnik, the discovery of a brand of washing-up liquid called Fairy conjures up a similar glamorous transformation of everyday life—a veil (of cooking grease?) is lifted from the eyes to reveal a shining new table-top world. Art and advertising are traced back to a moment of shared history in the still life, a genre in which material fragments bear witness to immaterial forces.

Karen Kilimnik, the Fairy cleaning the copper pot with Fairy Dish Soap, 2014, Water soluble oil colour on canvas, 41,3 x 50,8 cm © Karen Kilimnik,  Courtesy Sprüth Magers 


For Kilimnik, color reproductions and photographs are portals; clues to be interpreted; summoning rituals to be transcribed; trapped things to be rescued and set free. They are lenses through which history, fiction and autobiographical memory are concentrated into temporary narratives that overwhelm the source image—a Dutch cottage beside a frozen lake becomes a secret hideout in Poland during World War II; a fishing boat becomes a ghost ship. Her paintings are highly performative: in "copying" an image, Kilimnik is actually fleshing out the imagined narrative that she projects onto that image during her painting process. These thin films of preoccupation overlaying her paintings help to create the tension between distance and closeness that pervades her work.

Kilimnik's realm is the personal bubble, the daydream, the distracted train of thought, the private fantasy. The stories she enacts through her paintings are never put into words, only hinted at through the scraps of language that form her titles. Image-makers hope we will construct narratives around their images—stories reach out, build a personal investment, and hook consumers. Kilimnik's constructions are excessive, warped over-identifications that hjiack whatever vision is being sold and smother it with drama and cheap oil paints.

Kilimnik admires characters who know exactly what they like. She, too, knows what she likes; whereas the ambiguity and unevenness of her work keeps us second-guessing our own judgements. Her fulfilment leaves us feeling incomplete.


Marianne Templeton


(Image at the top: Karen Kilimnik, Leonardo da Vinci's last home - the dining hall, 2014, Water soluble oil color on canvas, 41,3 x 51,4 cm © Karen Kilimnik Courtesy Sprüth Magers)

Posted by Marianne Templeton on 6/8 | tags: kitsch Delft Blue appropriation Antiques painting photography

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Systems for a Downer: on Artistic Failure, Bath Bombs, and Embracing Shortcomings
by Philippa Snow

Earlier this week, I came across a somewhat striking quotation from a 2007 edition of Tracey Emin's now-defunct column for the Independent newspaper: "faced with the daily prospects of failure and self-loathing,” the artist suggests, “a numb chrysalis starts to develop around you, and if you are not careful you wake up one morning to find yourself not awake, but in a semi-comatose state, baked into a hardened shell, breathless and mind-numbing. You have to poke your finger through the hardened crispy shell, and after you’ve pushed it through you have to wiggle it about until eventually the hole is big enough to smash a whole fist through." 

It’s an evocative image, certainly; more importantly, it also started me thinking about the ways in which “artistic” people adapt their behaviors and modes of thinking in order to cope with what they perceive as failures. I believe that there are systems—mechanisms, of sorts—that one can put in place in order to survive an existence in the arts, or in any creative endeavor for that matter: owing to the typically fragile nature of the artist/writer/whatever; however, these systems can often be very similar to survival tips aimed at the mentally-ill.

Tracey Emin, She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea, Neon, Installation view at Turner Contemporary. Photo via Flickr user Chris Beckett


There is a great deal of conversation online about "self help" for the vaguely, moderately or terminally depressed. These solutions’ central locus often lies in the realm of the linen bed sheet or the bath bomb, whose temporary reminders of softness and comfort and civilized humanity have the power to offer some fleeting relief.

It's a small concession to putting one's energy into something other than self-loathing—I know, why bother?—but the very smallness of it is the thing which assures a greater chance of success. Reading Emin's quotation, I wondered which failures in particular she was grappling with on October the 5th, 2007, especially as I first encountered the blurb in the self-care tag of a sad but savvy writer's personal blog. This was the year, after all, that she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale and was made a member of the Royal Academy; the following year, a retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery would become its most visited show by any living artist.

