New York

Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz

Louver Gallery

The Kienholzes’ open-ended, all-inclusive attitude toward assemblage conveys a number of unchic sentiments. Although the recent works are generally less severe than their predecessors, the existential angst of beatnik days lingers on. If the scale is occasionally heroic, the feeling is mawkish, that of mucking around with the cast-off odds and ends of a culture gone to seed. To let oneself be maudlin and still to give a damn demands a rare kind of courage. Compare the Kienholzes’ technique to what’s become the norm in sculpture: it’s impossible to imagine them searching out just the right element, consulting a team of fabricators, or fussing over some ironic nuance. Rather, they dredge up a mountain of junk and press it into service.

That the pieces should fit together awkwardly comes as no surprise. This awkwardness is their form and their content. In this collection of works, a vague totemism serves as the central organizing principle. In Grey Man’s Parade, 1987, a middle-class-looking mannequin bears the pathetic semblance of an American flag aloft. The figure, screwed to a steel box, floats at an odd angle, his stiff posture making him look ungainly. A brand-new pair of aviator sunglasses worn by this goo-encrusted figure is more pathetic still. A corroded steel drawer frames a dog’s head in The Rainbow Dancer, 1982. A bare light bulb constitutes the dog’s halo. On top of the drawer is filigree fashioned from brass strips. Holding a second light bulb is a cast of a human arm joined to the drawer at the bottom. A metal stool is the pedestal for the whole affair. The Silver Fish and the Multitudes Have Lunch and Other Myths, 1981, though itself a relief, alludes to trompe l’oeil compositions. The altarlike construction features, among other things, a silver fish that rests on a shelf and a cross that extends over the top of the picture. The ambiguity of the silver fish is disquieting, punning as it does on both the plenitude implied by the loaves-and-fishes parable and the squalor associated with cockroaches.

The Potlatch, 1988, is the most explicitly totemic of the works here. This large tableau centers on a minotaurlike figure clad in traditional Native American dress and bedecked with a set of antlers. Only a few meager scraps lie on the table before this figure. On the wall behind it and to its side, on music stands, rest documentary photos of Native Americans. One of these has fallen to the floor. The work makes direct reference to potlach, a system of obligatory giving that was practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Rather than battle, chiefs would offer their rivals ostentatious gifts. If the rival could not equal or best the offering, he was humiliated. Although Georges Bataille, among others, expressed admiration for the seeming excessiveness of this system, the corruption of this form of exchange resulted from the disruption of the Native American economy by the Europe-based fur trade; prior to that, it had served as a more sensible alternative to war. This junk sculpture neatly encapsulates the systematic impoverishment of tribal cultures known for their thrift by an economy whose unbridled lust for profit results in untold waste, the essential “substance” that the Kienholzes rework.

As vehicles for sublimation, artworks can be seen as the totems of a secular age. The Kienholzes’ fascination with totemism, however is shot through with skepticism. Significantly, that skeptical fascination is never ironic. The pathos of this work sets it off from that of, say, George Segal, whose distanced plaster characters can seem comparatively inconsequential. The Kienholzes’ work, by contrast, comes across as the spew of overflowing Pandora’s boxes set loose. It reminds us how much more there can be to assemblage than the alchemical conceits that are now fashionable.

Finally, one of the most refreshing things about this survey of the Kienholzes’ work from the last eight years was, oddly enough, its checklist. The materials in each of the 20 assemblage works are listed simply as “mixed media,” without appealing to this trendy “photo emulsion and beeswax on found turkey bones with anodized aluminum lag bolts” nonsense. The Kienholzes’ directness speaks volumes. Leave the details to the next vitrine close-out sale.

John Miller