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Published  01/09/1965
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Assemblage: The savage eye of Ed Kienholz

Assemblage: The savage eye of Ed Kienholz

by John Coplans

Studio International, Vol 170, No. 869, September, 1965

The spirit of anti-art manifest in Dada and never since completely absent from contemporary art derives from a conception of the role of art which had been taking firm hold throughout the 19th century. This conception presumes a discrete esthetic and psychic distance that the work of art must maintain. It must aspire to the nonfunctional, it must be a self-contained esthetic unity which will be uplifting. One of the reasons that assemblage was a studio-art for so long, rather than a collector's art, was because in its very nature it violated all the propositions of this conception. As such, it can be seen as the natural vehicle for that aspect of the antiart spirit which is directed at just this view of art.

Kienholz captured

An actual chair, instead of a painted chair, already breaks the discrete velvet cord between artist and viewer. A large, ugly medicine ball stuck in the middle of the seat becomes downright offensive, and the irritatingly vulgar title I'm Not a Fig-Plucker, Nora Fig-Plucker's Son, but I'll Pluck Your Figs 'Til a Fig- Plucker Comes takes us completely out of the realm of art. Perhaps even more than Rauschenberg, who seems incapable of ever eliminating the patina of elegance from even his most raucous work, Kienholz has made the 'inconvenient work of art' his very own.

Kienholz extends this type of dislocation of the object even further in scale in his series of tableaux. His virulent and vulgar reconstruction of Roxy's, a Las Vegas World War II whorehouse, complete with period furniture, carpets, knicknacks and the various inhabitants, goes beyond the boundary of a large piece of sculpture, or even, for example, the environmental sculpture of Louise Nevelson. This tableau, to be coherently seen, requires a room to itself—the art, in effect moves the collector out of the house. If there is such a thing as an anti-art attitude, rather than a conventional pretence, this is surely it!

Kienholz can only be said to have developed a stylistic look in that he avoids as much as possible a ritualisation of style. He refuses to delineate a symbolic frame of reference in which to operate—the total experiential world becomes his subject matter. Nor has he a formalised plastic and esthetic frame of reference; he is able to deal with things that most artists will shy away from because formal solutions are wide open—there is no esthetic bar between Kienholz and any conceivable media, and, more important, perhaps no technical one.

A recognisable style

His recognisable characteristics of style emerge more clearly through choice of material combined with working habits. William Seitz, in the Museum of Modern Art 'Assemblage' catalogue refers to Kienholz as a cabinet-maker by trade who . . . 'ironically hides the thoroughness of his craftsmanship behind an appearance of sloppy workmanship'. This is a mistaken view, although it is true that the type of skills Kienholz employs might be associated with a kind of primitivism. Kienholz was brought up on a ranch, and exercises—to the fullest extent—those rough, manly skills associated with ranching. A true rancher in the United States, even today, has to be able to do something of everything; to be carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic, and engineer, as well as handle animals, hunt and skin a trophy. Kienholz's craftsmanship is stout and blunt: he is without any chicness whatsoever. He exercises his skills to make his work as solid and lasting as possible (probably more so than any other assemblagist working today). His work is not only well engineered, but expoxied and plasticised as well. Robert Mallory, for example, is also an assemblagist who makes rigid and permanent the most ephemeral and dilapidated of materials. But in injecting and immersing his materials with plastics he embalms the surfaces to create permanent old objects-finally transformed by definite references to symbolic forms. In contrast, Kienholz's sense of surface is never sentimental—he is not a junk sculptor—his surfaces are modified according to the context he has in mind. For example, in the piece entitled Backseat Dodge '38—a cut down and reassembled automobile with a beerdrinking couple lovemaking in the interior—the original chrome exterior components, such as the headlamps, doorhandles, etc., are completely refurbished to their original degree of brilliance and the whole of the remaining exterior surfaces of the coachwork, including the windows has been sprayed with a shrill blue flocking to produce a tasteless, gaudy and garish appearance. It is also apparent that Kienholz's skill in the handling of materials—the way he engineers his tortion and leverage—is not purely for the sake of good craftsmanship. His astonishing knowledge of, and facility with, a wide range of industrial processes is part of a whole new inventory of skills that are as important to a serious artist as drawing and modelling used to be.