Tracey Emin, My Bed (1998), Exhibition Tracey Emin, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de MÁLAGA , Malaga, SpainPhoto via Flickr user Truus, Bob & Jan too!


Any talk of self-loathing and failure in the face of such achievements is both legitimizing, and terrifying—on the one hand, the reader is far from likely to be as accomplished as Emin, but on the other, their own discomfort seems suddenly universal, rational, even. There is a special shape—a distinctive silhouette, as insignificant and dense and spiky as an un-peeled lychee fruit—for feelings of true creative and artistic failure: one which distinguishes them from failures of almost every other kind, perhaps because in art, the failure is always personal; not the result of some vague mathematical miscalculation, or evil kismet, but your actual, personal vision. It is the failure of your taste, your intellect, and—the cruellest of all the kickers—your Self. How does anyone working in the arts ever get up in the morning, with this in mind? No wonder black coffee is so de rigeur in these circles (to say nothing of the industry's similar passion for cocaine). Ersatz energy; ersatz ego: fuel for big empty talk and big blabbermouthed thinking. Self-medication and self-regard are legitimate forms of self-care, after a fashion. 

Artistic failure is also, often, a wipe-out in financial terms—a culture which prizes both youth and wealth above all else, as the art world has for the last few years or so, is a culture in which all of those who are not either multimillionaires or Thirty Under Thirty wunderkinds find themselves lacking the necessary tools. Whether financial failure or general psychic, personal failure hurts the sufferer most, I cannot say: I have been a financial failure for all of my adult life, and where once there might have resided some sharp awareness of my own abject poverty there lives, by now, only something slow and parasitic whose radiating ache I hardly notice. As for the personal failure, I decline to comment—though all depressives believe themselves to be failures for at least three days of the week, so there's your answer by default.

Bath bombs coming soon to a writer near you. Photo via Flickr user Philippa Willitts


(I have not yet purchased a bath bomb—not since the age of thirteen or so, which is the oldest age that one can pass the threshold of a Lush store without inducing epistaxis—but I feel the moment drawing closer. The breath I feel on the back of my neck is lavender these days, I’m certain.)

Much like Emin, I find on my travels that all creatives and artists and writers are pretty much fucked, if you’ll pardon my YBA terminology—all of us gently vibrating around in our own neurotic, David-Vetter-esque bubbles of pointless self-loathing and self-obsession. What, under these gloomy circumstances, is to be done? Should we each smash our way through the eggshell walls of our insecurities like Tracey Emin's phantom fists or, if one prefers, like the Kool Aid jug, or should we choose self-care, clean sheets, and ever-decreasing circles of contact? This mania for collecting inspirational quotes about the formerly-sad becomes almost cultish in its weird ubiquity, especially as there are, I would argue, more effective systems for success than repeating mantras. More effective, even, than actively fighting one’s demons into temporary submission is to make exotic pets of them.

Hari, from Most Important Ugly. Photo Tayler Smith. Courtesy Arabelle Sicardi


Strangeness becomes less concerning when one begins to let one’s output and one’s public persona revolve around it, naturally and organically. One of almost six thousand people to have shared the aforementioned Emin quotation on their sites is the writer and make up theorist Arabelle Sicardi, whose photography project Most Important Ugly and personal Tumblr tag #girlmonstering suggestion their own solutions to these creeping personal anxieties: ones which hardly recommend overcoming or disguising anything at all, but instead offer something closer to padding a hunchback, or dashing lipstick on a boil.

From my own perspective, I happen to like Tracey Emin’s monster incarnation far more than her present-day RA Grande Dame; she has always been at her most interesting not simply engaged in battle with her issues, but thrusting them, bloodily, into our faces. What is My Bed, after all, if not a trophy-like display of the very thing which kept her “semi-comatose” and “mind-numbed” in the first place? What were the fourteen days she spent living in a gallery back in 1996, if not an absolute unabashed desire to show herself warts and all? I hope she keeps, somewhere, the pieces of every mental shell she’s ever smashed.


