The new works of Edward Kienholz are made of timbers, parts of elephants, pistols and stuffed bats, of fields of gray metal, mirrors, lenses, lights. These sculptures, although elegant, cast a spell so eerie that the real world itself seems to pale in their presence. Like the man himself, they broadcast an impression of competence and confidence and overwhelming strength. Though devilish, they're decorous. While torturing the memory, they gratify the eye.
Ed Kienholz, 53, has eyebrows like a satyr's reddish and upswept. His goatee is professorial, his arms are thick, his legs are short, his bulky torso calls to mind that of the growling bulldog who pursued Tom and Jerry in the old cartoons. He is a poet of a sort and a scavenger of genius. Six of his new works -- four from the "White Easel" series, his "Fountain" and his "Blue Duck Chair" -- are now on exhibition at the Middendorf/Lane Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd., NW. The Kienholz we meet here is a master in full stride.
His terrifying art was seen here once before, in 1967, at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. No one who explored that ghastly and surreal show has managed to forget it.
It smelled of stale beer, of dirty socks and hospitals. It rang with hollow laughter and with screams of pain. Solidified concrete dripped from the incision of "The Illegal Operation." "The Birthday" showed a pregnant woman strapped down to a table while arrows of pure agony shot out of her abdomen. Goldfish swam in lazy grace through the featureless glass skull of the old and naked man, beatup and abandoned, that Kienholz had encaged in "The State Hospital." The artist was relentless then; he shoved us toward the real. His exhibit seared the viewer. It writhed with human suffering, its mood was hot and angry. His new tableaux, on view here now, are not like that at all.
Their mood is one of spaciousness. They are rigorously balanced, patiently considered, classical and calm. All of their components, their easels made of 4-by-4s, their black electric cords, their skins and sticks and towels -- and the histories these things contain -- are torn from real life. Yet these tableaux seem abstractions. Here and there details -- that giant bat, that pistol, that sagging face of melted wax -- may evoke the shudder, but Kienholz in these sculptures does not force us to confront the agony of others."I mostly think of my work as the poor of an animal that goes through the forest and makes a thought trail," writes the artist. "And the viewer is the hunter who comes and follows the trail." Here the trail leads to openness. These works are cool as mirrors. We see reflected in them what we recall of ourselves.
"In the last years of the '50s I painted on raw lumber using brooms for brushes," Keinholz said the other day. "I tried to make my pictures as ugly as I could. I figured if I knew exactly what the ugly was, I'd find what beauty is." Kienholz has since found it. Beauty rules this show.
His earlier pieces, with their howls and stenches, tore the membrane between art and life. Here art seems resurgent. For each of the tableaux in his "White Easel" series, Kienholz reconstructed the rugged wooden easel, the wall fixtures and flood lights, and even the white cinderblocks of his studio wall. In the open blankness of his reconstructed easel walls Keinholz found what he describes as "comfort and pure freedom." That towel and that mirror may suggest the bath. That driftwood log draped with the foot-hide of an elephant, and the drinking fountain by it, may evoke Venus rising, but these objects, Kienholz says, "have no ulterior meanting." He made them seeking order. "I worked and worked for weeks and weeks," he says, "adjusting this to that."
Kienholz was born in Fairfield, Wash., in 1927. He sold cars and vacuum cleaners and worked in hospitals and nightclubs before he turned to art. He made in Idaho the works now on view here, in the little town of Hope (pop. 63) where he and his wife Nancy work six months of the year. The tiny gallery they run there offers to that wilderness small one-man exhibitions of such master artists as Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Emil Nolde and Saul Steinberg. Kienholz and his wife spend the other six months of the year working in Berlin, bringing to that old and tired capital a portion of the energy of the far Northwest.
Kienholz is a force. Rare indeed the artists -- Red Grooms may be one, Frank Stella is another -- who work in three dimensions with comparable vigor. Ed Kienholz should, by now, be famous in this country but is better known abroad. Though no Washington museum owns a major Kienholz (those now on veiw are selling for $55,000 each), many of his fiercest and most ambitious pieces already have been purchased for Europe's state Collections.
His "Beanery" is in Amsterdam, his "State Hospital" in Stockholm, "While Visions of Sugar Plums Danced in Their Heads" is in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Since 1977, his tableaux have been seen in Switzerland and Ireland, France, Austria and Denmark, at the Venice Biennale and at the National Gallery in Berlin. His show at Middendorf/Lane is the first commercial exhibition he has permitted in this country in the past dozen years. That gallery, by showing Sam Gilliam, Rockne Krebs, Nicholas Africano and a survey of Tableaux, has proved itself, this season this city's most ambitious. Its Keinholz exhibition closes July 3.