PST, A to Z: 'Asco' and 'Edward Kienholz' at LACMA
Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
In a catalog essay for the current Asco retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, scholar Chon Noriega compares its “Spray Paint LACMA” with Edward Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38.” Both were controversial works. In 1972, the members of the Chicano conceptual art group tagged the LACMA building, essentially appropriating it as their own work of art. Kienholz’s installation depicting a couple having sex in a car was deemed pornographic during his 1966 retrospective at the museum. However, Noriega observes that while LACMA curators sided with the powers that be in quickly whitewashing Asco’s work, they went to bat for Kienholz — a white man and a prominent figure in the L.A. art scene — keeping the L.A. County Board of Supervisors from closing his show.
Now, as part of Pacific Standard Time, works by Asco and Kienholz are both on view at LACMA. Active from 1972 to 1987, Asco is finally getting the full retrospective treatment for its playful, mostly ephemeral performances subverting Chicano stereotypes and pop cultural conventions. (Check back with Culture Monster for a complete review of the Asco show by Christopher Knight.)
Kienholz is represented by a single, bombastic installation, “Five Car Stud.” Created between 1969 and 1972, it’s a life-size tableau of a group of white men brutally attacking a black man. (See Holly Myers’ feature and this editorial for the full story.) He was finishing this piece in Los Angeles just as Asco was sallying forth onto the streets.
Parity between the two shows is progress, to be sure, but it also brings up other issues. The exhibitions represent two very different responses to racism. Of course, Kienholz and Asco came from different generations and cultural backgrounds — he was a middle-aged man raised in the rural Pacific Northwest; the group's members had just graduated from high school in East L.A. Their respective works from this time bracket, a transition from an era in which racial discrimination seemed insurmountable, to one in which all types of difference — color, gender, sexual orientation — were up for grabs. If Kienholz mines the deep-seated problem of racism, Asco, whose name means “nausea” in Spanish, offers something of a solution: Burn it down and start again.
That said, “Five Car Stud” is plainly nauseating. In a large, darkened room illuminated only by the headlights of four cars, five white male figures wearing gruesome Halloween masks pin a struggling black man to the ground. His torso is a void filled with oily liquid upon which float the letters of the N-word. He is literally a slur.
Viewers walk directly into, around, and through this horrifying scene, and in doing so, are made complicit in its cruelty. Completing the scene, the soft dirt that covers the floor is full of footprints — evidence of others who came before, looked, and did nothing. The imperative of the art object — don’t touch! — and the creepy presence of a watchful museum guard reinforce this helplessness.
Although there is nothing to touch in the Asco exhibition either, the work refuses to box the viewer into a single point of view. Instead, it is multifaceted, even ambivalent, particularly in the early, unscripted street performances. In photo documentation, we see the group’s members walking city streets dressed as the figures in a “living” mural (the stereotypical Chicano art form), posing as the dead victims of gang violence, or performing the stations of the cross to call attention to inordinate numbers of brown men dying in Vietnam.
If Kienholz dramatized the horror of real events in the art gallery, Asco brought art out to play in real life. In the process, the members refused to be hemmed in by racist assumptions about who they were or where they belonged. In one of their last performances, created for Agnes Varda’s 1981 film “Mur Murs,” they fashion common mural figures and objects out of large pieces of paper and burn them, proclaiming the birth of the new out of the ashes of the old. Self-styled in kooky costumes and outlandishly painted faces, they look like jesters of radical possibility.
-- Sharon Mizota
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Dec. 4 (Asco) and Jan. 15 (Kienholz). Closed Wednesdays. www.lacma.org
Image: "Asco Days of the Dead Performance," photograph by Richard Valverde. Credit: Collection of Esperanza Valverde.