When Ed Kienholz started making life-size tableaux back in the '60s, he staked out such a radical artistic position no one has caught up to him to this day.
Kienholz was half philosopher and half attack-dog. He waded into the paradox and injustices of the American social myth when it was forbidden. Now that it's fashionable, other practitioners still look timid by comparison. Kienholz remains Kienholz's only competition.
An exhibition of work made with his wife and partner Nancy Reddin Kienholz is on view at L.A. Louver Gallery. As it turns out, the art in it is the last he made. His body died in June. His spirit, however, is so alive here the event doesn't feel mournful.
The show's title, "76 J.C.'s Led the Big Charade" derives from its most populated piece. Name notwithstanding, it consists of 98 crucifixes. The crosses themselves are fashioned from metal handles and axles scavenged from kid's wagons of yesteryear. Attached to them are hands and feet from dolls and mannequins; they are Kienholz's trademarks, like the odor of his dripped acrylic.
Heads are like a world encyclopedia of representations of Jesus' visage. There are sober master art reproductions, lugubrious holograms where the eyes open and close, kitsch souvenir dishes in reverse relief that pop out into 3-D, Latin American folk images and Russian icons painted like Easter eggs, to name a few. The Christian Savior is characterized as a dangerous lunatic, agonized martyr, simpering dolt and narcissistic movie star, among many other things.
Kienholz was nothing if not a master provocateur. This ensemble is so irreverent it makes Andres Serrano's notorious "Piss Christ" look callow and sulky. Kienholz was a lot cannier. After all, these are not his characterizations, but those of people who presumably believe in the Christ. "Why can't they get their act together?" the work seems to ask. "Who was this man, anyway? Somebody must be giving him a bum rap."
Even in these ultra-cynical days, the work is shocking and funny as well as curiously respectful. At bottom, the reaction comes from the quality of the intelligence behind it.
"All Have Sinned in Rm. 323" shows a female mannequin masturbating in front of a TV set full of Barbie dolls themselves having something of an orgy. On top of the set rests more Jesus kitsch and an enlarged photo of Tammy Bakker. The choice of this evangelist shows malice aforethought. She looks just like a decadent Barbie doll.
Here, the decent philosopher wonders why the woman, forced to pleasure herself in isolation, should be required to feel guilty. She is understandably aroused by the sexy glamour of the media. Its preachers traffic in seduction themselves. The artist's mood is troubled and ambiguous.
But when things are wrong, they're wrong. "The Bear Chair" shows Goldilocks as a little girl tied to a chair. She has clearly just been sodomized by the bear. He is carving a message in the dressing table, "If you ever tell," it reads, "I'll hurt your mama real, real bad."
The anger of the piece is icy. You feel its maker calmly reaching for his .357 magnum to blow the bear straight to hell.
Then there is the ridiculous. In "My Country 'Tis of Thee," four pious mannequin politicians pledge allegiance. They wear used-car salesmen coats but no trousers. Each has one leg in a (pork) barrel. Each gently holds the penis of the colleague behind him as collegial form of self-protection.
Ed Kienholz knew a lot. For one thing, he knew that old jokes, like old truths, don't get stale.
* L.A. Louver Gallery, 77 Market St., Venice, to Nov. 12, closed Mondays, (310) 822-4955.