Los Angeles

Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin-Kienholz

Six years ago, Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin-Kienholz embarked on a project that would address the arbitrary, unfair distribution of wealth in the world. Their stated premise was that human fate is largely determined by “accident of birth”—that economics can be destiny. Through extensive travel they gathered raw material for their work: an octagonal life-sized carousel, controlled by the spin of a wheel of fortune, was exhibited with thematically related 3-D wall reliefs referred to as “drawings” and with monoprints. All the works were fabricated largely from items collected during visits to eight far-flung locations that corresponded to the following notion: “we divided the globe into 8 sections thinking that if you depicted 5 parts of the world population as the deprived poor and 2 parts as the middle class, then the remaining 1 part becomes the richest or privileged people.” A catalogue text in the form of a journallike letter home details the artists’ purchase of personal effects—the entire contents of a roadside stand, kitchen implements, fencing, etc.—gathered from the places they toured.

The resulting exhibition filled both galleries. Arguably the heart of the project was the carousel itself, The Merry-Go-World; Or Begat By Chance And The Wonder Horse Trigger, 1988–92, which recalled the cobwebby, profusely executed creepy crèches of earlier works that, composed of flotsam and jetsam, looked as if they had tumbled from some boarded-up recess inthe attic of American conscience, threatening either to come to life or die a thousand deaths before your eyes. The outside of the carousel evoked the crazed, side-show quality of such works, with its calliope music, flashing lights, spattered paint, warped mirrors, fake bats, and stuffed monkeys. The merry-go-round animals looked like a vivisectionist’s masterpieces: a giraffe whose amputated legs had been replaced by crutches; a taxidermized head of a tiger grafted onto the too small body of a lynx. Viewers could enter the carousel one at a time after spinning the roulettelike wheel of fortune. In a claustrophobic inner chamber, one of eight glass cases full of representative travel artifacts would light up for 30 seconds.

The drawings and monoprints seemed to function like a 3-D scrapbook, with much recurring imagery. Combining large screened photos and paint, these wall pieces resembled views from window or doorways, kitchen counters or mantelpieces—dishes, brooms, stools, food wrappers, vases, tin siding, etc., provided set-dressing.

One disorienting aspect of the show was that nothing in it seemed to deal with the artists’ membership in the “1 part” of the population that is most financially secure, which is what actually enabled them to make this globe-trotting work. What kind of overtones that gave the show, the individual works, the impressions and conclusions drawn about the places they visited, was never addressed. While all the other place/portraits seemed detailed, based on real locations and people, the pieces from France, the one area selected to represent the rich, were oddly vague and impersonal. One wondered what to make of this lack of specificity, which seemed out of character when compared to the rest of the works in the show. Was there a judgment being made that somehow the rich are less alive than the poor? The work obliquely raised questions about colonialism, tourism, and noblesse oblige, but did not satisfactorily answer them.

Amy Gerstler