Karen Kilimnik

The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers

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Fabric, photocopies, candelabra, toy swords, mirror, gilded frames, costume jewelry, boot, fake cobwebs, silver tankard, audio media player, and dried pea

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Gift of Peter M. Brant, courtesy The Brant Foundation

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© artist or artist’s estate


  • America Is Hard to See

    Karen Kilimnik, The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers, 1989

    Karen Kilimnik, The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers, 1989


    Narrator: With its soundtrack, black velvet curtains and backdrop, this installation by Karen Kilimnik is part theater, part devotional alter. She’s filled the space with pictures of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg—the actors who played the stylish, flirtatious detectives John Steed and Emma Peel in the 1960s TV show The Avengers. Props strewn around the space allude to one episode of the show, in which the stars infiltrate the Hellfire Club, a secret society of decadent aristocrats. 

    Ingrid Schaffner: Everybody dresses up in period costume for nights of debauchery and rakish behavior, and there’s wenching and drinking and wrestling and bloody oaths. 

    Narrator: Ingrid Schaffner is a curator and writer.

    Ingrid Schaffner: When you are engaged with this work you are, you’re sort of standing at the edge of this theater and it’s like you’re invited to view the work like a detective at the edge of the scene of a crime. The gilded frames, the mirrors, and the plastic props, and things that are very precious and beautiful but they’re also just blatantly fake and raw. 

    Narrator: On the floor to the right, there’s a plastic axe resting on a tiny green pea. 

    Ingrid Schaffner: In one scene, Steed has to pass an initiation test that involves him plucking a pea out from under the blow of an axe. And instead of grabbing for it, he very coolly just blows the pea off the table.

    Narrator: Steed and Peel were icons of 60s cool—the kinds of riveting figures who have captured the imaginations of celebrity-obsessed artists like Andy Warhol and Joseph Cornell.  

    Ingrid Schaffner: So we’re talking about iconic power of pop culture and celebrities. Cornell, and Kilimnik and Warhol all have this capacity to take images that seem almost emptied out by their ubiquity in mass culture and packing them full of this intensely personal sense of emotion and yearning and projection and desire. 

Karen Kilimnik
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