pounding the television screen
by Douglas Messerli
Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz Kienholz Televisions / LA Louver gallery, Los Angeles, the show Howard Fox and I saw was on February 24, 2016.
On a visit recently to a friend’s house, during which we watched a CNN interview of a particularly knuckle-headed Republican governor speaking in support of a presidential candidate, I observed the friend, after a few minutes into the conversation, violently flicking his nail against the speaker’s face on the television set, which momentarily left the screen in a confusion of digital colors and distortions. I was a little shocked, but then I remembered that I had often wanted to do the same thing, to actually react to the opposing figure I saw upon the screen, imagining the strange possibility that he or she might actually suffer my futilely hostile response through the airwaves of the television screen.
In his early works from 1965 and 1969, Solid State and Cement TV, Keinholz is satisfied by simply displaying the early television monitors, with their boxy, quite frightening modular models able to me moved about houses with the possibility of viewing through any open outlet.
But by 1976, with The Death Watch, these amazing machines were already presented as dangerous contraptions whose images affect the very way we receive reality, and to perceive it as a intertwined interchange between the everyday and an actual destruction of the natural world, as a ram’s horn appears to be engaged with a life-and-death struggle with an ordinary chair.
Several of the Kienholz’ satires have to do with the enshrinement of these machines in the very structures of our ordinary home lives, represented in this show in the works such as Queen Anne of 1980, where, upon a small antique side-table, which the owner has covered with a lace table covering, a particularly macabre television apparatus has been placed.
In Home Sweet Home of 2006, Nancy Reddin Kienholz (as a singular art contribution) presents us with a perverse vision of the American hearth, with the television set itself serving as the central fireplace of the (apparently not-so-) comfy American homestead. Except for the vaguely religious painting topping the television shrine, all else appears to be embraced in a lead-constructed encasement of American values.
In the Keinholz’ Drawing for the Hoerengracht Nol 1, the television set is tucked into a cold, isolate portraiture of a young woman who seems to be trapped in a kind of refrigerator world of light and frozen spaces.
But increasingly in these works, the Kienholz’ began to question the terrible effects of the media and its projection through the TV set. Even the titles of several of their works reveal their disdain, as in Chicken Little (1992) and All’s Quiet (1986). But increasingly the results of what the media presents come into focus.
A more careful look at All’s Quiet reveals a battle of a corroded army helmet and a small figurine of a dog perhaps poised to attack the already dead. The remarkable The Newses of 1993-94 represents a group of three religious zealots (or newscasters), their metallic ties stretching even outside of the picture frame. These figures, cast in bronze, have no other possibility of expression but their own cast-metallic personalities, not so very different perhaps from the same kind of figures in today’s Fox network or more locally-bigoted TV celebrities.
The most powerful work in this small, but absolutely revealing show, is Bout Round Eleven (1982), which, from its title, might suggest the male viewer, his own face locked in the plate-glass window through which he has projected his leaning head, is watching his TV with the mad adherence of a sports fanatic (presumably boxing, in this case). But what this particular television scenario reveals is not a sports scene but a mad dog dangerously jutting out of the screen, a metaphoric depiction of what the media truly is representing. His wife, looking off, is herself locked away in her own television projection of herself, while their separation is conveyed, quite poignantly, with the imprisoned vision of what appears to be a young woman on the wall (perhaps their daughter, a lost child, or, even, the woman herself at an earlier age, since the position of her arms is repeated in her sculptural representation), while before the husband sits the possible tools of his own soon-to-be burial, a rusted trowel and shovel, hinting here of his dinner utensils.
Surely these already “crossed out” figures represent one the saddest views ever represented in art of the limitations and restrictions of American life. Even Arthur Miller, and later, Edward Albee could not have better expressed the end of the American Dream. The empty chair that sits outside of their imprisoned space represents not only the viewer but the (im)possibility of their escape.
During a before-opening tour with gallerist Elizabeth East, I naively asked, “Do any of these televisions work?” She gracefully smiled, responding, “Yes.” But I quickly realized they were all quite charged up with their metaphorical messages, some actually emanating vaguely electronical passages from the past of Western music and garbled conversations from TV history, but every one of them speaking quite eloquently, with their silently and terrifyingly accurate expressions of their impact upon our lives.
Los Angeles, February 25, 2016