Kilimnik’s approach to art reveals cruelty of kitsch

By Sierra Sterling

Karen Kilimnik’s work is hard to enjoy. Or, it is too easy to enjoy. This paradox is born of one of the central elements of Kilimnik’s work: kitsch.

“I like it, but I hate all the reasons I like it. The reasons that I like it make a fool of me. All of this work is just like a big fuck-you to the audience,” said Sylvia Weintraub, a first-year student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as she walked through the exhibit. The reasons Weintraub refers to—the work’s aesthetic appeal, its saccharine quality, and its use of objects and images from pop culture—make it difficult to enjoy the work innocently. Doing so proves part of Kilimnik’s point: Our attachment to objects and pop culture is material and reflects an important part of the American psyche in an unsettling way.

A particularly striking piece in the show is I don’t like Mondays, the Boomtown Rats, Shooting Spree, or Schoolyard Massacre (1991). It takes up a substantial area of the large exhibit room, and the viewer’s eyes move from blood-spattered targets to a child’s plastic toy dog, a ball and jacks, toy guns, barbed wire, and photocopies of the news story that inspired the Boomtown Rats song “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

It’s practically reflexive to look at this scattered piece and think: Columbine, Virginia Tech, NIU. But these objects only suggest those national traumas. They carry none of that meaning. So despite the emotional weight of this piece, it also possesses a feeling of emptiness.

Kilimnik’s art also utilizes the camera as a mirror. In a series of Me As… photographs, Kilimnik takes self portraits as various characters and archetypes from popular culture, then aggressively alters them with crayon. Through these images, Kilimnik capitalizes on the modern way by which the camera acts as a mirror to create an art-as-mirror effect.

If the camera-as-mirror is cruel but truthful (as in Snow White, which the work draws from), Kilimnik’s art-as-mirror is cruel but truthful as well. It’s why this exhibit is frustrating. It reflects something we don’t want to see in ourselves. Kilimnik’s work points to the reduction of everything to kitsch and the tendency to focus on and value aesthetics over content, or confuse the identity and meaning of objects.

There is success and failure in Kilimnik’s work. Because she is so conscious of what she does—to present kitsch in a provocative way—she succeeds in proving a point about the American fascination with images and objects. But at the same time, the work decontextualizes ideas and robs them of genuine meaning. At best, it points out a disturbing trend in our emotional distance from things. At worst, it comes across as snarky or insensitive.

For example, in the middle of the main exhibit room is another scatter piece simply called Drugs (1991). Hundreds of blue and yellow pill capsules litter the floor. A syringe, a cheap blue lighter, and a shocking amount of cocaine sits on a mirror. It is completely over-the-top—who has this much cocaine? But what is this accomplishing? Is it commenting on drug culture, pointing out its self-destructiveness, or mocking it through exaggeration?

And what does I don’t like Mondays… really say? Inspired by a school shooting in San Diego in 1979, in which the 16-year-old shooter told police that her reason for opening fire on elementary school children was, “I don’t like Mondays,” the piece capitalizes on this absurdity, which is important. But when you look at the piece and see the kitsch, the consciousness, and the emotional removal, it is vaguely upsetting. Because on a very basic level, the shootings are sad and traumatic. Kilimnik’s work both highlights and undermines this sadness through its vision.

Despite the complicated nature of the work, it raises important questions. When did objects and images come to mean so much? And are we all just fools?