Interview with Karen Kilimnik on her open-ended eclecticism

Appropriation, whimsy, balletomania, and anglophilia all go into Kilimnik’s installations


Since her 1992 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in her native Philadelphia, Karen Kilimnik has been giving solo shows throughout America and Europe and in Japan. Her fanciful, informal installations combine props and objects with lushly executed paintings, large, spare crayon drawings and framed photographs; walls are often painted evocative colours and drifts of false snow, scattered dry leaves, jewels or glitter can be spread across the floor. Kilimnik’s eclectic sources range from history and art history, through to the ballet, daily life or tabloid newspapers, and her idiosyncratic vision and highly personal, open-ended way of working have opened up this hybrid territory for many younger artists, including Elizabeth Peyton and Tracey Emin.

Your current show at Emily Tsingou takes us on a very personal tour of Britain, from Nelson’s column to Stonehenge to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, or the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

I’m a total Anglophile; I’ve always loved Great Britain. This show started when my Mom called me and asked me for some suggestions of places to visit for a friend of hers who was going to England for the first time. So I wrote a list of all my favourite places, and I had such a great time making the list and thinking of all the wonderful places that I’d been to—that’s what started the idea of doing a tour.

So you’ve visited all the places that you depict?

I’ve been to Bath; I’ve been to Stonehenge. The first trip I made to England in the 70s I saw so much and I’ve come back a lot since then.

Did you make the paintings of Stonehenge and Amesbury from photographs, or from drawings on the spot, or out of your imagination?

Amesbury was actually from a photograph. I was going to put Stonehenge on top of that, but I liked the background so much, I left it. I thought it’s so much fun to be able to paint something that can seem like it’s the actual landscape, and it’s just from paint that didn’t take that long to do.

You have also copied some historical English portraits—the boy in your painting “Evening walk in Hyde Park” looks like a Van Dyck, but painted in black and white.

It’s a copy, well, trying to be, of a [William] Dobson. I got this book on my second or third trip to England—I think from the National Portrait Gallery. I love to try and copy old paintings from books, and I would come across all these beautiful ones, but in black and white, and think, “Oh gee, I can’t do that one.” And then I got the idea that I could just do them in black and white—I love grisaille—and with this one I made up that he’s going out for a walk in Hyde Park. I’ve been reading books on the history of the theatre, and the paintings from Dobson, they have such great posture they look like they were on the stage, or dancers, or something like that.

I am interested in how your drawings, which are bigger and emptier, relate to your very lush, intense paintings. You also often put pieces of text on the drawings, too.

I don’t think I’ve ever put it into words, but I was wondering, maybe, because the drawings are on paper, that they are more related to books and to writing—I love books and reading—and the old paintings, the ones that I love, don’t have writing on. So I guess I’m very conservative.

I know that everything that you do is very carefully considered, and if something looks as if it has been done quickly or you have crossed something out, it is because you want us to see it like that; it is not a mistake.

Yes, definitely. Everything is done on purpose, it can be a very, very fast thought, but it’s done on purpose. When I first started having exhibitions, I worried much more about what people would think, but now I try not to be self conscious when I’m working.

Your exhibitions that I’ve seen have been like various mises-en-scene. By using painted walls and props, as well as paintings, drawings and photographs, you create very distinct environments, each with a different mood

The one thing that I’ve always loved and which I think has been my biggest influence is department store windows and store displays. I used to take pictures of them—I think that they are better than art; I mean, they are art. I wanted to be a window-display designer; I really tried to do it, but I didn’t get anywhere. And another thing that I really, really, want to do is the sets, designs, costumes, choreography and everything for a ballet, a huge ballet.

Any particular ballet? In your work you return repeatedly to the classics, such as the “Nutcracker Suite” or “Giselle”.

Yes, one of those. I shouldn’t be so mad, but I really want to do it—but I haven’t been able. I’ve tried for years—but they’ve all said no—even just to take photographs.

But you managed to take some photos of the ballets for this show and also for your exhibition at the South London Gallery.

I got to take pictures of the Kirov when they were in London this summer—the only way I got permission was through a friend in Zurich who’s friends with someone who’s the director of the Kirov. I had such a fantastic time, I went to 15 performances and dress rehearsals and everything. Then I was supposed to go to Russia and take more photos, but they said they were too busy—I still don’t know whether that’s a polite “no”, or whether they really are too busy —I have a feeling it’s really a polite “no”!

I particularly like your little glittery collaged photograph of the “Electricity Fairy”, whom you have made to hover outside the crush room at Covent Garden.

That was when I was taking pictures of the Kirov—she’s Yulia Makhalina, one of my favourite dancers. I took the pictures in the Crush Bar even though I know you’re not allowed to—I love the name the Crush Bar. I called it the “Electricity Fairy” because in the two years I was here in London at the Delfina Studios, I went to as many ballets as I could, and I went to this talk about how, back at the turn of the century when the “Sleeping Beauty” was done, electricity was this new thing and they all thought it was so exciting that they made a ballet about electricity. I just love it that people were so excited by electricity and thought it was something so beautiful while we just take it for granted—so I said she’s the electricity fairy and she’s lighting up the chandelier.

And next to her is this web of lavender coloured satin ribbon woven into a corner of the gallery and hung with twinkling pieces of diamanté jewellery—it is as if she’s been round there, lighting it up, too.

That’s right, that’s what she’s supposed to be doing, too—I had so much fun doing that and buying the stuff.

When you install exhibitions do you plan everything in advance or do you tend to improvise when you get into the space?

I always prefer to have things all thought out in advance at home. When I first started having shows, people thought that I could just go there and get some stuff and put something together, but I realised after a while, no, I can’t do this, it’s not how I like to work. I like to have everything, from my first idea, all planned in a certain way—I like it better because I get too confused if I keep changing it around, although once in a while a little thing will be changed.

So does that mean that you have to install yourself, in case these changes arise?

Actually I’ve been kind of a chicken about going to install shows for a while—I plan it all from here, the colours and where everything would go. I think maybe this comes from because I studied architecture for two years, and you had to totally visualise everything from a plan and imagine what it would look like.

Who or what are your main influences, or do they change all the time?

My parents—and especially my Mom—love music: she plays the piano and she always dragged us to operas for children and concerts and ballets and theatres and museums. I was kind of bored with some of the museums, but I loved the ballet and going to theatres. And then I love movies and books, of course—especially adventure stories and mysteries like Agatha Christie. And TV, I love TV. If I could, I’d be watching TV all day, but I try not to.

1954 born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

1974-76 Temple University, Philadelphia.

Solo shows include

1991 303 Gallery, New York; 1992 Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris 1994 White Cube, London 1997 Kunsthalle, Zurich 1999 Gallery Side 2, Tokyo 2000 South London Gallery; Kunstverein, Bonn.

Currently showing Emily Tsingou Gallery, London, until 20 December.