Philippa Snow


(Image at top: Tracey Emin, I Know I Know I Know, Neon, Installation view at British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2007. Photo: Andrea Alessi)

Posted by Philippa Snow on 6/10 | tags: most important ugly Tracey Emin artist survival Depression ArtSlant Editions Systems

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Indie Book Week: Ten London Art Bookshops to Fall in Love with (and in)
by Phoebe Stubbs

If you’re on the dating circuit and don’t know this by now, you should: art bookshops—for lovers of art and writing—are pick-up joints. 

This fact is verified by a broader selection of friends having met potential dates in bookshops than I can keep track of. If you don’t believe me, try browsing by yourself in a bookshop on a Friday evening. Even the shyest people seem to pluck up the courage to start a conversation about a book.

And I guess this is hardly surprising. Books are conversations in solitary form, and they come alive a second time when you share them. In an article about the Berlin Book Fair in The Paris Review last year, Ben Mauk suggests that an art book’s proper function is as an enabler of this conversational exchange without the art world problem of money.” Joyfully, we can own and covert an artist’s book for far less than their original artwork. 

Clearly there are many reasons to head to an art bookshop: but another is that this week is Independent Booksellers week in the UK and Ireland, an initiative celebrating and promoting independent retailers. Honoring this, what follows is a list of some of the best art-related bookshops in London. I mean the term "art-related bookshop" expansively, including independent bookshops that are great for those interested in art and all its issues. The list is London-centric, but do add to it in the comments if you want to recommend shops not included or ones from your own city.

This is not a conclusive list—just a top ten among my personal favorites—but if you are stuck for more shops near you, check out the lovely map created by The London Bookshop Map


Best for artists’ books: Banner Repeater
Hackney Downs Network Rail, Platform 1, Dalston Lane, London E8 1LA 

Banner Repeater is a project space and reading room in what used to be the waiting room on the platform of Hackney Downs station. A changeable project space, at the moment it features "To unmap the terrain," a curated collection of artists’ publishing projects in Mexico. Alongside the exhibitions there are usually tables of books created by artists and small presses. If you haven’t read much artists’ writing and don’t know where to start, I highly recommend getting your hands of a copy of Katrina Palmer’s The Dark Object as the kind of book that only an artist could write.


Tenderbooks shelves. Image courtesy Tenderbooks

Best curated bookshop: Tenderbooks
6 Cecil Ct, London WC2N 4HE 

I love this place. Partnered with the next door gallery Tenderpixel, this small bookshop sells artists’ editions, Tenderpixel’s beautifully made Riso-printed catalogues, some more unusual art magazines and artists’ prints. Every time I go I fall in love with a new artist’s book. Last time I was there I spent longer than is probably polite poring over John Stezaker’s lovely book Crossing Over, a collection of minutely cropped and reproduced postcards, mostly featuring representations of women from Victorian times to the post-war period. More than just a bookshop, Tenderbooks create a reading list to compliment the shows at Tenderpixel and host a series of readings, events and performances. They also have a monthly changing exhibition section focusing on an artist or small independent press.


Best for making books: London Centre for Book Arts
Unit 18, Ground Floor Britannia Works, Dace Road, London E3 2NQ

Based in Hackney Wick, London Centre for Book Arts runs book-making and binding workshops, has a membership system for use of their facilities, and of course sells everything artists’ book related. If you’ve ever wanted to turn your book idea into a physical reality, this is the place.


