|London’s National Gallery houses over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900. They are arranged by period: 1250-1500, 1500-1600, 1600-1700, and 1700-1900. As might be expected of an iconic national asset, and one which attracts as many as five million visitors a year, the treasure it accommodates, like that of New York’s Metropolitan, is at times eye-watering. However, unlike the National, the Met’s collection enthusiastically embraces modernism. And it is the National’s failure to do so that creates the environmental flavor, which makes the sandwiching of Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s 1983-88 assemblage, The Hoerengracht, their life-size reconstruction of a sliver of Amsterdam’s red light district, so exhilarating, albeit superficially.|
London’s National Gallery houses over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900. They are arranged by period: 1250-1500, 1500-1600, 1600-1700, and 1700-1900. As might be expected of an iconic national asset, and one which attracts as many as five million visitors a year, the treasure it accommodates, like that of New York’s Metropolitan, is at times eye-watering. However, unlike the National, the Met’s collection enthusiastically embraces modernism. And it is the National’s failure to do so that creates the environmental flavor, which makes the sandwiching of Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s 1983-88 assemblage, The Hoerengracht, their life-size reconstruction of a sliver of Amsterdam’s red light district, so exhilarating, albeit superficially.
Installed in the gallery’s Sunley Room, the only illumination is that of the external neon, which invites the viewer to peer into the boudoirs, and dimly lit table lamps by which the prostitutes, all made from life-size plaster casts, pass their time between clients by reading magazines and listening to the radio. The walls, curtains, and the women themselves are streaked with polyester resin, engendering a damp, real-time sensation, a device that has become synonymous with Kienholz’s work, and which Ed claimed, “makes me a painter.” This could be seen as a flippant throwaway remark, but in fact it demonstrates an acute awareness of the hierarchies that undermined his critical reception throughout his career. A career which ended for him with his death in 1994 but which for Nancy, with whom he collaborated since 1972, continues to this day.
It would be hard to argue against the decision by the National’s director, Nicholas Penny to exhibit The Hoerengracht, the name of which is a pun suggesting “Gentleman’s Canal.” In placing it alongside scenes depicting prostitution from the 17th century by the likes of Vermeer and De Hooch, the intellectual and historical link is secured. However, The Hoetengracht has less to do with demonstrating Kienholz’s uncompromising radicalism and narrative dexterity, or for that matter the vital, albeit poorly recognized role that their practice has had in both the shaping and licensing of a new, assertive aesthetic as witnessed demonstratively through the work of Damien Hirst, Mike Nelson, and most significantly Thomas Hirschhorn. Penny’s decision was more as an historical lesson designed to contextualize a genre in which the solicitations and procurements of 350 years ago are viewed as quaint and otherworldly. And it is true that since the gentrification of parts of Amsterdam’s red light district The Hoetengracht does itself fall loosely into an historical category. But its inclusion in a palace of smug national hedonism such as the National creates more confusion than illumination. It is so out of place, so awkward, that no amount of museological text can lubricate its passage. The danger of this lies in the notion that for many, this will be their first encounter with a Kienholz. And The Hoerengracht goes no way toward illustrating the depth and importance of their wider practice. Kienholz is not a “great” artist. He and Nancy, are just extremely important. To have become more than this they would have had to have been even braver, even more assiduous, even more belligerent. And this said of a man who learned in the 1950s that in order to get a point across to as wide an audience as possible, any method should and could be used, as exercised though his own guerrilla tactics against the wrecking balls of municipal and institutional authorities.
In contrast to this characteristic, which became itself something of a brand, The Hoetengracht is polite and even rather complaisant, although it is too easily interpreted as an indictment of a sordid, exploitative, and dangerous trade, which itself is antithetical to Titian’s treatment of the “oldest profession” as being a cushion of ripe sexual fantasy. But the Kienholzian vernacular is more articulate when it is examining the quandaries and absurdities of modern life, but without putting forward any overtly partisan notions, although it is true that the human propensity to find certainties does distort the way this practice is perceived. But to make a work about the sex industry in a specific geographical location that has all but institutionalized social liberalism, and at the height of the AIDS epidemic, without regard to either the stark dangers inherent, or alternatively the fact that more physically exploitative industries continue to exist and with higher vocationally linked mortality rates (industries whose product is corporate sustenance rather than individual momentary gratification) relegates The Hoerengracht to the status of a three-dimensional cartoon. And this failure to engage in any kind of debate is all the more inadequate when viewed in the light of Ed Kienholz’s 1962 work of near genius, The Illegal Operation.
A single light bulb that hangs over an arrangement of medical implements. A bloodstained split concrete cushion sits atop a shopping cart which has been converted into a surgical table. Beneath it is a hospital bedpan full of soiled rags as well as a scarlet-colored milking stool. The blood implied in the assemblage is conventionally taken to be that of the pregnant woman. The lack of what has been described as “unidentifiable offal,” that would indicate the presence of a foetus is overlooked, even though we must interpret the obvious signs of intervention as meaning that the procedure has already taken place. The Illegal Operation is continually misinterpreted as being a pro-abortion work; its graphic account of suffering taken to be a commentary on the need for safe professional surgery. But this piece is in fact an attempt by Kienholz to recalibrate the debate in favor of the unfathomable and the unsolvable, the question of life itself, when can it be said to have started, and when, or even should, what ever it is that comes before, be ended.
The Illegal Operation is as close as Kienholz ever came to producing a truly great work. It failed to achieve this status not because it was too explicit, which is a criticism often levelled at it, but because it was not explicit enough. Its thesis, its recalibration was too concealed. Kienholz cleared the way for future generations of artists to ask the pertinent questions irrespective of convention, fashion or political orthodoxy. And in this respect he was continuing a great tradition, one which became lost in the fog of the 20th century’s clamor for creative celebrity and transient dogma.
Kienholz’s legacy is that he has re-legitimized the act of not knowing, and that the making of art that describes internal debate and even contradiction is a more sustainable method of activating change than the presentation to an audience of an article of faith into which the viewer either subscribes or ignores. Kienholz reminds us that it is the artist’s job to manage and direct dialogue rather than to necessarily enter into it. The most decisive voice being that of the puppeteer who holds all the strings. Unfortunately The Hoetengracht is resolutely un-Kienholzian in that it offers us a venue from which it is relatively difficult not to take a simplistic position.