Los Angeles

Ed Kienholz

During the early ’60s in Los Angeles, Ed Kienholz forced a culture to confront itself in a series of unforgiving, deeply felt tableaux. His well-known The Back Seat Dodge, ’38, 1964, and The Illegal Operation, 1962, were shown this summer, for the first time in many years, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; seen retrospectively, these early works retained their ability to provoke and dismay. The painful friction of confrontation and exposure that viewers felt in the early ’60s, however, gave way to sad, even tender, feelings of empathy, as they looked back in time and realized that things have not changed that much, really.

A few months after the LACMA show closed another Kienholz tableau arrived here—the much more recent Sollie 17 of 1979–80, along with several smaller, more abstract works. Individual works in Keinholz’ “White Easel” series focus the viewer’s attention upon finely crafted images half-hidden behind the distorted lenses of automobile windows or television screens mounted upon white easels. In White Easel with Face we see the image of a human face magnified and distorted when viewed through an automobile window; then, as we look behind, it is revealed as a small forlorn rubberized mask lying flat on the easel’s edge. This second exhibition gives us a way of measuring the passage of time in Kienholz’ life and a feeling for his current perspective. He continues to draw his subject matter from the well-hidden center of his own life experience; his instincts for the visceral and the terrifying remain intact.

Sollie exposes the squalid poverty and loneliness of old age, calmly and relentlessly enumerating the physical details of a life lived at the thin edge of society in a skid row hotel in Seattle. The younger Kienholz portrayed a similar existence in The Wait, 1964–5, which depicted a skeletal grandmother entombed in a living room filled with family memorabilia; but the older, mature Kienholz has polished his lens in Sollie. The details speak in a more realistic way, making their case quietly and persuasively. In the earlier tableaux Kienholz built in a distance between his silent actors and their audience. Their faces were often blank or nonexistent, they did not resemble real people. In Sollie Kienholz has created a believable human figure—worn, aged, bored, and beaten. He appears three times in three different poses, each one reinforcing the vacant, impersonal isolation of the man’s condition.

Sollie is as comprehensive and complete as Kienholz’ earlier work, but it lacks the rage and biting satire of his youth. If we could walk into this environment instead of viewing it through a glass wall, if we could enter it and become part of it as we could with the earlier Barney’s Beanery, perhaps the old feeling of assault and involvement would exist here too. One cannot help but feel like a voyeur looking at another being’s misery while standing outside at a safe distance. In the hands of another artist such an experience might be suspect; with Kienholz it is part of the larger commentary, locating the audience in its habitual place—outside, uninvolved, watching. Kienholz put all of this in perspective for himself a few years ago, in an interview which was part of the UCLA Oral History Project: “. . . All of my work has to do with living and dying, our human fear of death.” In Sollie, fear of life and fear of death confront each other before our eyes.

Susan C. Larsen