Machine as matrix

Kienholz will also often use the machine as a matrix when he needs to express something distasteful—to show ugly commercialism he will either mechanise a human being or combine them with machinery. For example, Five-Dollar Billy, one of the whores from the 'Boxy' tableau, is mounted across the top surface of a treadle sewing machine which can be manually activated to drive the paraplegic limbs. The result is not only a pun on mechanical sex, but a commentary on the degrading results to both client and girl.

Of the class of assemblage that has been created within California, some of it—but not all of it—reveals the qualities of the milieu out of which it came. Unless its materials are either of an impersonal or industrial nature or imported, any kind of assemblage is far more subject to this kind of 'local colour' than is abstract art. But, since Kienholz is the artist in assemblage who most overtly deals with social issues, hisart reflects both the eccentricity of the materials particular to the environment and, even more so, some of the brutality, absurdity and eccentricity of the environment. His sensibility is fed by a compulsively puritanical fury which impels him to action. The world, its absurdity and injustice make him feel a certain way—he shouts back in anger. When he views with alarm something of what men do to women, he does not imply the girlie of the mass media as, for example, in Roy Lichtenstein's art.

A mass- produced mannequin

He will sometimes get beyond the allegorical stereotype and, despite his usage of the mass-produced mannequin, he will so transform it that it induces the feeling of a specific person, without its being—at least in a conventional sense—a portrait. Artist after artist might raise the issue of women, but in this respect Kienholz stands alone. Were she to come to life and were we to meet, for example, the little lady of The Birthday, we would recognise her at once. If we believe in a visual narrative and dramatic art, and Kienholz helps in a new way to substantiate the validity of such an art, then it can become richer and more complex even within a general situation if certain parts are either peculiar or unique. This sense of the specific would seem, at times, to allow for greater unknowns, complexities and dimensions. His subject matter appears always to derive from some specific event—the exact nature of it may be gleaned through the title or the homogenised iconographical wholeness or through a peculiar build-up of iconographic references within and without a piece. In any event, the end piece often stands at a strange remove from the concrete event of its origins. The Psycho Vendetta Case, for example, is not a concrete depiction of a gas or execution chamber, nor a depiction of Caryl Chessman or Sacco and Vanzetti. None are there at any discursive levels, yet he leads us to the banal, mundane or matter of fact entities of specific beings and events.

Ambiguous-sensate touches

On first sight his work seems to forego all subtlety and nuance. Perhaps his operatic and theatrical manner—the stridency of his deployment of the absurd would seem to overwhelm or drain out subtler levels of poetic ambiguity. The shocking and revolting image in the interior of the Psycho Vendetta Case is a sickening and perhaps an obvious command on the psychosadistic and perverted way society will kill a sexually sick individual ; how the fact and means of his destruction reflect an even greater sickness. But in addition to the inflammatory interior there are further, more ambiguous—sensate touches in this piece—as well as others—for Kienholz works consistently within precarious arrangements that maintain a peculiar emotional charge which can never be mistaken for a conventional esthetic arrangement. He distends his materials for the sake of the ideas that can be evoked, and not for their intrinsic merit as esthetic objects, and this, perhaps, is what distinguishes him from anyone else working within assemblage. At the same time, it makes him an artist not only hard to adjust to, but hard to place. There is nothing in his work that can be seized upon as an object, or a thing, and esthetically enjoyed as such—instead he projects a stream of elusive metaphors which transform the indifferent material.

To express existence

Kienholz has said that ultimately he is trying to express existence to ward off non-existence. He is consciously aware of the fragility of his being, he senses the void, and acts compulsively and obsessively to ward off that ultimate moment of non-existence. But he subscribes to none of the religiosity that informs so much of California assemblage; his views are atheistic and secular. There is also a strain of the anarchist in Kienholz ; if he senses something is taboo, he will often deal with it out of sheer perversity. If the subject matter is not taboo, his particular way of handling makes it taboo. He is an amoral moralist who reincarnates the sacred. In projecting himself in the role of a social and psychological moralist, he is aware that artor at least, sophisticated contemporary art—is not supposed to deal with such issues. He will do so in protest and defiance of any such restrictions. As a result, the best of his pieces become folklore; an irrefutable truth about our society.

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