FOR the past three decades Edward Kienholz - first on his own and for the past 16 years with Nancy Reddin Kienholz - has constructed assemblages, mixed media sculptures, and what he calls human-scale tableaux. In the process, they have given us some of the enduring sculptures of the postwar era. The subjects of their work have often been societal victims or its marginal types. These subjects are depicted as cast, life-size figures placed in everyday settings or alluded to through objects.
For example, ``The Wait,'' which is shown on this page and was executed in 1964-65, portrays the dreary existence of a woman whose life has become an endless wait on the Home Front. She sits surrounded by the significant things of her life: her cat, her caged bird, her sewing basket, the portraits of family members, several in uniform.
The figure consists of skeleton limbs and frame, costumed in a dress. Her head is a deer skull, sealed in a jar and visible only in profile. From the front we view the likeness of a young woman. A necklace of other sealed jars, some of them clocks, chokes her throat.
``The Wait'' is not pretty art. But it makes its points in a manner that lodges in the viewer's mind.
Having discovered a format to fit his socially critical sensibility, Kienholz constructed a number of important tableaux between 1961 and 1965. The following year he made the grandly ambitious ``The Beanery,'' a meticulously accurate re-creation of the bar at the still surviving Los Angeles eatery Barney's Beanery, where he and other artists spent time during that era.
If in real bars people kill time, in Kienholz's version time has come to a stop. All 17 figures, with the exception of a likeness of Barney himself, have clocks for heads, forever set at 10:10. Entering Kienholz's environment, we hear voices and other appropriate sounds, but nothing moves, of course, except the viewer. Even outside the place, time is frozen. The newspaper in the rack dates from 1965; its headline reads: ``Children Kill Children in Vietnam.''
These tableaux and others were included in the artist's 1966 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition was a succ`es de scandale.
A few days before the exhibition opened, Los Angeles County Supervisor Warren Dorn attempted to have it suppressed. After seeing ``Roxy's,'' a brothel scene, and ``The Back Seat Dodge '38,'' in which plaster and chicken wire figures embrace, Dorn asked the president of the museum's board to cancel the show. He even threatened to introduce a measure to block pay subsidies for museum personnel. All to no avail. As news of the controversy spread, long lines of viewers arrived at the museum to see the exhibition. Kienholz suddenly became a well-known artist.
Despite the notoriety, Kienholz was not an academically trained artist. The inspiration for his tableaux derived from the folk tableaux and stop-action scenes he had witnessed in the churches and Grange hall of his hometown, the small northwestern Washington farming community of Fairfield.
Working in a non-theoretical way, he forged a powerful West Coast counterpart to environmental art being created in and around New York. Proceeding from a more historically informed vantage point, East Coast artists Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and others were producing collage environments that served as discrete works and also as sets in which fragmented theatrical pieces, dubbed ``happenings,'' were enacted.
Kienholz's approach, with its direct, often angry or violent treatment of social themes, had no close equivalents in the visual arts of the late '50s and '60s. Rather one must look to Beat texts - Allen Ginsberg's ``Howl,'' Norman Mailer's ``The White Negro,'' and William Burroughs's ``The Naked Lunch'' - to find works of art as socially critical as Kienholz's seminal assemblages and early tableaux.
For Kienholz the '70s was a decade of changes. In 1972 he met Nancy Reddin, daughter of then Los Angeles Police Chief Tom Reddin, and soon afterward married her.
In 1973 Kienholz and his wife left Los Angeles for good. They have since established a pattern in which they divide their time between Berlin and the tiny northern Idaho town of Hope. In 1979 Kienholz announced that he and his wife had become collaborators in every aspect of the work and that in future all work would be co-signed by his wife.
What has endured is the desire to create art that comments, in metaphorical fashion, on the state of our culture. If the art is no longer as angry or as brutal as it once was, it is no less incisive or affecting.
Consider ``The Shine on Shine,'' a dramatization of the fate of blacks in American society. Its single male figure - Abraham Lincoln - sits at a shoeshine stand. A photograph of Mount Rushmore serves for a head, the neck lined up with the stone portrait of Lincoln.
The figure is dressed in a black suit with tails, and mimics the pose of the Lincoln Memorial statue. The base of this modest-size tableau is an actual shoeshine stand. Lincoln's shoes are being shined by a pair of disembodied hands attached to a stiffened polishing cloth.
Conventional wisdom attributes to Lincoln the emancipation of the blacks from slavery. ``The Shine on Shine'' suggests that emancipation created an oppression even worse than slavery: invisibility. Lincoln's image is a commonplace in our society. But although they continue to do the cleanup work of the society, the blacks he is supposed to have liberated have disappeared in mass-consciousness.
``The Caddy Court,'' a novel kind of public art, pits nature against our powerful institutions of justice. The piece is a working vehicle: a 1966 Dodge van sandwiched between two halves of a 1978 Cadillac. It can move from city to city under its own power. And in theory at least any curbside or sidewalk could serve as its exhibition space.
When the vehicle's doors are closed, they display a photographic image of the Supreme Court Building. When open, they become shelves of truncated law books. A black curtain conceals the scene within. (As with many Kienholz tableaux, the viewer must decide whether to look inside.)
Inside are several figures seated as if in judgment and wearing judicial robes. For heads, the figures have deer, coyote, and bighorn sheep skulls, some in states of decay, and are three-dimensional symbols of stultification.
If one looks long and carefully at Kienholz tableaux, recent and vintage, it becomes clear that their criticisms are informed by a deep affection for America. Eminently accessible, this art is democratic in approach. It may seem curious that the Kienholzes' recent work remains more popular in Europe than in America. But such has been the fate of many American artists and writers.