David Zwirner Gallery | May 6 – June 19, 2010
In 1962, self-taught art world dissenter Edward Kienholz shocked the L.A. art community with the exhibition of his first walk-through tableau, “Roxys.” Exactly 48 years later, this gallery sized installation, meticulously reconstructed and visible through the aperture of two panoramic windows at David Zwirner, has lost none of its staying power. Set in the year 1943, “Roxys” (1960-61) depicts the scarred memories of Kienholz’s youthful encounters in a Nevada brothel complete with antique furniture, a 30’s era jukebox, vintage bric-a-brac, and surreal, assemblage-derived characters. While this description might sound innocent enough, this waiting room for the macabre is anything but innocuous. Entering Kienholz’s environment is like playing chicken with a bulldozer—if you run away, you’re of the faint of heart, if you stay, you're a fool (or a misogynist, take your pick). Such is the stuff of nightmares.
Greetings are made by Kienholz’s “The Madame,” a rotund standing sculpture in dark, ragged clothing with a wig and a boar’s head for a skull. Her leering grin is the first indication of the artist’s sinister alt-reality. She stands at attention perpendicular to the jukebox which streams Depression-era music into the space at large. Indeed, there is an air of war-time negligence in the details of “Roxys” construction: plastic fruit centerpieces rest atop handwoven doilies, and a tin of Lucky Strikes sits on a side table, its used cigarettes filling the nearby ashtrays. Meanwhile, a portrait of General MacArthur oversees the debaucherous scene below. This eerie staging is completed by Kienholz’s use of theatrical lighting; effectively recreating the forgotten era, an authentic candlelit glow warms the extended room, casting grotesque shadows against rose patterned wallpaper in tones of cream and dusky pink. Most importantly, however, there are the “ladies” themselves: “Dianna Poole, Miss Universal”; “Miss Cherry Delight”; “Cockeyed Jenny”; “Fifi, A lost Angel”; “ A Lady Named Zoa”; and “Five Dollar Billy.” Constructed from doll parts, boxes, clocks, and other objets trouvés, Kienholz’s women epitomize the act of feminine deconstruction. Provocatively displayed in various stages of postcoital union, they embody the old, used up, and discarded, ravaged victims of a violent culture forced to exist within the subterranean trenches of human desire. This is our society, our America. In this sense, Kienholz is the visual equivalent of a modern day de Sade: unrepentant in his exploration of sociocultural transgression and its consequent effect on our innately lust-driven sexuality.
In this country, the postwar 1940’s garnered a resurgence of puritanical ideals, one that suppressed the primal instinct in favor of a return to “family values,” order, and stability. This paradoxical shift in understanding of the human condition had marked psychological effects on the culture at large. It is from this turbulent era that West-Coast Conceptualism and the revolutionary literature of the Beat generation—antiestablishment, anti-institution, antipatriot—was born. It is also the era from which most of Kienholz’s provocative subject matter extends. In later constructions with his wife and collaborator Nancy Reddin, Kienholz would continue to employ epoch-oriented objects as shorthand for the twisted nature of everyday experience, the most famous of these being “The Hoerengracht” (1983-88), a life size recreation of Amsterdam’s red light district recently on view at the National Gallery in London. But while mid-eon 20th century may have acted as the seedbed for Kienholz’s visionary ideas, it was California that bred the necessary conditions for work of this nature.
Los Angeles was a hotbed for conceptual art in the 1960’s. Here, artists like John Outterbridge, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha were making their mark in the territory of linguistic and sculptural experience, while East-Coast artists such as Allan Kaprow were beginning to experiment with environmental interventions. Yet unlike his contemporaries, Kienholz was not interested in the aesthetisization of the real world, but rather in presenting its true nature in the most distilled of forms. This he achieved via aggressive, uncompromising assaults on the eye and body. Tapping into archetypal constructs of human experience—its dark, voyeuristic, and often cruel orientations—Kienholz offers a glimpse of ourselves habitually concealed by social construction. In the end, it is the artist’s unobscured candor that stuns more than his images of broken and deranged figures or the patina of use that envelops these trenchant installations. His is a visual electroshock therapy in three dimensions.
It is no wonder that since Kienholz’s 1996 retrospective at the Whitney Museum, little has been seen or heard of the artist in this country. In the wake of post-911 America, such caustic indictments of our society have not only been suppressed but were all but eliminated from the public eye. Ten years after the tragedy, it is time to reevaluate our self-image—to take a long, hard look in the mirror. “Roxys” offers us the opportunity to do so. For Kienholz, the fatalistic reality of who we are is an ugly, strange and dissociated place. We are primitive creatures by nature. The Kienholz tableaux dictate that only through a searing examination of the self can this affliction be someday overcome. It’s a transcendent idea. Whether or not that is actually possible is another story.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.