Thursday, 26 February 2009

Karen Kilimnik

Mary Shelly Writing Frankenstein 2001
Water soluble oil colour on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

Serpentine Gallery, London
April 2007

I really didn’t like this exhibition at all and struggled to engage with the work. What really put me off was the way the Serpentine Gallery looked like it had been the victim of an episode of the Channel 4 reality show “Changing Rooms”. The idea was to recreate the orangery of an English Country House and she had painted the west gallery of the Serpentine apple green and furnishes it with garden seats and a few potted garden-centre shrubs with tied on oranges. The central rotunda was supposed to be a maze of ante chambers, and each was filled with useless decoration and had taped harpsichord music playing.

Clearly she is the kind of American who obsesses about the strangeness of European architecture and uses the stage sets as a way of “contextualising” her work. Frankly the paintings needed all the help they could get, because with few exceptions, they were as weak as her mise-en-scene at capturing the elegance of a lost time and culture.

The gallery handout listed here influences as George Stubbs, Edwin Landseer, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds and whilst I can understand this from a subject point of view, it certainly didn’t apply to the painting which was loose and sloppy and the water-soluble oil paint just looked horrible. The handout talks about the “affective charge of Kilimnik's work, and how this has to do with the gap between the kind of paintings she looks at so intently, and the kind of painting she actually achieves”; personally I couldn’t see it.

The painting I have chosen purports to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly writing Frankenstein. The idea is wonderfully melancholic, as this novel could be said to be the beginning of two strands of popular culture; horror and science fiction.

A young girl wearing a low cut blouse with a red shawl or jacket looks wistfully off to the right. She certainly looks like a damsel from a B movie adaptation of the novel and behind her “Hollywood style” lightning forks illuminate cold, blue mountains. As the portrait looks nothing like Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley, it is presumably painted from a photograph of a celebrity(?) stand-in that she has cast in the role. It is perhaps a visualisation of the imagination and fantasy inside an American teenage girl’s mind who views all things European as romantic.

I can only think that I am the wrong sex, the wrong age and the wrong cultural background to understand the work and could only feel that the potential was there, but the execution was disappointing. The really sad thing is that the Rothwell portrait does actually look melancholic!

©blackdog 2009

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