I recently recommended West Coast wild man Ed Kienholz to a friend who does collage and assemblage. She looked the man up, and was hit between the eyes with an image of Kienholz' “The Birthday.” It's a drab tableaux of a woman lying on a doctor's examination table, apparently giving birth. Large hollow curved plastic arrows, presumably filled with bodily fluids, arch upwards from the figure's midsection. She is draped in ashen grey fabric, which is echoed in other drab, grey objects in the room. A bubble – a shriek of agony? – emerges from her open mouth.
I've got to admit that "The Birthday" is not my favorite Kienholz work. Matter of fact, I would probably say it's one of my least-favorite pieces, although I have trouble looking at things like "Bear Chair" (at the Portland Art Museum through August), and "Five Car Stud" as well. But Ed Kienholz also produced "Back Seat Dodge '38,” “The Beanery,” and “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” an affectionate tribute to a friend and cohort in the Los Angeles art world of the 1950's.
I probably like Kienholz because I started out as a funk artist, although my work isn't particularly funky anymore. I continue to believe, however, that there's beauty in virtually everything, and assemblage is a form that constantly reaffirms that truth. But the focus of “The Birthday” isn't funky or gritty at all; it's created out of the artist's head, and it's a bit strident and naive. The piece tries to get up and preach at you, and stuff like that doesn't generally work so well as art.
"Sleepy's Hollow" (pictured here) is quintessentially funky without being strident – and, it's very close to what assemblage master Robert Rauschenberg was doing in the 50's and 60's. There's a Rauschenberg like it, “Trophy IV (for John Cage),” in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Kienholz (along with his wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz) is a master of funk -- both physical objects (including decaying buildings and the rooms in them) and hopeless people lost in their own personal downward spirals. But I have to believe that he sees something besides pathos in these lost souls and cast-off objects, something almost regal in the way they carry on despite being close to the bottom of the heap. At its best, his work has a brazen, openhanded West Coast feel about it -- a feeling that escapes me in pieces like "Birthday."
Kienholz was a crude, lusty man, and we're lucky he came this way.