Best for never leaving empty handed: ICA bookshop
The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH

For me, the ICA's bookshop also ranks really high for best curated. Their collection is so good it is almost impossible to walk out without buying something. Organized into sections—the weirdest of which is simply called "Life and Culture," featuring books like WM Spellman’s A Brief History of Death—the thin shelves always have that exact book someone was telling you about at a party that you remember only now that you’ve seen it, and hence have to buy. Big open trays feature small publishing projects, artists’ books, and low-volume journals; there are always sales tables beckoning to the strapped-for-cash; and there is usually an abundance of books relevant to the work in the ICA’s exhibitions. Also, with Tate and Whitechapel, this bookshop scores pretty highly on the meeting a potential date front. Contemporary art galleries with bookshops are evidently a heady combination.


 Word on the Water. Image via Flickr user Joanna Penn

The most delightful: Word on the Water
Locations variable

This second-hand bookshop is in a converted coal barge and moves around London’s canals. Most often I see it in Hackney, but you can keep an eye on its location via their facebook page. The collection is idiosyncratic, but the point is clearly to browse, get lost in your curiosity, and find something you never knew you needed.


The furthest left: Housmans
5 Caledonian Rd, London N1 9DX 

Housmans was founded in 1945 as an outlet for radical publishing, selling books and pamphlets which extended the work of the British pacifist movement after the war. The topics and subjects of books sold by Housman’s today are broad, such as a collection of Situationist writing by the likes of Debord and Lefebvre, and an extensive list of titles covering all aspects of capitalism, debt, gender politics, political fiction etc. All serve the shop’s radical function of distributing information beneficial for peace, upholding human rights and furthering environmental causes. Well worth browsing is their ultimate bargain basement, with hundreds of second hand books sold for only a pound.


Best for LGBT: Gay’s the Word
66 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AB 

Gay’s the Word is the only bookshop in London focusing on LGBT writers, content, and issues. There are reading groups, great suggestions by their dedicated staff and a website whose basic design tells you immediately how much more they care about their physical presence than web presence—which these days is actually a really charming thing.


Best for art book collectors: Peter Harrington
43 Dover Street  Mayfair, London W1S 4NU

If you’re the kind of person who needs a first edition, and has money to spend, Peter Harrington has a rare selection of artists’ monographs and the occasional artists’ book. You can pick up a first edition, first print copy of Warhol’s 1968 novel—an impossible to follow rambling transcription of 24 hours in his life—for a mere £275, which must be the least expensive Warhol work available. His much lovelier and rarer book Holy Cats, from 1954, is a treat to see and hence much more expensive.


Best kept secret: Hatchards

This one almost shouldn’t be on this list. It’s recently become a secret love of mine for killing time, and I’m reluctant to share it with everyone, but feel I should. It’s London’s oldest bookshop, and on the top floor of the original Piccadilly Hatchards, opposite the Royal Academy, boasts one of the most surprising selections of big, glossy, full-color art monographs I have ever seen, arranged on ornate wooden shelves and with a dedicated and vast photography section. Among the giant tomes on Giotto’s frescos or Rembrandt’s rendering of fabrics are everything from books on contemporary artists to obscure paperbacks about the relationship between Modernist pattern making and microbiological images. (FYI they have exceedingly stiff and glossy carrier bags that make you feel really money despite buying some of the least expensive items available in Mayfair.)


Best for books and cake: London Review Bookshop
14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL


This place always wins for me because their staff are so knowledgeable. They don’t have a great art selection, but I don’t really know any art enthusiasts who solely own art books anyway. Their poetry selection is great, with a wonderful collection of cultural and literary essays, and their fiction recommendations are spot on. The LRB café has one of the best chocolate Guinness cakes in London, and you can borrow a copy of the London Review of Books to browse while you sit and eat—and maybe even fall in love.


Phoebe Stubbs


(Image at the top: London Review Bookshop. Image via Flickr user RachelH_) 

Posted by Phoebe Stubbs on 6/22 | tags: Art Books indie bookstores artist books indie publishers Independent Booksellers week london bookshops banner repeaters tenderbooks ica london London Centre for Book Arts Word on the Water Gay’s the Word Peter Harrington Hatchards London Review Bookshop

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