1890: A small scene of royal opulence and ennui hand-written in a cheap notebook when the writer was nine years old. Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters - published in 1919 with a preface by J.M. Barrie - is a novel of romance and class mobility like no other.
In breathless prose it tells two intertwined stories: Mr Alfred Salteena, 'an elderly man of 42', comes to court in London, attempting to become a proper gentleman, while pretty Ethel Monticue is wooed and won by Bernard Clark, a soulful country squire with 'nice long legs'. Over eleven short chapters Ashford revels in the many luxuries the world can offer - liveried footmen, tea served in bed, 'small but costly' crowns - while remaining acutely aware of just what it takes to achieve these prizes.
The charm of The Young Visiters lies not simply in the accidental wonder of its skewed language but also in the way it tries out bits of not quite digested social knowledge. A child's-eye view of adult forms, the novel dramatizes how we understand the way social rituals function before understanding precisely what they mean. There is something delightful in this almost sophistication, the gaps in knowledge filled by imagination. Clearly the young author paid close attention to the anxieties repeated by adults and reported in books - the novel is filled with worries about how to tip servants and whether one's ancestors are up to snuff. According to Barrie's preface, Ashford 'was one of a small family who lived in the country, invented their own games, dodged the governess, and let the rest of the world go hang'.
Perhaps Karen Kilimnik's childhood was something like this. Certainly the persona she adopts in her work owes a great deal to childhood play-acting and not a little to 'dodging the governess'. She's made a career of holding on to girlish obsessions, painting glowing fan-club portraits of fashion models and ballerinas and cobbling together simulacra of grown-up luxury out of cast-offs and glitter. Yet, like Ashford, Kilimnik practises a particularly knowing sort of fantasy. Looking at these seemingly guileless works, the observer is involved in a guessing game. Does she understand more than she lets on, or less? Somehow both options have the same effect - a kind of slightly embarrassing, yet oddly joyous, bafflement.
Kilimnik loves old New York, old television programmes (especially The Avengers and Bewitched) and 18th-century genre painting. She loves eras - the 1960s, the 1890s and the 1780s. She loves Russia, Russian ballet and the Russian Tea Room. She loves sparkly things such as snow and glitter and chandeliers; loves the shadows in empty drawing-rooms and the twilight haze in the forest. She loves fairy tales and Leonardo DiCaprio and whatever things offers themselves up to be loved: dogs, ponies and famous pretty faces - Twiggy, Alicia Silverstone, Brooke Shields, Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny - treating every moment's It girl as if she might really and truly be It.
More than anything, what Karen Kilimnik loves is magic: the quotidian transmuted and left behind, those perfect dreams from which you never want to wake. This is her work's central theme and the source of its nervous, swoony energy. Here magic appears as a kind of self-perpetuating power, the power to go to a place where magic is real. As in stories about alternate worlds, the portals are everywhere, all around us, if only we could find them. Somewhere this network of passions links up to form a singular place, an imaginary country.
Out here in the adult world we don't really believe in magic - what we have in its place is glamour. But actually that amounts to the same thing. Though rarely used in that sense any longer, 'magic' is the word's original meaning: an enchantment, a charm affecting the eye, changing and artificially magnifying what is seen. Witches in the 18th century were said to 'cast glamour'. (Traces of this meaning of the word still linger, of course, in the word's negative connotations - rationalists and puritans of all stripes distrust glamour.) Follow the etymology further back, most linguists claim, and you get to grammar: a body of knowledge, a set of codified prescriptions and operations. Occult powers are a special kind of learning, a technique.
Magic, in other words, doesn't happen by magic. You need to know the rules, mix the potions, recite the incantations. Kilimnik's work re-enchants the idea of glamour, returns some of the force of its lost meaning, while at the same time revealing enchantment as a kind of grammar. Her 'scatter' pieces of the early 1990s - fog machines spewing mist, piles of toy soldiers and pills, dolls and ratty clothing, trails of glitter - are magical environments literally built out of smoke and mirrors. At the time they were shown, critics invoked 'slacker art' and the 'junk aesthetic', likening them to messy teen bedrooms, hysteria and trauma. Such symptomatic readings ignore the work's most striking characteristic: its instrumentality. In essence these pieces are spells (another word that, etymologically, relates magic to systems of language), charms assembled out of detritus and borrowed images. They are intended to bring back lost worlds, to conjure imaginary places. A heap of fake snow and a few torn photographs in The Czars (1991) is meant to return the Romanovs to life in all their pre-revolutionary glory. It is a less a memorial than a summons. In The Hellfire Club Episode of The Avengers (1989) fencing foils, costume jewellery and a boom-box sound-track recreate the atmosphere of the 1960s spy drama, filling in a crucial gap in television history: the infamous, S&M-tinged episode was never shown in the USA during the show's original run.
The Avengers has a strange sort of totemic power for Kilimnik. The 'Hellfire Club' piece was recreated in a 2001 show at 303 Gallery (years after she had left behind the type of stuff-on-the-floor installations she did at the beginning of her career); references to other episodes crop up over and over. 'I just love Emma Peel,' the artist gushed to a bemused New York Times reporter a couple of years back, 'she always knows exactly what to do and say. And my God, Patrick Macnee - Steed! He can solve any mystery.' This, as it turns out, is a neat précis of the show's particular dynamic - its giddy dialectic of tradition and modernity, aristocratic social grace meeting up with secret-agent Camp. In this overlap Kilimnik finds the perfect pivotal point for her aesthetic, a curious cultural wormhole where Twiggy encounters Thomas Gainsborough.
