An evening of conversation with artists Ed Bereal, Mel Edwards, George Herms, Nancy Reddin Kienholz and Betye Saar. Moderated by Lucy Bradnock of the Getty Research Institute. Wednesday, 16 November 2011 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Wednesday evenings Pacific Standard Time event was a discussion with Los Angeles based artists associated with the west coast movement of Assemblage and how they utilized “found” objects to express their artistic styles and political views during the tumultuous period of 1945-1980. At the end of the panel discussion, a controversy erupted over one of the works by Ed Kienholz. Members of the audience and artists on the panel posed questions (and accusations) at Nancy Reddin Kienholz about the intentions of Five Car Stud, a Pacific Standard Time installation at LACMA. This was a highly charged and rather dark close to what was an insightful and otherwise lively evening.
This conversation was personal in a way: I feel strongly that the work by Kienholz deserves merit and I’ve written about it (Edward Kienholz, Five Car Stud 1969–1972, Revisited » Pacific Standard Time | LACMA | urban iconic), but to me it comes down to a couple of positions. First and foremost, I was surprised that the artist and those individuals in the audience that were speaking against the work had not actually seen the piece in person, but were drawing conclusions from photos and external sources. (This is the first showing of the work in 40 years.) This to me goes against what the artistic community should ALL strive to prevent and exactly what this panel had been discussing as an underlying theme to artistic expression of this time period: censorship, exclusion, intolerance and suppression of art that one does not understand. Five Car Stud evokes strong emotions. It’s a very confrontational piece and it is designed to be controversial, but it surprises me that artists would protest the exhibition of another artist’s work without actually seeing it to fairly judge it for themselves. Ironically, I think the work by Kienholz is being misunderstood, but in either case, the people protesting it should at least know what it is that they are protesting.
The second point is that I believe Kienholz’ intensions in making this work are sincere in his beliefs for community, human rights and non-violence. Kienholz himself has passed away, so he is not around to explain, defend or justify his work. (Not that he should be required to.) What does exist are his notes and commentary that are exhibited alongside his work. The very least the audience could do is read and go to view the exhibition before making quick conclusions. I believe that he took a risk at the time this work was made to stand-up for something he believed in and it was to the benefit of people other than himself. He was an artist that had a voice and he used it to express opinions for many that did not have public or media attention. He was in fact speaking out against his own race for the benefit of minorites and humanity. It makes me sad that his voice is being shut-down without the benefit of “hearing him out,” by seeing the work that he created. It is a monumental piece that took several years to build and assemble. Even the clothing had to be painstakingly “unsewn” at the seams then “resewn” onto the model casts. It was not something Kienholz just quickly “threw together.”
The third point that I think needs to be considered, is since Ed Kienholz is no longer here to explain his work, no one else can fully speak on his behalf. While others can contribute their theories on Ed’s intentions, I don’t feel that it is justified to ask anyone else take the blunt of accusations or be required to explain for him. His late wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, was there for her contributions to the piece, as well as to recollect what she could of Ed’s story, but this is still not the same as questioning Ed himself. If anything, questions could be posed to LACMA for their decision to exhibit Five Car Stud now, but no official LACMA representatives were there.
One audience member positively addressed the Assemblage and Politics final question to George Herms, closing the evening’s discussion by asking him about his hand-stamped use of the word, “L-O-V-E” as a personal signature on all of his finished work. It made me think, where is the love for our fellow artists and humans? Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I hope the artistic community will support one another and give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to creative choice. Even when we are not in agreement, stifling anyone’s right to voice an opinion or idea seems to go against all that artists strive to preserve: freedom of expression against an already existing mountain of bureaucracy and conservative repression. While it is unlikely (nor desired) for everyone to concur or be in harmony, we could at least try practicing a new mantra: “When in doubt, hear them out.”
Video of the event: http://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/events/assemblage_politics/