Mixed media installation at LACMA
Edward Kienholz’ Five Car Stud is the “must see” piece in the entire group of exhibitions. To me it is as significant as Picasso’s Guernica, and I don’t make that comparison to Picasso’s masterpiece lightly. In addition to being monumental and among the most compelling pieces by each of the artists, there are other similarities between the two works.
One aspect is that Five Car Stud memorializes an important historical theme in the history of America and represents the story of the prevelent and systematic racism and oppresion that resulted in the loss of life for many Americans and, like Guernica, it was never shown in its home country. This is the first time it has returned to America, after being held abroad for forty years.
Due to the full size cars and large scale of this installation, transporting this piece will make it prohibitively expensive to exhibit in many locations and I am thankful that the necessary arrangements were made to bring this to Los Angeles. While some of the other work may be seen as part of other shows or collections across America, this piece will most likely be returning to it’s home at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan and I don’t imagine many Americans will travel there to see it. This is also an exhibit that cannot be fully appreciated unless you are standing in the installation. Seeing photographs are not a substitute for actually experiencing the life-sized “scene of the crime.”
Walking onto the dirt floor of Five Car Stud is like turning down a dark road to be the unwilling eyewitness to a murder. I was immediate struck by the horror of the violence and injustice, embarrassed in the recognition that this is a familiar part of America. Although I know that this scene is ficticious, it’s representative of many similar acts that have taken place in our country, and still do. As I looked on, I felt like I didn’t want to see this in a way, but also didn’t want to turn away and felt it was important to allow myself to feel and relate to the work. Like Guernica directly confronting the viewer with the atrocities of war, Kienholz directly confronts the audience with the barbarity of racism. In that way, the power of Five Car Stud is making one realize that we are not just bystanders, we also need to personally take responsibility for protecting human rights.
Five Car Stud is a portrayal of a hate crime. Six White men attack a Black man who appears to have been on a date with a White woman in his truck. Like the injustice of military bombing of innocent civilians in Guernica, Five Car Stud depicts the bigotry of violence against minorities. Four of the men are in various positions holding down the victim while the fifth is in the process of castrating him and a sixth man with a shotgun stands next to the open door of the victim’s truck where a woman inside is weeping. One of them prominently wears a necklace with a religious cross hanging from it. The setting is emblematic of the 1950’s era and car culture where vehicles might be parked on a dirt road turn-off or lookout spot. Among them are authentic models of the Classic Cars of this time: Ford truck, Mustang, Corvair, Cadillac and Plymouth. Life-sized models of middle-aged, working class men dressed in actual clothes from the time period give this a very real feel. The dusty, dirt covered floor, trees, large boulders, empty beer cans and other “found” props from the era also contribute to the authentic representation of this scene. Headlights from the surrounding cars cut through the darkness of the night to expose the central scene. The ominously tall, but foliage-less trees tower over, as if waiting for the victim to be hung. Most of the men are wearing Holloween type masks, further adding to the frightening setting.
Walking into the tableau, past the cars and around the victim and his attackers made me want to cry. I was actually shaking by the time I saw the young son looking on from the passenger seat of the Corvair, witness to his father participating in the castration and implied murder of the Black man. The victims in Guernica are twisted and distorted, representing their struggle, pain and suffering. The victim in Five Car Stud is also distorted, with his face in contortions, his limbs being pulled and twisted in his struggle against his oppressors, and his body represented by an open box filled with water and groups of letters floating inside that form: N-I-G-G-E-R, one of the most offensive racial slurs in America.
If there is anything that struck me as underrepresented in this work, it is the size of the victim’s penis. Maybe it should have been larger because it seems that six men with weapons cutting off the genitalia of one unarmed man on a date, must have felt threatened by it. I don’t understand the hate that drives people to want to take the life of another person, especially one that they don’t know and who is not doing anything to personally hurt any of them. Is this anger driven more by fear or insecurity? Are these men feeling so threatened for their manhood, and that women might prefer a Black man to them, that they are not only attacking him, but must also violently castrate him?
Although the oppression represented in Five Car Stud is between Black and White men, it portrays lynching and physical abuse done to various minorities throughout America, even to this day. While all of the other models are cast as specific human characters, the victim is represented more ambiguously, possibly to imply that the crime being committed isn’t just towards one specific person, but symbolically represents a larger society that could find themselves in the same situation. The Civil Rights Movement benefitted not only Blacks, but all other minorities. All groups in America, including women, other races, such as Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians, or those with other sexual orientations, religious associations, speaking other languages, having alternate political views and even those with physical or mental disabilities are legally protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but violence against minorities still exists. According to *2009 FBI reports, 8,322 people were victims of hate crimes in that year alone. (* FBI statistics: Incidents and Offenses – Hate Crime Statistics, 2009.)
Some images and experiences you never forget or quite “get over” and this one will haunt me for a long time, but I’m glad. Racism and hate crimes are a part of American history that shouldn’t be forgotten or erased. Edward Kienholz’ work is a timeless reminder that freedom, civil rights, and social equity has come at the price of Americans that stood up for what they believed in and that no one should have to suffer from violence due to intolerance or lack of respect for another human’s rights. We should continually strive to protect this about our country. There is a quote by Einstein: “The world is too dangerous to live in – not because of the people who do evil but because of the people who sit and let it happen.” In this sense, Five Car Stud is a reminder that we are all witnesses and rather than just be spectators, we should actively protest the violence and crimes against human rights. The victim suffering represents the civil liberties of all individuals. Like Guernica, while it is a statement against violence, it is also a plea for peace.
Kienholz Transcript about the work and preparation: http://www.lacma.org/sites/default/files/Kienholz%20Transcript.pdf.
Timeline of Kienholz, Civil Rights & his work: http://www.lacma.org/sites/default/files/kienholz_timeline_FINAL.pdf.
Image: Edward Kienholz, Five Car Stud 1969–1972, Revisited, Photography by Tom Vinetz. © Kienholz. Collection of Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura, Japan. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA and The Pace Gallery, New York.
* FBI statistics: Incidents and Offenses – Hate Crime Statistics, 2009.