Andrew Lambirth

Grim Gothic

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Nowadays ‘Kienholz’ is a brand. Its founder, Edward Kienholz (1927–94), was a self-taught artist who grew up on a farm on the borders of Washington and Idaho. He made a living as an odd-job man and drove a truck stencilled ‘Ed Kienholz Expert, Estab. 1952’, before co-founding a commercial art gallery and establishing a reputation as an artist of nightmarish surrealistic installations, using real furniture and life-size figures. In 1972 he met and married Nancy Reddin (born 1943), and in 1981 he issued a statement that all works from 1972 onwards were co-authored by him and Nancy. Since his death more than a decade ago, Nancy Reddin Kienholz has continued to make sculptures/objects/ installations in the Kienholz signature style, and the current West End show contains examples of her solo work as well as earlier collaborative pieces.

Couples working on the same piece of art is an effective way of disposing of competition within a relationship. Instead of de Kooning and his wife Elaine (or indeed Pollock and Lee Krasner) having to compare progress, the production can be shared and the anxieties halved. Recently, it seems to have proved a popular option: Christo and Jeanne-Claude is one such formidable duo, Claus Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen another. The business of art originated by a partnership does however pose an interesting question. Can one half continue successfully after the death of the other? What would Gilbert be without George, or vice versa? And if the brand does indeed survive death, what’s to prevent it from going on for ever? An eventuality even Warhol, with his supernormal manipulation of market expectations, was not quite equal to arranging. Whatever the case, ‘Kienholz’ is very much alive and kicking, as can be seen in this stirring exhibition, the first London showing of their work since 1971.

Haunch of Venison, the elegant former townhouse of Admiral Nelson, is arranged over three floors. As you come in, the ground floor contains a series of rather minimal watercolours, each rubberstamped with a different figure in dollars — in this case 487 to 496 and 527 to 536 —at which the works were originally for sale or exchange. They are all thumbprinted and signed, and apparently Ed had his thumbprint surgically removed afterwards by the local dentist so that there would be no possibility of authorising any more. Here, too, is a mixed-media assemblage, a spade surmounted by a helmet, entitled ‘Soldier X’, a foretaste of the War Room on the floor above.

The Kienholzes moved to Berlin in 1972, so the strong anti-war theme which runs through their work is not simply an indictment of American imperial policy, but also a fierce attack on what the German nation got up to in the 20th century. One of the most powerful pieces here is ‘The Cost’ (1988–9), a typical assemblage of found objects, which includes an iron portrait head of Hitler partly run-over by a tank, an articulated doll, pram wheels and a rough wooden ladder. The visual and emotional impact thoroughly transcends the sum of its parts, and it leaves a powerful impression on the mind. In the same room, lit but dimly by the single bulbs often used in the assemblages, are two impressive pieces by Nancy — ‘Ilse’s Home’, a searing comment on Nazi atrocities, complete with handbag of tattoed human skin, and ‘The Golden Guile’, a clutch of shellcases equipped with erect penises. The wit and genuine humour in Ed and Nancy’s work — however bitter the laughter might be — is always underpinned by a raucous vulgarity, a life-affirming energy that is difficult to resist.

On the second floor is ‘Kienholz Women’, four tableaux and an assemblage which is a 3D sketch for the most arresting of these self-contained but related installations. ‘The Bronze Pinball Machine with Woman Affixed Also’ (1980) is what it says: a working Playboy Pinball machine on a bronze bed with the open naked legs of a young woman drawing you into position to play. A pound in her slot and away you go, shooting, as so many do, from the hip. I tried it (with little success, I’m afraid) under the gently amused tuition of Nancy Kienholz. Its intention, like that of the other works, is to make you question assumptions and responsibilities. ‘The Pool Hall’, for instance, features a headless woman spreadeagled over the pocket of a pool table on which a couple of young bucks (complete with antlers) are playing. The Kienholz satire is grim Gothic, an adult version of What the Butler Saw, employing shock tactics for a humanistic end. Rare in these days of gratuitous nastiness, the work has the courage to be moralistic, to take a stance. It bites deep.

The drawings of Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903–75) couldn’t be more distant in spirit. High Priestess of monumental modernist sculpture in the abstract idiom, Hepworth’s art has long been considered austere and rather classical. Actually it has a lot more human warmth to it than is often suspected. Look for instance at the section devoted to life drawings in this excellent exhibition, and at ‘Figure and Mirror’ in particular. Hepworth often employed a single dancer or groups of young people to move around the studio, taking up poses and settling into natural attitudes. These she drew after a day’s carving. ‘One needs to record, endlessly, one’s observations of the human form, and of nature,’ she said. ‘It is from these sources that my forms derive.’

The 1940s was a decade of intense drawing during which Hepworth made some 250 two-dimensional works when materials to carve were scarce. These drawings are independent works in their own right, not preparatory studies for sculptures, and the abstract subjects have a self-contained beauty which is often breathtaking. Drawing for Hepworth was ‘a form of exploration’ in which she frequently used colour, sometimes in the form of oil paint, and incised the boards she worked on. Most of these works haven’t been seen for 50 years, and half-a-dozen from the Hepworth estate have never been publicly exhibited.

The exhibition is arranged in themes: Abstract Drawings in the first room, hung with a couple of Hepworth’s smaller sculptures for useful comparison, including one with a luscious deep-blue interior which echoes the tiny blue quadrilateral in the drawing next to it; the Figure Drawings, including a slightly eerie self-portrait borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery; and the Operating Theatre Drawings. The far room is given over to these studies of surgeons at work, not perhaps the most obviously congenial of subjects, but one with which Hepworth felt much in common. In these haunting mixed-media images, she chose to focus on the delicacy and strength of hands at work and the silent communication of eyes. They have the rubbed and distressed look of worn fresco, and a similar intensity and luminosity.

This is the third in a series of high- profile loan exhibitions organised byaH.H.-H., the previous ones featuring Henry Moore and Augustus John. Proceeds from the sale of the sumptuous catalogue (priced £20) will go to the Exeter Orthopaedic Hospital, where Hepworth originally worked. Her centenary two years ago passed without much celebration: this museum-quality exhibition and the new wing of Wakefield Museum to be dedicated to a permanent Hepworth display are more fitting tributes to a remarkable artist.