Except in the dead of night, I have never seen the Turnpike so empty. It was just after seven a.m. when we climbed into the van, and up we sped through what should have been rush hour, glad to be moving, taking advantage of the time. Amy and Sam strategized about development issues, Ingrid worked on a presentation on her laptop, and Alex and Jeffrey talked about the fashion scene in Philadelphia. In my head, the Simon and Garfunkel song was playing, the one about counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike: They’ve all gone to look for America. The rest area where we stopped for coffee—named for a president, crowded with customers of many races, your choice of hotdogs, fried chicken, or ice cream—seemed like a place you might find it.
Not much in the way of art there, though.
With New York City so close, ICA curators and other staff often head up for the day for meetings, or to see a show or three. Today the destination was the suburbs rather than city, and the purpose was a field trip with ICA’s donor club, Art Council, to see Karen Kilimnik’s installation at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Even with the stop for coffee, we arrived extremely early for lunch, which was graciously hosted by ICA board member Joey Schlank. There were twenty or thirty of us there, everyone chatting, happy about the day, excited to see the Kilimnik installation. ICA director Amy Sadao, in her welcome before the poached salmon and the fruit tarts, stressed how wonderful it is to look at art together. “That’s what ICA is about,” she said. “Art and people, people and art.”
Karen Kilimnik is an artist with a long history with ICA. The museum first showed her work in 1992, and in 2007 we organized a major traveling retrospective. Karen, who lives in Philadelphia, often comes to ICA’s openings and public programs, and we honored her at our spring benefit last May. It was a particular treat, then, to see what she had done at the Brant, a former apple storage barn in the middle of Greenwich polo fields that collector Peter Brant has converted into a bright, airy, contemporary art space.
Two artists a year are given the opportunity to create anything they want here, with minimal financial or logistical constraints.
It is wonderful to look at art with other people. I let myself float in the stream of them, looking at the paintings, videos, photographs, and installations, listening to people point things out to one another: the painted ballerinas in the painted trees, the real books on the real mantelpiece, the photographic self-portrait Karen permitted Alex Da Corte to blow up and use as the background in his SCENE TAKE SIX installation in ICA’s First Among Equals exhibition last spring. “With Karen, it’s important to think about the theater,” I heard someone say.
Karen’s installation at the Brant is definitely theatrical. The first objects you come upon are dramatic turquoise drapes, fringed in gold, beckoning you into a room where a video features Karen’s designs for the Paris Opera.
Some of the rooms are wonderfully wallpapered, and floors are scattered with objects and photographs. Several of the installations feature candles, colored lights, bowls of shells, voodoo dolls. Paintings of animals, children, and grand decrepit staircases hang on the walls. (One of these, featuring pinkish sheep in a forest, is reminiscent of the drawing Karen did for ICA’s benefit invitation last spring.)
Upstairs, in perhaps the most magical Kilimnikian intervention, we find a topiary garden with a working fountain in the middle, the grass strewn with candy-colored soaps and cosmetic bottles. “It’s like a Fabergé egg,” Ingrid says. “You can peek in, but you can’t get in.” Out the window, workmen in straw hats are grooming the polo grounds.
Asked by a guest to say something about the work, Ingrid says, “Karen is always making the worlds she’d like to be in out of the trash and tinsel of popular culture.”
Here in the Brant, she’s made a world anyone would like to be in: a lush Fabergé egg universe with wise-eyed children and tinkling fountains. With its faded splendor and velvet-clad figures, it feels like a Europeanish world—yet in its blending of high and low, its celebration of fantasy and promise of self-transformation, isn’t it as American as any rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike?
Out we set in the morning, looking for America, and here we are, at the end of the day, having found it.
Learn more about Art Council here.
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