November 22, 2011
Who owns a horror?
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art right now, in the ground-level hall of the Art of the Americas building, right off the main courtyard, a life-sized, lifelike sculptural installation shows a black man being castrated by a group of five white men wearing cartoonish masks.
The scene, titled “Five Car Stud” was created by the artist Ed Kienholz over the years 1969 to 1972 and is set in a darkened room lit by the headlights of four actual automobiles and a pickup truck. A woman who looks like she’s vomiting sits in the truck, and a young boy gazes out in fascination from inside one of the cars. The floor is covered with dirt to make it feel like an off-road clearing, and there are a couple of massive tree trunks in the background, which makes the environment feel authentic, blocking out the fact that it’s an art gallery.
The gruesome realism of the violent scene is mitigated only slightly by the fact that the victim himself is the least-lifelike rendering — his face is formed from transparent plastic, though it is fixed in the midst of a scream that conveys both horror and pain. Adding to the reminder that this is artifice, Kienholz has replaced the man’s chest with a pan of water that contains floating letters which spell a word, starting with n, that describes the black man, a word that cannot be printed here.
It takes four large men to hold the writhing figure down, while a fifth shields the door to the truck holding the woman, presumably the person who was caught with the victim.
This image of violence shatteringly reenacts a kind of racism that regularly took place in this country as recently as 50 years ago. As brutal and realistic as it is, the set is designed to implicate us — the audience — in the action, because as we walk into and through the scene, we draw close, to inspect and in the process become both witnesses and players in what is happening. However inadvertent our part may be, we feel we cannot stop what is happening at this low point of human behavior. There’s no way to interrupt the crime.
I bring all this up because I learned about this artwork when I went to hear a panel discussion at the Getty Center last week, a part of the current region-wide extravaganza of California art called “Pacific Standard Time.” There, a group of artists who make “assemblage art” — works made from everyday objects — had gathered to talk about their medium. One of them was Betye Saar, who, at 85, is a highly distinguished black artist. Another was Nancy Reddin Kienholz, the longtime collaborator of her late husband, Ed Kienholz, though they began working together after Ed had completed “Five Car Stud.” A heated argument about this work at LACMA broke out between the two women, and the audience joined the fray.
“Five Car Stud” has never before been shown in the United States. Soon after its completion in 1972, LACMA was set to show it, then, bowing to objections over the subject, canceled the plan. A museum in London also canceled a commitment to show the work. Just two venues in Germany displayed “Five Car Stud,” after which a Japanese collector acquired it and stored it without exhibitions for 40 years. Only recently, “Five Car Stud” was fully restored by Reddin Kienholz for this installation at LACMA, brought here by Stephanie Barron, chief curator of modern and contemporary art at the museum, who also created a thoughtful introductory entry room for the work.
At the Getty last week, Saar made clear she hadn’t seen the work and had no intention of doing so. She said she knew the substance of the work, however, and that she found the imagery offensive; she also found the use of the word that floats in the water offensive and she questioned why LACMA director Michael Govan chose to put the work on view.
Reddin Kienholz, who is white, defended her husband’s work as social commentary. The crowd literally cheered her on. One woman in the audience, who identified herself as a docent, said she had seen people leave crying after seeing the piece.
As a black woman artist who is of a generation that lived through this kind of crime, Saar’s pain at Kienholz’s depiction is visceral, and her desire to put that kind of imagery out of sight understandable. I do not visit Holocaust museums easily, though I read about them. I do not often see Holocaust films. But I understand that an artist’s ability to reinterpret our history and re-expose us to it is invaluable to a society. If we don’t look evil in the eye, will we be able to say “never again”?
I went to the museum on Sunday and spent quite a while at “Five Car Stud.” I watched people come into its gallery, most of them quietly, although some were giggling at the scene, even laughing or continuing to chat as they passed through. I found the work distasteful and off-putting. But it was also unnervingly real, yet static. Art, but not.
I was struck, too, that the scene recalls similar violence against homosexuals that continues to this day. And the victimization of women in some Muslim communities. The scene, with all its very American specificity, could happen anywhere.
At the Getty, I was not among those applauding the display against Saar’s objections. I am in favor of free speech, but understood her objections. Every group is loath to lend out the pain it has endured for others to examine. Yet I also would not be willing to close the door on a work like this one. I want younger generations to see it, to know that such things happened here, and to talk about them.
Because if we don’t, we might not remember our whole history and choose just the good parts. And it takes an artwork like this one — or a Holocaust museum — to raise the question: Can we afford to look away?