Installation view, Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, “The Ozymandias Parade” (1985). Mixed media tableau, 12′ 8″ x 29′ 1″ x 15′. (all images © 2012 The Pace Gallery and the artist, courtesy The Pace Gallery)

The Ozymandias Parade” by Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz has landed in the Pace Gallery like a DIY UFO — a frenzied agitprop vessel clattering into the 21st century from the Reagan era’s heart of darkness.

Edward Kienholz (1927–1994) was an American maverick when that term still had meaning. Untrained as an artist and unperturbed by the rage for purity of the post-AbEx New York scene (having moved to Los Angeles from Washington State in his mid-twenties), he developed a private vision of hell that zigzagged among the seamier strains of Surrealism, Dada, Outsider and Folk. His wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz (b. 1943), became his collaborator in 1972, and afterward they were known collectively as Kienholz.

With “The Ozymandias Parade,” Kienholz has set forth a monstrousness of a different sort. Unlike their better-known works — sculptural assemblages and claustrophobic tableaus steeped in shadow, grime and rot, and obsessed with death and sex, sex and death — “Ozymandias” is big, bright and shiny, festooned with 687 blinking red, white and blue lights around a mirrored platform, upon which a full-size carousel horse rears on its hind legs while another collapses, decapitated, to the floor.

Each horse has a rider, but more on them later. “The Ozymandias Parade” was made in 1985, in the thick of the Reagan administration’s clandestine wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and just as the Iran-Contra Affair was coming to light.

A wall text in the gallery displays a long statement from November 1985 by Edward Kienholz explaining the genesis of the piece:

In March of ’85, Harvey West of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle called us in Berlin and asked if we would participate in an exhibition with a working title of “The No Show.” An exhibition, if we understood the concept correctly, that would have to do with political positions as expressed through sculpture.

It was a hot time for political artists — Leon Golub was making his White Squad paintings (1982-1987); Jenny Holzer was pasting her incendiary texts from “The End of the U.S.A. (1989) on lamp posts throughout lower Manhattan; Sue Coe was at work on the drawings that would become the book Police State (1987).

In contrast to Golub’s clinical fatalism, Holzer’s hyperbolic rage and Coe’s eviscerating satire, the Kienholz work is more like a Wobblie on a soapbox at the Wisconsin State Fair, a throwback to a time when the world was divided between plucky union maids on one side and goons and ginks and company finks on the other.

Bespeaking a political naïveté that is simultaneously charming and cringe-inducing, the Kienholz statement continues:

[…] there are a lot of trite symbols (T.S.s) built into this piece and Nancy and I mean for them to be noticed. […] There’s a barrel of pigs for pork barrel funding, a bulletproof Pope-mobile for the symbol of peace and love to ride in, broken speakers intended as broken speech promises, blind justice with a fractured arm and busted scales.

There are also two figures, the President/Chancellor/Premier/Dictator and the Vice President/ Vice Chancellor/Vice Premier/Vice Dictator, who ride the horses (but are mounted on the steeds’ bellies instead of their backs). A third rider, a general, sits piggyback on the shoulders of an “over-taxed-payer … bleeding her bankrupt and urging her on with a religious ‘carrot’ and the usual fear propaganda.”

The names of the horses’ riders demonstrate Kienholz’s intention that the work be not “only about America and American politicians”:

We are stating that leadership, certainly with some exceptions, is generally bad all over the world. Most politicos are from the ranks of the law or the military which I suppose is a convenient background while pursuing manifest power and historical notice. It also puts one in a perfect position to cover one’s rather messy ass with mind-boggling legislation and iron fisted control. We the people who pay the bills be damned.

And in fact, the piece is adaptable to exhibition in other countries, where the flag fluttering in the breeze of an electric fan on the top of a tall staff can be swapped out for the local model, and bulbs displaying the national colors can replace the red, white and blue lights ringing the platform.

Installation view, Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, “The Ozymandias Parade” (1985)

“Ozymandias” is a sic transit gloria mundi poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that ends:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The poem is not on display in the gallery, nor is it referenced in the work other than, perhaps, metaphorically: the “frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” on the “shattered visage” of a statue of Ozymandias, “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read.”

If, through their depictions of political and military leaders pursuing “manifest power and historical notice” and covering their “rather messy ass with mind-boggling legislation and iron fisted control,” the artists are indentifying with the ancient sculptor who can “well […] read” a tyrant’s passions, then this allusion is the subtlest aspect of the work.

I have to say that after reading Kienholz’s text I approached the work with trepidation. How could so excruciatingly obvious a program result in anything worthwhile?

The clutter of objects crowded along the platform edge seemed to confirm my misgivings: mismatching thrift shop figurines representing the marginalized and the oppressed watch the parade from one corner while toy soldiers and armored personnel carriers are piled beside bundles of $100 bills in another.

And yet, the longer I looked at the main event — the horses and riders and burdened over-taxed-payer — the more its utter shamelessness won me over. Its admittedly ridiculous trite symbols are presented with the verve of a true believer and an outlandishness that erupts like Fourth of July fireworks—noisy, garish and evanescent.

No, it’s not John Heartfield, whose Weimer Republic photomontages depicted Adolf Hitler under an X-ray with a bellyful of gold coins and a swastika for a heart, and a crazed Hermann Goering gripping a bloody ax, though his symbolism is just as blatant. Those works continue to fascinate as much for their razor-sharp artistry as for the existential threat that loomed over them. By the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933, Heartfield knew that it was time to go.

No such threat hangs over “The Ozymandias Parade.” We can be reasonably certain that Reagan and his henchmen had no clue, nor would they care if they did, what the artists were up to.

For all its entertainment value, politically “Ozymandias’s” scattershot criticism doesn’t hit a nerve. It’s not that Kienholz had never before taken a stand or exercised political critique, but the most powerful work, such as the controversial “Five Car Stud” (1969–1972), a life-size installation depicting the castration of a black man by a gang of white, Halloween-masked thugs, remains squarely in the realm of sex and death, death and sex. No symbols needed.

Kienholz: The Ozymandias Parade/Concept Tableaux continues at the Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.