Significantly the mechanism through which the old world meets the Mod world takes the form of a mystery to be solved. The plots of the show repeat the same basic structure - a subversive threat lurks beneath the tea-and-crumpets surface of Olde England and must be discovered and eliminated: a mad antiquarian builds an atomic bomb in the back of a swanky department store. The idyllic village of Little Storping-in-the-Swuff hides a den of murderers; the stately country home is actually a sentient torture machine. Such retro signifiers of privilege are never what they seem, but that is precisely what makes them so attractive - they themselves take on the allure of the dangerous secrets they contain.
Mysteries seduce, lure us in; their creation is a key operation in the grammar of enchantment. In her exploration of this grammar Kilimnik turns to fashion magazines, those ongoing accounts of people who 'know exactly what to say and do', and which give us a tantalizing glimpse of another place. But perhaps the mystery of magazines lies in their incoherence. As George W.S. Trow notes: 'It begins to appear that, provided the magazine is skilfully run, it will do no harm if the reader comes to suspect that he is involved in a transaction that he does not fully understand. It may be that occasional glimpses into the ambiguity of his position will serve to fascinate him, and that his sense that a transaction has been incomplete will lead him to continue to look at the magazine with interest.'1
Kilimnik's drawings of magazine images dramatize this fascination (another word with roots in the occult arts), while investigating their mysterious incompleteness. Loose, fragmentary sketches of models and film stars are compulsively notated with passages copied from articles. They describe obscure society scandals, list the prices of shoes, give names of photographers. Often the images and the words don't match up; sometimes phrases repeat; it's hard to figure out what's going on. Yet the tone is instantly recognizable - it's that strangely intimate, disembodied magazine voice, a voice that assumes a particular kind of authority - it doesn't command, but enthuses and insinuates. While the words themselves are banal, the act of copying all this material is invested with a jittery urgency. There is the sense of someone flipping frantically through pages, a blur, a scrabble for meaning. It is a record of everyday sleuthing, jotting down everything, in the hope that something - anything - might be a clue.
When Kilimnik turns to painting, this scattered energy is channelled into a weird excess of tenderness. She has produced a body of work so unashamedly adoring of its subjects that the effect can be more than a little creepy. Cows, clouds and ballerinas are equally blessed with the artist's seemingly boundless affection. By virtue of their often mawkish subject matter, these paintings should be kitsch, or at least about kitsch. Yet they are not so easily dismissed, in part because their swooniness is so idiosyncratic. Even at a time when faux naivety has become codified as an art world mode, these glowing canvases are utterly distinctive. They are sentimental, but their sentimentality feels enacted and embodied, not simply quoted. In Dinner (2002), a small, somewhat cartoonish painting - a portrait, really - of a horse chewing on hay, that sentimentality is formally inscribed in the work, becomes inseparable from the viewer's experience. While the title invokes a squirm-inducing childish anthropomorphism - much like saying the cat has 'had babies' - there's an element here that elevates such juvenile attachment into something larger and stranger. The horse's eye is framed dead centre - staring out at the viewer, open, vulnerable. The heavy brushstrokes defining the lush red mane seem exactly that - strokes - as if painted and petted simultaneously. It's difficult not to be disarmed by this superfluity of gentle feeling.
Much as she re-energizes the idea of glamour by reconnecting it with its occult roots, Kilimnik redeems sentimentality by reclaiming it as a lived modality of feeling. Her 18th-century art-historical heroes - George Stubbs, Edwin Landseer, Henry Raeburn - belonged to the culture of sentiment, a once respectable ideology of empathy. When Kilimnik draws on these models, it is not simply a matter of reference, but an imagined attempt to project herself back in time. Master Hare, 6 pm (1997) is a copy of a 1788 Joshua Reynolds portrait of an aristocratic child. Although Kilimnik has pictorially simplified the original, on an emotional level her work is somehow more complicated - both more lively and more ambiguous. The receding autumnal murk of the original has been transformed into a jewel-like swirl, pressing vertiginously up against the picture plane. The child himself seems both melancholy and more self-aware. To Reynolds' original title Kilimnik has appended the time of day, adding a curious sense of presentness to the image. But we know the image is copied, the vivacity artificial. Time is the subject here - the round canvas, the child's pointing hands creating a kind of clock.
Perhaps the echo of lost time imported into these borrowed and reworked images is the real mystery, the bomb hidden in the antiques store. Recently Kilimnik has been showing photographs of New York - lovely Stieglitz-inspired pictures of the Flatiron building, horse-drawn carriages, parks in the snow. They portray another era, the genteel city of the late 19th century. But then you notice the digital date stamp glowing in the corner, the traffic lights and modern signage, and those incongruous bits of red glowing out of the romantically blurred haze do just what traffic lights are supposed to do - they stop you in your tracks, halt your progress into this make-believe world. Defective time machines, these images are emblems of the impossible.
It is this conceptual stutter between desire and its fulfilment, between present and past, real and unreal, that ultimately gives Kilimnik's work its power, makes it more meaningful than simple fantasy. Because, much as we would like it to, magic doesn't work. Even glamour, its mundane contemporary analogue, usually fails to provide the desired transformation - we remain resolutely ourselves. So Kilimnik simulates magic while letting the seams show, and succeeds by failing (her spells are all mis-spelled). But, as in The Young Visiters, it is precisely the misspellings that charm, by being so familiar and so human. Even nine-year-old Daisy knew that when goods appear 'as if by majic', the 'as if' is what matters. 'As if' is where we live, but we persist in dreaming and desiring. Even the prince, as he laps up his strawberry ice in the 'gorgous room,' yearns for some perfect elsewhere.
1. Trow, George W.S., 'Within the Context of No Context', Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997 p.68.