Portland Art Museum
For the second time that I'm aware of since fall, the Portland Art Museum has a great show by major American artists, yet somehow failed to give it five dollars' worth of publicity. A few months ago there was a miniature exhibit of brand new paintings by Ed Ruscha, arguably one of the most important artists living today, and none of the museum docents were even aware of its presence. Then just a couple weeks ago, Tableaux: Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz opened with zero fanfare. Kind of sad for two artists who had a Guggenheim retrospective in 1996.
It is hard to tell from the PAM exhibit how monumental and powerful the Keinholz's best work can be. They came into prominence in L.A. during the '60s, when so many West Coast pop artists were making mindless, ultra-slick work influenced by surfboards and hot rods (the more things change... ). The Kienholz's messy, decaying assemblages were about as subtle as a bucket of cat shit--Hilton Kramer called their LA County Museum show "upchuck" and "disgusting." It was not gentle work, to be sure. The Keinholz' took sculptural assemblage and installation art to a new level in that era, making enormous tableaux with themes of psychic disintegration, abortion, patriotism, and prostitution. Everything was always set against a distinctly American backdrop full of flags, toy horses, Chevys and television sets. Lots of television sets.
In contrast, Tableaux looks almost quaint; there are no large-scale environments and the famous, signature pieces are absent. Instead we have two larger galleries of sculptural "drawings" for large installations and more modest assemblage work. Although there is no overarching grandiosity on display, Tableaux provides an excellent chance to get the flavor of the Kienholz's aesthetic, which is swampy, decaying, rusted, and shellacked. The Keinholz look stands in direct opposition to what is happening in our ultra-finished, chrome and plastic, super flat contemporary art world. This sensory shock alone is worth a visit. CHAS BOWIE
Nic Hess: 51 Views of Mount Matterhorn
(Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002, $24.95)
Fucking corporate logos. Insidious, manipulative, slimy, seductive, so fresh and so clean, sweet corporate logos. Separating a fool like me from my money even while I'm trying to go about my artsy business. And these damn graphic designers who do their job so well that I'm buying books by artists I don't even like because the jackets are a nice red vinyl and the pages are filled with lukewarm subversions of corporate identity tags. And now I'm writing this stupid book review at the last minute because I chunked out twenty-five bucks for a crappy book in a nice outfit.
The book is Nic Hess: 51 Views of Mount Matterhorn, which I blindly bought off the shelf for two reasons. One is that the title references one of my favorite bodies of art ever: Hokusai's "36 Views of Mt. Fuji," and sometimes I get taken in by things that remind me of other things I like, even if they're watered-down, poor imitations of the original, like this one. The second reason I bought the book is what I alluded to earlier--it's so handsome! It's got that nice Coca-Cola red, plasticky cover with these inverted McDonald's arches and Ferarri logos in black silhouette. Inside, there's 30-point type and mildly subversive collages of all these logos. It looked exactly like the kind of book that I wanted to finish off the Christmas fudge with. That is, until I started listening to what it had to say.
Hess' Mount Matterhorn project occupies only one glossy color fold-out in the book, and the rest is filled with ancillary writings and related imagery. Dow Chemicals commissioned Hess to create one of his super-slick wall paintings in their corporate headquarters, which overlooks--you guessed it--Mt. Matterhorn. It's an enormous, stripy, computer drafted jumble of horizontal zips with corporate logos such as the Michelin Man and the Prudential mountain woven in. It looks like about 140 rolls of masking tape were used to make the piece. The rest of the book, from page 25 on, is an alphabetical catalog of the logos that Hess frequently appropriates, and this writer who ties them all to biblical or mythological roots in a quasi-encyclopedic way. So this artist got a sweet commission in Switzerland, a beautiful book to which he contributed almost nothing, and now with this review, another line on his resume which he can use to get more big money projects. All because I can't say no to a Playboy bunny sitting on Mr. Peanut's top hat. CHAS BOWIE