Los Angeles

Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz

L.A. Louver

Since 1973, Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz have divided their time between West Berlin and the small town of Hope, Idaho. This geographical marriage of extremely diverse cultures corresponds with the husband-and-wife team’s artistic collaboration, creating a contextual and personal dialectic of considerable complexity and interest. Edward is well known for his large-scale environmental tableaux, in particular the infamous Roxy’s, 1961, and The Back Seat Dodge—’38, 1962–64, which fused hard-hitting social comment with almost Dadaist black humor. Nancy, on the other hand, is a photographer and has introduced the more analytical and conceptual distancings of mechanical reproduction to their combined efforts. The results are usually characterized by a more feminine (as opposed to feminist) sensibility: subtler, carefully reasoned, and acutely aware of sociological ambiguities.

Their latest exhibit, titled “Grey Works,” was largely a disappointment, however. They apparently opted to score easy points through clichéd satire rather than allow "meaning’ to emerge from contradictions inherent to the work itself. The new sculptures build upon the couple’s habitual themes of sexuality, solitude, and the ravages/dislocations of time, by focusing on man’s destructive confrontation with nature, specifically the evils of toxic pollution and the need for individual and corporate accountability The Kienholzes juxtapose the vulnerability of animals’ and women’s political and individual lack of identity to the self-serving impulses of predominantly male power systems.

Stylistically, this is also paralleled by a perhaps unconscious symbiosis between the vernacular realism and junk-funk esthetics of rural America and the ingrained expressionist angst that pervades the current Berlin scene. When the synthesis works, the results can be both visceral and equivocal, leaving room for audience participation and interpretation. When it fails, the work resembles a tired Kienholz pastiche, defined by overwrought mannerism and dogmatic preachiness.

These problems are particularly evident in The Grey Window Becoming, 1983, a narrative piece that draws upon Freudian symbolism and the Gothic sense of decay typified by Dickens’ Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. A nude girl, finished in gray Zolotone (an unblendable pigment that resembles the surface of stone), sits at a dressing table looking at her reflection (a photograph) in the mirror. The vanity’s bizarre accoutrements are typical Kienholz—a boar’s head, a family register, black roses, and a revolver. This altar-cum-shrine to death-in-youth and misplaced identity is suffocatingly hermetic, offering little hope of either redemption or transcendence.

This despairing pessimism pervaded the exhibit as a whole. It’s one thing to critique society’s ills by refusing to shy away from horror, another to wallow in its deterministic inevitability. The one work that breaks away from this cycle of claustrophobic negativity is In Memory of Birds, 1986, a comparatively subdued wall piece that takes the form of an elegy to the birds that died as a result of the fall-out following the Chernobyl disaster. As news of the tragedy was withheld by the Soviet media, one of the first signs of its impact was the absence of migrating birds from the north coast of Germany. With its diptychlike composition, the work subtly combines object and representation, metaphorically splitting signifier from signified, to present a poignant critique of non- and misinformation.

Colin Gardner