Reincarnation sounds like a great idea, but for one snag - having to run the gantlet of adolescence again. Only a masochist would welcome that. Yet, when I saw the Karen Kilimnik exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, I wished I could be reborn, but as a woman.
Kilimnik's art would make perfect sense to a female teenager, or at least to a woman who remembers being one. To a male member of the Beat Generation, it struck me, except for one or two recent works, as puerile self-indulgence, or, to be more charitable, as girlish fantasizing.
This comes close to conceding that I don't feel entirely competent to evaluate Kilimnik's work. I didn't feel this way in 1992, when I wrote briefly about her inclusion in an ICA show called "Investigations." She showed relatively few works then; this time, the absence of gravity is much more apparent because the artist is fully exposed.
One doesn't always know exactly what an artist is trying to communicate, but one can usually determine whether the art in question embodies emotional, psychological, historical and aesthetic weight. Kilimnik's art feels so slight, so shallow and so self-absorbed that it should be ballasted.
Kilimnik, born in 1957 - by itself a startling fact when you encounter her art - is of particular interest in Philadelphia because she was born here and still lives in the region. She's one of only a few local artists working now who has achieved international exposure, with shows in Paris, London, Venice, Basel and Zurich.
This exhibition, put together by Ingrid Schaffner, the ICA's senior curator, is billed as a retrospective covering roughly the last 15 years. It includes 128 individual objects in a variety of media, from paintings and drawings to installations and videos. However, some of these objects are grouped into installations, so that the show as a whole doesn't feel that expansive.
In fact, when one walks into the cavernous first-floor gallery, it appears to be nearly empty. Kilimnik specified that only three installations - a fully enclosed free-standing room that contains many of her small paintings and photographs, and two floor pieces, neither very prepossessing - should occupy the ICA's largest space.
A floor-to-ceiling wall separates Kilimnik's early work, primarily drawings and several more small installations, from this startling flaunting of empty space. What Kilimnik is trying to achieve by isolating a small box inside a huge one is beyond me, unless she was suggesting a metaphor for her career to date (hardly, likely, though).
As you confront this odd presentation, keep two things in mind:
Almost everything in Kilimnik's art is secondhand, or thirdhand, borrowed or copied. This is especially true of the paintings and drawings. The former she "appropriated" from masters of earlier centuries such as George Stubbs, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Theodore Gericault. Many of the drawings replicate, in a klutzy way, advertisements in fashion and glamour magazines, and often carry hand-lettered texts that may or may not be ironic. If the latter, her intent is well-disguised.
Television and films are other important sources; the gothic installation The Hellfire Club, which looks more like a jumble table at a flea market than serious art, references the 1960s British TV series The Avengers, a campy satire on the spy/detective genre that made Diana Rigg a star in America.
Besides being almost entirely derivative of various aspects of popular culture, Kilimnik's art is intensely and persistently narcissistic. It relentlessly exploits interests that one associates with teenage girls - glamour, celebrity, animals (especially horses) and, most conspicuously, ballet. The best piece in the show, the only one that's more than skin-deep, is a video installation about a fairyland ballet called The bluebird in the folly.
Unless she's shamming, which is a distinct possibility, Kilimnik operates behind a facade of studied technical clumsiness. Her drawing is laughable, and her painting only slightly better (although her copying is skilled). Her videos are jumpy and grainy to the point of being unintelligible.
This nonchalance might be a pose, but, if so, it's damned annoying. It also reinforces the impression that we've entered the world of a dreamy adolescent who holes up in her bedroom for hours at a stretch, reimagining the world as a continuous round of improbable collisions between reality and Wonderland.
The underlying problem with Kilimnik's art is that it's essentially self-referential, and thus self-contained. In the early 1990s, she made a series of photographic self-portraits, altered with heavy black marker, that present her as celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and dancer Gelsey Kirkland, among others.
One is tempted to compare these with Cindy Sherman's costumed impersonations, except that Sherman's pictures can be read as broadly mythologized characterizations. Kilimnik's masquerades are entirely personal, and much the poorer for it.
Time and again, one is struck by how anemic are Kilimnik's attempts to synthesize insights by filtering scraps of popular culture through her fervid imagination. The range of her rummaging is impressive, though, from Charles Manson and his homicidal cohort to 18th-century English portraiture. If nothing else, she keeps you busy trying to decipher clues and recognize antecedents.
The essence of who she is and what she does resides in the two most elaborate and accomplished installations. The first is the box within the box, The Red Room. This chamber, roughly 10 feet square, replicates an 18th- or 19th-century salon, with a circular bench in the center.
Three of the four burgundy-colored brocaded walls are covered, Salon-style, with dozens of small paintings and photographs. One of the latter simulates a Pictorialist icon, the Flatiron Building in Lower Manhattan. Animals and birds abound; Kilimnik is particularly good with horses. The Red Room serves as a catalog of the way she moves back and forth through time; it also records her obsessions. Still, it remains a closed and somewhat claustrophobic biographical loop.
The bluebird in the folly is a more focused and successful piece; all by itself, it almost redeemed the exhibition for me. It's a video program inside a small, tentlike structure (the folly). The musical video, which resembles a computer-generated animation, features tiny ballerinas dancing on tree branches in a bosky glade. Like fairies, they pop in and out of existence like fireflies winking on and off.
Bluebird is perhaps the most theatrical piece in the show in the way it reveals Kilimnik's gift for stagecraft. Created last year, it almost makes everything else on view seem trivial and irrelevant. It feels like her true metier; what we need from her is more bluebirds.
The Karen Kilimnik exhibition continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 36th and Sansom Streets, through Aug. 5. The ICA is open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $6 general and $3 for students over 12, artists and seniors. Free Sundays until 1 p.m. Information: 215-898-7108 or www.icaphila.org.