One of the most intriguing things that has been happening in art in recent years has been the crumbling of the divide between artists and celebrities. I don’t mean the elevation of certain giants of art to celebrity status – that has been going on since Michelangelo’s time. I was thinking of a more low-grade process, a blurring of the distinction between a pop star’s heft and an artist’s, a base fusion of their cultural roles. In America, painters such as Elizabeth Peyton, who is certainly not a giant, appear to be involved in the teenage worship of cultural nonentities such as Julian Casablancas and Prince William. Here, Stella Vine does a bit of that in her Pete and Kate pictures. It’s a cultural battleground worth keeping an eye on. And the Karen Kilimnik show that has opened at the Serpentine is at its most interesting when it flirts with these issues.
Kilimnik has been a favourite daughter of the biennali for a couple of decades now. Born in Philadelphia in 1955, she is no spring chicken, let alone a teenager. So when she portrays Paris Hilton in one of her paintings, or Leonardo DiCaprio, we can be sure she isn’t doing it for teen-dream reasons. She is asking questions of her society. But what are those questions?
I first came across her work when she was involved in a brief artistic fad nicknamed, if I remember correctly, “scatter art”. Scatter artists made installations out of bits and pieces of evocative stuff that they “scattered” around the gallery. The idea was to give the viewer some clues to a location and then let their imagination join up the dots. Kilimnik’s Serpentine show opens up with a belated example of this fad.
Scattered across the gallery floor are the following: some white feathers, a set of dice, a crystal ball, some candles and a pack of tarot cards. All these objects are irregularly illuminated by a flickering searchlight that sweeps across the piece. So it’s a mystery, Cluedo-style. Who murdered the white bird with the candlestick, perhaps, having first consulted the dice, the crystal ball and the tarot pack? Actually, the entire show might usefully be described as a mysterious installation, because although it features a large number of Kilimnik’s paintings, these are hung in ornate settings that keep changing. The various galleries are separated by plush, full-length curtains, and beyond them, Kilimnik has constructed a suite of posh rooms decorated in different country-house styles. So, one gallery looks like an 18th-century conservatory, another like a Russian hallway from imperial St Petersburg. And finally, there’s the room in which a toff keeps his saddles and riding boots.
Thus, the show is set up to be explored from room to room in the way Shaggy and his pals explore haunted houses in episodes of Scooby-Doo. Which is fun. I found Kilimnik’s opening example of scatter art too trashily mysterious for my tastes – tarot cards are a no-go area for the serious existentialist – but the rooms beyond have a weird sense of ersatz reality to them and are impeccably created. The whole show feels as if it means to transport you to another time and another place, and to do so because it is waging a war against contemporary decor and the white cube.
The late 18th century, which is where most of the pretend spaces seem to plonk us, is surely being held up as a more enticing environment than our own. This, at least, is what you assume at first. But the show turns out to have more going on than that. A couple of circuits of the mansion of many chambers get you thinking beyond the Poeish aspects of the mystery interiors towards issues of originality and cultural cheapening. Which is where Hilton and DiCaprio come in.
Kilimnik’s paintings are sometimes hung in posh frames, so they loosely resemble a private collection. Each has a pretend brass nameplate attached that poshly gives its title and date. So, what seems to be a likeness of Hilton outside a Vegas hotel is actually said to represent Marie Antoinette Out for a Walk at her Petite (sic) Hermitage, France,1750. Since Marie Antoinette wasn’t actually born until 1755, Kilimnik is either particularly bad at history or feigning an interest in it in order to comment on other things. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.
Kilimnik also paints fops and harpsichords, carefully landscaped English parkland and touristy views of English country interiors. In My Pony in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, she shows a rearing white horse whose cheap origins as a toy are made extra-clear by the addition of sparkling blue glitter to the paintwork. The young DiCaprio is presented to us as Prince Desirée on a Break from Sleeping Beauty out at Petrossian’s for Dinner. Thus, we are watching a blurring of cheap Hollywood fictions with posh European realities that seems keen to highlight the falsities in contemporary US culture.
Since the paintings are more interested in sampling ersatz romantic moods from other eras than in the real quality of 18th-century art, they aren’t usually good paintings, and can occasionally be horrible ones. The teenage ballerina who stands in for The Shade in the River Styx is a grotesquely stiff piece of figure painting, which I hope was intentional, but somehow doubt. Kilimnik should also be kept away from Gainsborough’s landscape effects, which she can’t do, and from occult subjects, which are always too Scooby-Doo. But the overall package – the carefully achieved installations and the best of the painted confusions between Hollywood royalty and the real thing – adds up to an intriguing investigation of contemporary value-blindness and the cult of the celebrity. Coming from Philadelphia, and rarely moving from there, Kilimnik does most of her travelling in her imagination, and in our cut-and-paste world, that makes her a handily placed cultural witness.
Last week, I complained that the current Gilbert & George retrospective at Tate Modern is the second Tate retrospective they have had. This was wrong. The first Gilbert & George retrospective organised by Nicholas Serota was at the Whitechapel in 1981. I apologise for this inaccuracy.