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ART : Putting Things All Together : Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, talk (a bit reluctantly) about life, art, love and all those changes

October 31, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

\f7 E.K.: I see us that way too, but it took me a long time and several wives before I got to the point where I was complete enough as a human being and as a man to be worthy of Nancy. I had to learn that life isn't like the movies I grew up on where the hero kisses the heroine and they walk hand in hand into the sunset and it says "the end" where it should say "the beginning."

Raising my two kids played a big role in helping me grow up about these things, too. I got custody of my kids in 1963 and suddenly I was both mommy and daddy. I was raised on a farm where there was women's work and men's work and never the twain shall meet, and it was a big breakthrough for me to realize that I could nourish two little kids and it didn't diminish me as a man. That allowed me to expand the feminine part of my nature, which was something I'd always denied. Everybody has masculine and feminine in them and to exercise either one doesn't make you more or less.

But getting back to your question about prostitution, everyone isn't as fortunate as Nancy and I have been, and it's not written in stone that man is a monogamous animal. There are animals who mate once for life, but man isn't one of them. As to why we've been struggling for centuries to conform to that structure, I can only assume it started a long time ago in a cave when somebody said, "We need to go out and hunt and since I can't kill the mastodon by myself, I want you all to come with me and maybe we can kill the mastodon together." When you're sticking your stick in the saber-toothed tiger you want to be sure the guy next to you is gonna stick his stick in too--it needed to be a cohesive effort and they discovered that it caused dissension in the group for one guy to be messing with somebody else's old lady. Somewhere along the line that thinking led us into what we now call civilization, and all the "thou shalt nots" we try to obey in this puritanical culture. And unfortunately, this country seems to be moving even more to the right at the moment, and this shift probably has a lot to do with the economy. When people get scared about money they tend to get conservative and self-righteous.

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"The Hoerengracht" has been exhibited three times in Europe, but this will be its first U.S. showing. Do you expect a different reading of the work here?

E.K.: I suppose that there will be the outraged matrons.

N.R.K.: I disagree--I don't think you'll hear complaints from women. I think men are more likely to have trouble with the piece.

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Have you made works you feel are simply too abrasive to be exhibited?

E.K.: Sometimes we'll have to live with a piece for a few months before we put it out there, and we have a couple in the studio right now that once we wash the vomit off them they'll be ready to show. We have a piece about child abuse that's called "The Bear Chair" that I'm ready to show, but Nancy still has mixed feelings about it. I've never regretted showing a piece either--the only piece that ever came close to bringing up feelings of that nature was "Illegal Operation" (a tableau completed in 1962 depicting a grisly backstreet abortion).

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In the criticism of your work--and in the general public response to it--it seems that the formal aspects of your art are often overlooked, probably because the content is so volatile. Would you agree?

E.K.: That's very true and it bothers me a lot. Yesterday I was talking to (San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art director) Hugh Davies while we were installing the piece and he was responding to the sections as if they were paintings--he was seeing the structure of the piece and the way color and design work in it. He was thrilled with what he was seeing too, and it was gratifying to me to have someone appreciate that part of what we do. What usually happens is the viewer will look and say, "Oh, it's a war memorial or it's a bordello," then stop looking. They can't seem to take the work in both as a totality and as an artwork, and figure once they've "gotten it" the experience is completed. Considering the amount of time Nancy and I spend working on these things, making adjustments that are a fraction of an inch and talking through decisions about how a piece will look--all that seems to be lost on the viewer, and it's frustrating for us. Obviously there's a lot of crap put out as art, but we never put a piece into the world casually and scrap about 10% of what we make. In fact, we just took a large standing sculpture with two figures, painted and fiberglassed, that we'd been looking at for about a year and finally decided it wasn't good enough. So we had it smashed and thrown in the dump.

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Last September you exhibited a large work at the L.A. Louver Gallery titled "The Merry-Go-World," a piece you described as being about "the random accident of birth." To what degree do we control our destiny once we get here?

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