THE American artist Edward Kienholz was best known for his large-scale, theatrical tableaux which make the horrifying seem commonplace and the commonplace bizarre. Expressions of moral outrage, political protest and sociological curiosity, Kienholz's enormous installations also betray a passion for the vulgar, tasteless, and ephemeral. As though intended both to shock and titillate some puritanical small-town voyeur, they recreate seedy bordellos, cells in lunatic asylums and back- street abortion clinics with the aid of hybrid Surrealist images, life- size figures and authentic period details. Some of them include sounds and smells as well.
Kienholz was born in 1927 in Fairfield, close to the border between Washington state and Idaho. After a patchy education in various local schools and colleges, he worked as a travelling salesman, second-hand car dealer, auxiliary nurse in a mental hospital, and restaurateur. Self-taught as an artist, he began to paint in oil and water colour soon after moving to Los Angeles in 1953. He first attracted critical attention with a series of deliberately ugly abstract reliefs constructed from bits of rough wood nailed to panels and then painted with a broom in unappealing, muddy colours. These were exhibited in 1955 at the Cafe Galleria in Los Angeles, one of the first West Coast galleries devoted to the avant-garde.
During the following decade Los Angeles began to rival New York as a centre for unconventional and experimental art, and Kienholz contributed to this development both as an artist and dealer. In 1956 he founded the Now Gallery and, after its closure a year later, the more successful Ferus Gallery which gave both Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston their first solo exhibitions. They belonged to a new, West Coast school of Pop artists with which Kienholz himself, by then incorporating junk into his reliefs, quickly but mistakenly became identified.
Kienholz's relatively small reliefs and assemblages soon gave way to vast, extraordinarily elaborate installations: entire environments made up of real furniture, innumerable other objects, fully dressed, life-sized plaster figures, and even goldfish swimming in tanks. Constructed like film sets, lit by domestic lamps, and accompanied by music issuing from radios and smells piped along hidden conduits, these walk-in environments are total works of art, overwhelming in their synthesis of the real and artificial.
Kienholz claimed that the idea for his tableaux came from the costumed performances of Biblical parables which he saw as a boy in local churches. Indeed, one of the earliest of them was a Nativity assembled from junk. But Kienholz's first masterpiece, Roxy's (1961), has nothing to do with religion. It consists of several fully furnished rooms complete with ceilings, and recreates a notorious Los Angeles brothel as it was in June 1943. The date is revealed by a calendar while other period pieces - a newspaper, a tin of cigarettes, a sergeant's jacket on a coat rack, a portrait of General MacArthur on the wall - add to the air of authenticity. This is further enhanced by the smell of cheap perfume and disinfectant.
Kienholz's desire for historical accuracy by means of minor but telling details was accompanied by a wayward, Surrealist passion for the savage and the grotesque. Roxy's worn carpets and greasy furniture may be real, but the madam's head is a boar's skull, one of the whores is a shop-window dummy lying on a sewing-machine, and another has been constructed from a rubbish pail sporting a brassiere, a bedpan, and splayed artificial legs.
Some of Kienholz's later installations were even more sensational. In The Illegal Operation (1962) medical instruments are combined with a standard lamp and a torso-like cushion secreting its flock stuffing on to a shopping trolley to create a nightmarish vision of an abortion. Back Seat Dodge '38 (1966), housed in Los Angeles County Museum, consists of a real car whose rear doors open to reveal a couple at an advanced stage of foreplay. An empty beer bottle litters the artificial turf on which the vehicle stands, headlights blazing. Music blares from the car radio, and a hastily discarded blouse is trapped beneath the windscreen.
The Beanery (1965) is more elaborate still. Entered through swing-doors, this reconstruction of a Los Angeles bar contains a group of life-sized figures, a juke- box, innumerable bottles, and a powerful smell. The newspapers in a vending machine outside report on children killing children in Vietnam. Inside, the customers, with working clocks instead of heads, kill nothing but time.
During the 1970s Kienholz's work became more conceptual. Because of the enormous cost involved in assembling, transporting and housing his tableaux, the artist drew up legal contracts describing future, unrealised installations which he sold to collectors who then had the option to have them made at a prearranged price. He also devised a new kind of barter. If he wanted a new car, he had a stainless steel plaque engraved 'For One New Car' which, when framed and signed, would be exchanged for the desired article. His reputation was such that he was able to acquire refrigerators, washing-machines and works by other artists in this hilariously unconventional fashion.
In 1973 Kienholz was invited to work in Berlin by the German Academic Exchange Service. He liked the city so much that he and his wife spent part of each year there, dividing their time between Berlin and their other home at Hope, Idaho. He asked that his body should be buried in his favourite car, an old Packard.
Unaccountably, Kienholz's reputation declined during the 1980s, but his work will surely stand the test of time, if only because of the effective way it evokes the atmosphere of its period. Permanently preserved in Kienholz's unforgettable tableaux are the traces of some of the most important concerns, mores, and behaviour of 20th-century America.
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