Confronting (and that’s what it is, a confrontation) Ed Kienholz’s The Ozymandias Parade at Pace Gallery is a wonderfully jarring experience. Profound and silly, meaningful through a montage of manipulated meanings, the installation is intensely dark and scary because, like all of Kienholz’s work, it hits way too close to the perverbial home. As always, the marginalized reflects us, our struggles and our history. Historical trauma manifested, shown in all its grossly entertaining forms. Kienholz is an utter master at revealing that which society prefers to keep under wraps but shoving it in our face – his works cannot be ignored. They are shockingly beautiful in their ugly honesty (with a big middle finger implied).
From Pace… The centerpiece of the exhibition is the incendiary large-scale installation The Ozymandias Parade (1985), an opulent allegory of the abuse of political power, with a parade of figures and symbols representing elements of society. The decadent, nationalistic “ship of fools” is capped with nearly 700 blinking lights, which change with each presentation to reflect the colors of the nation where the work is being displayed. Addressing the corrosive effects of fear and propaganda, the tableau depicts a chaotic world turned upside-down: an armed general rides on the back of a fragile female figure who is lured by the “carrot” of a crucifix; the vice president’s horse has toppled off of his roller skates; the menacing, headless vice president faces backwards, blowing a trumpet and waving the flag; the sinister president clings to the belly of his horse, a red phone clutched in his hand and a yellow rubber ducky on his head. Whether the parade’s president shows a YES or a NO across his face is the result of a poll conducted in the weeks leading up to the installation’s opening, comprised of just one simple question: “Are you satisfied with your government?”
Emphasizing the marginal and the forgotten, tackling racism, sex, and war Ed Kienholz (October 23, 1927 – June 10, 1994) approached his artwork much like a horror film director. His tableaus are annihilated spaces, post-apocolyptic scenes in which we, the audience, can peer into the deeps of what the “other” (still so much like us) feels. Loneliness is palpable as the uncanny figures mock us for not having the guts to be as dirty and as real as they are. These are shocking scenes, even for today, and they resonate deep within our sensibilities. He re-created the ugliness of the world in an environment to which we could safely relate.
Much of his work has an edge to it but one of his more provocative installations is being re-visited this month in Los Angeles. Kienholz’s infamous Five Car Stud (made somewhere between 1969 and 1972) that depicts a brutally violent racial attack will be seen for the first time in forty years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the city-wide Pacific Standard Time event. From the Los Angeles Times:
It is a difficult piece on multiple levels. 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.
The white figures are all realistically cast, but for the grotesque rubber masks on each of the men. The black figure’s face is uncannily bifurcated: a clear plastic outer face is frozen in a scream while a darker one within it is “sadly resigned and quiet,” as Kienholz put it in a statement at the time. His torso is made from a rectangular tin filled with black water, in which float letters that spell out a racial slur.
Watch Nancy Reddin Kienholz (his wife and collaborator) install the work: