MILAN — To experience the piece “Five Car Stud” (1969–72), you have to walk into a dark cavern that’s lit only by the beams of car headlights from five vehicles placed in a diorama also including trees, a floor consisting mostly of sand, and effigies of human figures. One figure is standing several feet away from the epicenter of the action, holding a rope tied around the leg of a victim; another has his full weight thrown onto the victim’s arm, and another has the other arm, holding it by bracing his booted foot against the man’s neck; still another has a hold of his penis, with a knife in his right hand preparing to seemingly cut it off. One more figure stands over the scene holding a shotgun at the ready and a couple more bystanders, a man and a woman, watch from their truck. They are all caricatures — even the black man who is being lynched — his face a rictus of pain and fear and agony. The white men perpetrating the crime are worse, though. They are ghouls — one with clown-like features, the others with patchy hair, dripping moles, savage grins, and face contorted into something like fascination and pleasure and committed intent. In the chest cavity of the man being lynched there is a pool of water in which float colored plastic letters that spell out N-I-G-G-E-R. This work spares no one’s sensibilities. Edward Kienholz was like the Lars von Trier of the contemporary visual art world (he died in 1994): he wanted to shove the truth of America’s horrifying past into your face, and to an extent, punish you with this history — for simply being another flawed human being caught up in its debacle.
The curator Germano Celant calls the work of Edward and Nancy Kienholz (the two began collaborating in 1972) in Kienholz: Five Car Stud, now on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, an “art of repulsion” that fights against the “secular evangelization” of Abstract Expressionism that turned the solitary artist “into a hero.” More, Celant writes in the gallery guide that, “in the formal and visual sense they are a break with the canons of the acceptable that undermine the deceitfulness and the pacifying and soothing mimesis of art, pushing it in the direction of a primitive and breathtaking animalism.” The irony of this passage is that it reveals that the curator himself also can’t resist making the artists into types of heroes. To be fair, the translation from the Italian is a bit wonky, so his meaning may not be coming across fully. More, when one admires an artist, it’s very difficult to avoid making them into some version of the heroic figure, someone who has won over the dross, fatigue, boredom, and entropy of the art scene.
The problem with their work is that the most harrowing pieces are also the ones that are the most fanatical and one-dimensional in their rage. For example, “The Bronze Pinball Machine with Woman Affixed Also” (1980) is a piece that consists of a Playboy-branded pinball machine that makes a woman’s body (just the half below the torso) an accessory to the pleasure of the presumed male who would play this game. The woman’s vagina is completely exposed in a way that feels confrontational. Essentially, the male would have to position himself to penetrate the woman in order to participate. Then the artists end up repeating themselves in 1993 with the piece “The Pool Hall,” which shows a headless female body spread-eagled on a corner of the pool table, her vagina forming one of the pockets, as men wearing hockey masks aim to shoot a ball into her prone body.
The rub is that there is a kind of Evangelical Christian ethos to his work: it’s righteously indignant — all day long. This kind of righteous American anger is the flip side of the typical redemption story which is, “I had this experience of grace, generosity, love, etc., and now you must have it too, because my truth has to be true universally.” Both Edward and Nancy Kienholz want their anger to be your anger too, and they bring to the surface all the ugliness of our shared popular culture and history they can in order to force their insights onto you.
But the underlying horror here — what most will want to avoid — is that our history is even worse than the Kienholzes depict. At times, when black men were lynched in the US, their penises were cut off and stuffed down their own throats. This practice seems to be very much about a way of emasculating the threatening black male, removing his source of potency and power, that even while tied up and overpowered and destined to die, was still too forceful to leave intact. It gets even worse. Whites used to have picnics and parties under the corpses of lynched black men. They would celebrate the torture and murder of other human beings with sweet tea and cakes, chatting and laughing with that strange fruit hanging from the trees above them.
Knowing this always makes me want to ask those who are loudly vocal about their pride in being born in the US: Where does this history fit into your sums of the benefits and privileges of being American? Does this information fit into your patriotic weighing up of the country? Are you proud of this part of the history, too? Do you ignore it? Do you deny its existence? What precisely are you proud of? And, while we are on the subject, how does being proud of where you happen to be born equip you to be a decent, reasonable human being?
The problem with these works is that the anger they incite is too seductive. Yes, I too want to shove people’s faces in the muck and grime of their hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and historical myopia. But I also recognize that the men who carried out lynchings were not demons. They likely went to church on Sunday and loved their own children and were proud of their families. The pieces don’t equip me to do much besides make me angry, and since I’m a black man that grew up in this country, I’m already there.
The Kienholzes are much more inventive in other works that lack the chaser of fury, such as “The nativity” (1961) that uses the most ordinary materials like shovels, plant hangers, lamps, and emergency lights to make a convincing Christmas scene. Another favorite of mine is “The Merry-Go-World or Begat by Chance and the Wonder Horse Trigger” (1991–94), which has a menagerie of broken patchwork animals, like a giraffe with crutches for legs. The work is very rooted in the abject but is also colorful and surprising in its variety of animals. This work is not necessarily more or less successful than the more overtly political work here. Rather, it’s that it operates in quite different aesthetic and emotional keys and so allows formal nuances of the Kienholzes’s practice to become more apparent.
Ultimately, Kienholz: Five Car Stud is creepy, ugly, and obsessive. It also has a bounty of visual surprises. However, in the end, the righteous anger that kindles the Keinholzes’s politics burns up the viewer’s capacity to usefully imagine themselves as part of the culture that is being so ruthlessly depicted. Yes, as our election season has made painfully evident, this culture is deeply and wantonly racist and misogynist, and worse, we revel in our ethical failings. Still, we need to recognize that this is our culture, that we are part of it, because if enough of us take the nihilist’s position, imagining that it’s better for the nation to succumb to some sort of devastation or annihilation (for example a race war), that may indeed happen, and someone somewhere is going to have to sweep up the ashes.
Kienholz: Five Car Stud continues at the Fondazione Prada (Largo Isarco 2, Milan) through December 31.