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Issue 215

Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s Disturbing American Symbolism

The duo’s installations at Galerie Templon, Paris, couldn’t be timelier

BY Aaron Peck in EU Reviews , Reviews | 06 OCT 20

The work of Edward and Nancy Kienholz has an unsettling power. Their assemblages and installations – comprised of found material such as mannequins, bits of furniture, photographs and other strange, flea-market finds – make for blunt commentary on American culture. Considered among the first artists to work with installation, the duo's current exhibition at Galerie Templon features more than 20 pieces dating from 1978 until Edward’s death in 1994.

Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Useful Art No.3, 1992, mixed media assemblage, 1.2 × 1.5 × 1.0 m. Courtesy: Galerie Templon, Paris/Brussels; photograph: Bertrant Huet

Their imagery can be disturbing, particularly their representations of women’s bodies. Yet, unlike the German surrealist Hans Bellmer’s misogynistic, life-size mannequins of young women (The Doll, 1933–35), the artists attempted to expose violence against women rather than perpetuate it. Still, that makes it no easier to look at an installation like The Pool Hall (1993), featuring three men at a billiards table. Two are white-coloured mannequins placed in front of the table – one of whom, sporting antlers and a backwards baseball cap, aims the ball with his cue towards the vagina of a decapitated female mannequin sitting in the corner of the pool table. The third player – wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses, his hair in dreadlocks – is a photographic image of a Black figure collaged onto the wall against which the table rests. The Pool Hall is a thicket of American symbolism.

Edward and Nancy Kienholz, The Pool Hall, 1993, mixed media assemblage, 2.4 × 2.5 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: Galerie Templon, Paris/Brussels; photograph: Bertrant Huet

However, the most poignant work on view is also the smallest: Hoverman (1993) is an 80-cm-tall assemblage of a vertical rectangular box containing a wooden figure with a disfigured face – perhaps a bodhisattva or a Buddha – beneath which dangles a clenched fist. Formally, Hoverman recalls the niches in which voodoo fetishes are placed, making me wonder if the duo's oeuvre is more a hex than a mirror – an attempt to conjure revenge on excess and inequality.

‘Edward and Nancy Kienholz’ is on view at Galerie Templon, Paris, until 31 October 2020

Main image: Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Jody, Jody, Jody, 1993-1994, mixed media assemblage, 2.4 × 2.7 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: Galerie Templon, Paris/Brussels; photograph: Bertrant Huet

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of BooksArtforum andThe White Review, among others.