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ART REVIEW : Reflections on Oldest Profession : Kienholzes Take an Illuminating Stroll Through a Red-Light District

November 16, 1993|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Looking at art has, historically, often meant looking at rape, pillage, prostitution and other unsavory practices glorified in paint. Such atrocities, when reduced to two dimensions and distanced by time, usually end up providing visual experiences more than visceral ones.

The option of detached observation slams shut in the face of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz's environmental tableaux. Who could remain disinterested in the presence of a makeshift operating table stained by an illegal abortion ("The Illegal Operation," 1962)? Or standing before a full-scale scenario of four white men pinning a black man to the ground and castrating him ("Five Car Stud," 1969-1972)? Or, now, meeting the blank stares of a dozen prostitutes in "The Hoerengracht" (1984-88), an installation having its American debut at the downtown satellite of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

In "The Hoerengracht," Dutch for "whore's canal," the Kienholzes convincingly evoke the sights, textures and mood of Amsterdam's red-light district through a sculptural tableau the length of a short city block. Just as impressive as the tactile persuasiveness of the environment is the artists' approach to the traditional, yet controversial subject of prostitution. Neither preachy nor overly didactic, they enable a prolonged, open-ended reflection on an old and complex social phenomenon.

Red lights serve their age-old function as shop signs for the women, who display themselves in windows and doorways. With painted mannequin heads and bodies cast from models, they stare passively outward to the presumed flow of potential customers.

We become privileged voyeurs on this pseudo-street, with its wonderfully aged-looking walls and wind-strewn leaves. We can walk through at our leisure, peer into the cramped, shabby rooms, study the faces, the accouterments of the trade with unabashed curiosity, and relish the small ironies, like the romance magazine propped beneath a minute timer.

As if to further mark the prostitutes as objects available for the taking, the artists have framed each woman's face with a box, whose clear top is hinged open. Clear resin, a Kienholz standard, trails down their faces like tears, their legs like sweat, the windowpanes like viscous rain. It embalms this world, in a way, but its relentless dripping and pooling also hint at something like a moral meltdown, a physical and ethical degradation.

Only the thorniest of society's troubles have concerned the Kienholzes, Edward, working independently in L.A. in the 1960s, then the pair, working collaboratively since 1972. They divide their time now among Berlin, Houston and Hope, Ida. Even before he teamed with Nancy Reddin, Edward Kienholz had developed a raw nerve for the exploitation of women, and "The Hoerengracht" fits neatly into this conscience-rich pattern.

Part of its power comes from the synergistic union of genuine objects, constructed surrogates and sculptural conceits that are purposefully and poetically unreal, like the boxes around the women's faces. These different layers of reality temper and complement each other, preventing the work from veering too far into a Duane Hanson-style hyper-realism or, at the opposite extreme, an esoteric abstraction. The work stays accessible. It's critical and confrontational, but not accusatory. The Kienholzes blame broad, dysfunctional social systems and violently skewed values rather than individuals.

*

Facing the installation is a series of wall-mounted, sculptural "drawings," using the same general vocabulary of images and materials. More liberties are taken compositionally in these distilled versions of the larger work, and for all the grittiness of their subject, they look quite elegant. The museum, though, should have installed the drawings separately, where they wouldn't detract from the integrity of the constructed environment.

Nevertheless, the show demonstrates yet again the intensity and originality of the artists' vision, a vision that has made their work a model for a younger generation of socially critical artists. It is hard to imagine the existence of Pepon Osorio's disturbing installation for this year's Whitney Biennial, for instance, without the foundation of the Kienholzes' work to rest upon.

Kim MacConnel and Jean Lowe's "Bull Story," also at the museum, may owe something to the senior statespeople of installation art. San Diegans MacConnel and Lowe, married but usually working separately, have filled a small gallery to bursting with a black and white papier-mache bull. An animal of majestic demeanor and power according to the Hindu faith, the bull is enshrined here among images of its debasement in our culture--tormented in a bullfight, trivialized in a cartoon and literally ground up and consumed on a bun for lunch.

Cultural relativism is a sometimes tragic fact, but MacConnel and Lowe state the obvious by showing that what is holy in one culture is base in another. Although a relevant message, it reads like a commercial next to the epic, engrossing tale of the Kienholzes.

* The Museum of Contemporary Art/Downtown, 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, through Jan. 20. (619) 234-1001.

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