Ed Kienholz, Leda and the Canadian Honker, mixed media assemblage, 1957
Ed Kienholz is an assemblage artist, an installation artist, and a conceptual artist; which is to say that his work lies somewhere within that matrix.
Very early work is rarely shown; and so it is a pleasure to see the exhibition, America, My Home Town, at Blain|Southern, Hanover Square, W1.
Kienholz is Americana. Duchamp found him wonderfully vulgar; and yet there is a political urgency in his work. That does not properly show until we meet the only fully developed tableau in the exhibition, The Nativity.
Ed Kienholz, The Nativity, mixed media assemblage, 1961. Mother and Child (detail)
This piece, with its headless poodle and the Christ Child is irreverent but shambolic in its beauty. Recognising the great western tradition of painting, the Christ is the light brought into the world and the source of our world’s illumination.
The traffic warning light blinks on and off. It’s the stuff of road movies. Kienholz love of cars and the automotive industry is at the heart of Americana and means so much to Americans. (Kienholz was buried in his old Packard.)
The interest in this early stuff comes from its sense of struggling into existence.
Not even Kienholz could have known that his work would develop into the serious tableaux that followed, with his condemnatuion of brothels in Roxy’s and The Hoerengracht.
Nothing in Kienholz is quiet. Early signs of the fabulous noise to come is found in Mother Sterling Revisited. There is always the sadness of seeing a woman’s high-heeled shoe by the side of a park bench. The wretchedness is palpable. And Kienholz rubs our noses in it.
Ed Kienholz, Mother Sterling Revisited, mixed media assemblage, 1963
The shoes, the baby (doll), the draped underwear over a drawer slot, all add up to a puzzling misery. It is the puzzling misery of America, perhaps more apt now than it was in the sixties.
Kienholz once said that you can get inside a culture by wandering its flea markets.
What you find there are the details and the detritus of dead people’s lives. It’s an ‘unmuseumed’ archeology, an archeology of the quotidian: its sweat-stained, resin-splashed grime; its tit-bits of bureaucracy and desire. It’s Americana with its unlovely shame, yet shining proud in the neon lights of Saturday night.
If you listen carefully, you can hear Tom Waits singing along to a film by Jim Jarmusch; and all that jazz.