Karen Kilimnik’s Magical Fantasyland, From Ballet to Baroque

The artist rediscovers her love of theater and 17th century Europe at two new exhibits in Denver and New York. She talks to Claire Stern about her latest inspirations.

Karen Kilimnik’s work is difficult to define. Entering her world is akin to being transported to a magical fantasyland that fuses pop culture and history, real and imaginary, dream and nightmare.

The Philadelphia-born artist gained recognition in the late 1980s for her “scatter art” installations, whereby different objects are randomly strewn throughout a gallery space, creating multi-dimensional compositions centered around certain themes. Her 1989 piece “The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers,” inspired by an episode from the now-defunct British television series, is an amalgamation of mirror frames, swords, drawings, and blown-up photographs of the show’s stars, Emma Peel and John Steed. The mixed-media collection evokes nostalgia for halcyon days through fragmented images of the past.

Like her installations, Kilimnik’s video projects also combine disjointed sources. Her film Kate Moss at the Beginning focuses on the British model and other fashion figures in the early 1990s using short clips from old documentaries and European fashion shows. She dismantles the 1988 movie Heathers in a six-hour-long narrative punctuated by repeated scenes and bits of rewinding and fast forwarding.

Perhaps Kilimnik gained the most notoriety for her strange yet enchanting oil portraits of contemporary pop culture icons in historical settings, each of which give a fresh look at the present by drawing upon the iconography of the past. Her 1998 portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio, titled “Prince Charming,” has an uncanny effect that leaves the viewer contemplating the intersection between two disparate points in time.

Most recently, Kilimnik has turned her attention to the stage. Her new exhibition this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Dance Rehearsal: Karen Kilimnik’s World of Ballet and Theatre, is devoted to 18th and 19th century performance art, and the ballet in particular. Works from 1988 to present span a variety of mediums—paintings, video and large-scale installations—and showcase all aspects of the formalized dance.

“I like all of it—the music, costumes, scenery, dancing and acting,” Kilimnik tells The Daily Beast by email. “I love the reconstruction ballets and I’m really mad that they aren't on DVD.”

Among her favorites are the 1890 production of Kirov’s Sleeping Beauty and the 1900 staging of La Bayadère, both reconstructed by Sergei Vikharev—a close friend of her ballet teacher in Philadelphia—and Le Corsaire, reconstructed by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka.

Kilimnik’s fondness for ballet is shared by former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. The artist’s theatrical depictions of classical dance are featured in the most recent issue of CR Fashion Book along with a custom portrait sketch of Roitfeld. As part of her research for the project, Kilimnik photographed ballerinas from the American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an experience she calls “a dream come true.”

More of Kilimnik’s work is being presented this month in a solo booth by 303 Gallery at the Art Dealers Association of America’s “The Art Show”. The paintings draw inspiration from the 17th century Baroque era, and specifically the Netherlands.

“A lot of the paintings are actually based on Dutch plates and china, which originally were based on paintings themselves by artists like [Dutch landscape painter] van Ruisdael,” Kilimnik says.

The accompanying installation also references the time period: a wooden table set and matching bureau furnish the space and an ornate chandelier hangs above, complementing the works and recreating a semblance of the past in modern times.

Some of Karen Kilimnik’s work is featured in CR Fashion Book Issue 2, now on newsstands. ‘Dance Rehearsal: Karen Kilimnik’s World of Ballet and Theatre’ runs now through June 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. ADAA’s ‘The Art Show’ runs now through March 10 at the Park Avenue Armory.