Like the Memorial Day holiday weekend with which it bookends the summer, Labor Day is an opportunity for hard-working Americans to kick back, pop open a couple of beers and reflect upon what makes the good ol’ U. S. of A. so great. Which is why the opening of the new installation of Edward Kienholz‘s disturbing fever dream “Five Car Stud” at LACMA this Sunday couldn’t have come at a better (or more ironic) time.
Completed in Los Angeles in 1972, “Five Car Stud” was the last large scale installation piece Kienholz created before moving to Germany, where it was exhibited just a single time at Documenta 5 in Kassel before it was acquired by a Japanese collector and stored at the Kawamura Museum in Tokyo for decades. Its installation at LACMA, seventeen years after the artist’s death in 1994, is the first time “Five Car Stud” has been shown in the country (and city) in which it was created.
Which gives its subject matter a particularly powerful resonance. For “Five Car Stud” depicts the lynching of an African-American man by five white assailants, a scene made all the more disturbing by its sheer size and narrative details:
It is enormous, for one thing: a tableau installation involving nine life-sized figures, five automobiles, several trees and a truckload of dirt. More difficult still is what the piece depicts: a circle of white men, lighted only by the headlights of the circled automobiles, pinning and castrating a lone black man, while a child cowers in one of the cars and a woman — presumably the victim’s companion — huddles and vomits in another.
A short video showing the installation of the piece at LACMA as supervised by Kienholz’s partner and artistic collaborator Nancy Reddin Kienholz gives an idea of the piece’s scale and impact:
In a fascinating blog entry about the piece, Artinfo’s William Poundstone provides more details about its imagery and the history of its production and exhibition, and also explains some of the unique circumstances surrounding its display at the museum:
LACMA is instituting a protocol for visitors. Only 15 will be admitted at a time, and “trained facilitators” will be on hand weekends to answer any questions. Not since the Hammer did Black Male in 1995 has a local museum been so nervous that visitors would misunderstand contemporary art’s native tongue of ambiguity.
Perhaps that nervousness is justified, given that Los Angeles doesn’t happen to have the best track record where racial harmony is concerned. One thing’s for certain, though: the air of caution surrounding “Five Car Stud” and its weighty themes makes the Whitney Museum’s concerns about Kienholz’s “The Wait” in the “Singular Visions” show earlier this year look almost quaint by comparison.