When Edward Kienholz died of a heart attack aged 65 in 1996, his burial arrangement could have been one of his own installations: his embalmed body was stuck into the front seat of an old brown Packard coupe; he drove off into the good night with a dollar and a deck of cards in his pocket, accompanied by the ashes of his dog in the back and a vintage bottle of Chianti beside him. If the stance of aggressive defiance followed him to the grave; such must have been the confrontational quality and persistent rebelliousness of Kienholz’s oeuvre when he lived and worked that his accusatory cries of a reality gone sour are still heard far, loud and wide nearly 2 decades after his death.
Kienholz: The Signs of the Times is an extensive survey of Edward Kienholz’s and Nancy Reddin Kienholz’s collaborative works spanning three-dimensional smaller objects to the conceptual room-filling tableaux in their horrifying, squalid glory at the Schirn Kunsthalle. While not quite a retrospective, it is a show that captures the antagonistic spirit (in variations of form, material and structure) of rebellion (buoyed by the angry years of the 1960s and 70s) that Kienholz is best remembered for, broadcasting generally, a similar theme of humanity’s fallen state.
Above all, there is a visceral, scabrous rage that palpably underpins this exhibition which reads like an extended exercise in the finer points of accusation. Here, subtlety, as it seems, holds no place of honour in art that has been created for the purpose of indictment. The installations rail against the perennial injustices Kienholz thought assailed and fractured American society at that time: ethnic conflicts, the Vietnam war, the sexual exploitation and commodification of women, the manipulation of the unsuspecting middle-class through by media conglomerates, and the treatment of those who lived on the margins of “acceptable society”. The State Hospital (1964-6) presents a constructed cell of a psychiatric ward, drawn from Kienholz’s own memory of his work as an orderly, in which a naked mental patient with a fishbowl for a head lies strapped to his bed. In the bunk above, an identical figure lies in a similar state of dismal existence, a reinforced symbol of an already broken institution.
In Rhinestone Beaver Peep Show (1980) triptych, the plaster cast of a pliant woman yields before the voyeuristic viewer, while in The Pool Hall (1993), a headless woman with splayed legs straddles a corner of a pool table surrounded by men with antlers and a mask taking shots around her vagina: an exploration of the brutal masculine gaze that positions the woman as an anonymous object of consumption. The Jesus Corner (1982-3) plays host to misfits who live on the margins; while it is a reference to the motley band of anti-establishment crew who live as outcasts like Christ and his disciples, it is ultimately, an ironic declaration of institutionalised religion’s divisive power.
Giving material expression to Kienholz’s uncompromising vision is the sheer number of found objects scavenged from junkyards and flea markets used to assemble his installations, a concept that was unthinkable in his day and age. It was a novel but viable method of sourcing: exponentially increasing consumption made for interesting trash; the more junk material there was to sift through and acquire, the more complex his assemblages also became. Discarded scraps that were symbolic of Western consumer culture – car parts, pieces of furniture, toy soldiers, cigarettes, signs and flags – inevitably found their way into his creations surrounded by other castaways, lending their protesting voices which, combined, produce a chorus of acrimony and pleading. The allegorical Ozymandias Parade (1985) could very well encapsulate this creative process and its subsequent scale of production; it is a sprawling tableau that swiftly strips Shelley’s evocative tale of an ancient statue languishing in the sands by presenting the subjugating tyranny of latter-day rulers in the form of the president who dangles from his white horse, surrounded by an impotent army of fools and helpless tax-payers who have been fleeced of their last cent.
But unlike Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that assaulted notions of art’s traditional modes of production, Kienholz made no attempt to disguise the object’s original incarnations and their purposes. Where the Duchampian dialogue on signification and object displacement begins, there ends Kienholz’s vision; instead, implicit in the insistence on a creative practice drawn from disused matter is perhaps, the hope that out of the detritus of decay and disillusioned humanity, seedlings of social awareness (that would eventually galvanise some sort of action) would have sprouted. This creative bent was balanced with unusual business sense; Kienholz typed details of works he had intended to create, each already containing a title that would be made should a buyer decide to fork out the money for it. Yet in utilising language as an initial, but necessary apparatus for ascribing meaning and perceptual experience to object that were not yet made, Kienholz’s pieces were also to become prototypes for later conceptual practices that would carry a heavier ontological focus by engaging vigorously with language as a framing device while confronting the limitations of the art object.
It seems appropriate that these three-dimensional, sculptural assemblages were labelled by Kienholz himself as “tableau[x]” – a term appropriated from the design of theatre sets – in order to emphasise the experiential potential of his pieces while defying the late Modernist style of pictorial flatness and the conventional passivity of art viewing. As with sculpture’s tendency to reinforce interest in context by sanctioning the viewer’s presence in its ambience or physical area of influence, the volumetric intensity of Kienholz’s installations similarly locates the audience inside the work rather than outside of it. Packed to the brim with junkyard assemblies and hemmed in by the gallery walls, his cluttered tableaux are an oppressive plague on the senses, offering no recourse to those who want to look away.
Edward Kienholz was born in Fairfield, Washington on October 23, 1927 and died in Hope, Idaho in 1994. Nancy Reddin Kienholz survives her husband, and lives and works in Hope, Idaho, Houston, Texas and Berlin, Germany. Kienholz: The Signs of the Times is at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt until January 29, 2012. From February 22 to May 13, 2012, the show will also be on display at the Museum Tinguely in Basel.