Diana Rigg or Linda Thorson? Choose. Your answer will say everything about you. I refer, of course, to the two actresses who played Emma Peel in “The Avengers” in the 1960’s. Ms. Rigg was the original Mrs. Peel: svelte, wry, unflappable, a thoroughbred. Ms. Thorson, her successor, was a little less of all those things.
She had to watch her weight, you guessed, and practice keeping her cool. Her makeup was a touch emphatic; her hair a bit too done. So she was the more sympathetic, more human and accessible heroine, the one more like us. But who wants human and accessible when you can have untouchable and divine? We chose Ms. Rigg and rejected ourselves.
Karen Kilimnik seems to understand this dynamic well and probably has since she was an image-hungry kid flipping through People magazine in her Capezios. Unlike us, however, she grew up to make deceptively sophisticated art about glamour, the junk food of the soul, and has been studying it since her first solo at 303 Gallery 16 years ago.
Her last several shows have been made up of small paintings and a few stage-set-like props. And each has been built around a loose theme: “The Avengers,” Russian ballet, Kate Moss. This year the motif is Napoleonic, with a full-scale battle tent sitting in the gallery, replete with a spyglass, charts and paintings of Géricaultian steeds.
Napoleon has cropped up as a hero in a lot of recent art. Doesn’t anyone know history? I suspect Ms. Kilimnik does. She is no pushover Romantic, though that seems to be her reputation. The New Sincerity, which her art predates, is not her thing. Nor is nostalgia, or return to beauty, or any of the easy-listening attitudes that sell art these days. Her work is sharp and witty. She interrupts her French Empire fantasia with subtle impurities — walk-ons from Hollywood, refugees from Allure magazine — as if to keep everything off-balance and confused. The very way she paints is an interesting exercise in conceptual control.
The paintings of Elizabeth Peyton, with whom Ms. Kilimnik is sometimes associated, are buff-polished, as if designed to have spotlights trained on them. Ms. Kilimnik’s pictures don’t reach for that kind of classy resolution. Some don’t even look finished, as if she had been distracted and moved on to something else. But incompletion, if that’s what it is, makes sense, because each painting in the show is part of a larger picture, the show itself, which links and completes them all.
I think of Ms. Kilimnik as a conceptual artist first and everything else second because her art so persistently examines the idea of value without trying to be valuable. This sort of distancing makes her work feel both self-absorbed and watchful, personal but resistant, with resources held in reserve.
Next year she will have her first United States retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, her hometown. It is generally agreed that the recognition is overdue, as is an acknowledgment of her influence on other artists.
Yet her art remains the opposite of headliner art. It’s as if, when the time comes to choose, she looks with appraising admiration at Emma Peel I, but puts her money on Emma Peel II, which is why she’s the star she is.