Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud depicts a horrific scene of racial violence during the civil rights era. Actually, the term horrific does nothing to illustrate the nauseating effects of this life-size interactive work currently on display at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art.
The piece is set up in a darkened room with a sandy dirt floor. Five cars form a circle, illuminating the focal point of the work with their headlights. Life-sized, white male figures stand next to their cars menacingly wielding batons and other weapons. One man holds a shotgun at his side. Clown-like masks and sagging skin cover their faces. The eyes are hollow and insipid, yet smirk at inflicting pain upon another human.
The sense of entitlement emanates not only from their facial expressions, but also from the positions of the bodies and the looming presence of each of these men. Garbed in jeans with the ruddy faces of moonshine alcoholics, they abuse and castrate another man, lassoing his foot like cattle, simply due to the color of his skin.
The victim lies in the center of the scene flanked by two men gripping his arms. Instead of casting an entire figure, Kienholz installs a rectangular trough in place of his torso. He filled the trough with water and six wooden alphabet blocks, two of the same letter, floating around, and leaving the viewer to piece together their meaning.
Kienholz spent three years working on this project between 1969 and 1972 during the height of civil rights era when activists had reached some victories for desegregation. However, through his depiction viewers realize that prejudice and unfounded bias continue to infiltrate society.
Kienholz is best known for using found objects to create jarring sculptures that comment on social issues within the United States. He created this work shortly before he relocated to Germany where it first appeared publicly. A private collector acquired the work and for 40 years it remained in storage. Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the first to display the work in the United States.
I do not exaggerate the gravity of this work. Guards stand at the doorway advising parents against allowing their children to witness it.
The pictures cannot convey the deeply unsettling feeling evoked by the piece. Perhaps it is the blatant intolerance, the flagrant violence, or simply the knowledge that things have not changed enough. Whatever the reason, whatever the effects, Kienholz has created a penetrating work that shocks viewers with its content but awes with the undeniable skill and ingenuity it took to mastermind.