‘Kienholz: The Hoerengracht’ at the National Gallery

The wittily named ‘Hoerengracht’ is a true-to-life installation of Amsterdam’s Red Light District made in 1983-8. In Dutch, the title translates as ‘the Whore’s Canal,’ and is a play-on-words from the addition of one letter to Herengracht – ‘the Gentleman’s Canal,’ which is the trendy area of the Netherlands’ capital.

‘Artists paint one painting all their life, stopping only when they are satisfied,’ stated Nancy Kienholz, the wife of practising artist Ed Kienholz (d. 1994) and since turned-artist herself. It is a cyclic and recurrent observation made about the temperamental and perfectionist character of an artist as painted by each one individually via their body of work; that naturally comes to represent themselves. I love this highly literal and metaphorical phrase that identifies both the obsession of an artist and the need for an artist to seek and find. The artist has a concern that is concerning enough to them that it will sustain their work. For an artist’s practise to be motivated they have to be obsessed with something.

Ed’s obsessions were always social and sexual. Nancy spoke of ‘Pimps and Whore, Pimps and Whores. Too many whores, not enough pimps etc ’ as the repeated discourse of the five years in the making of the ‘Hoerengracht.’ Artists’ oeuvres are often one idea reformed over and over. In this case the artist/s’ (Nancy’s involvement was not in the idea, but in the practical making stages,) obsession is discussing the human obsession with sex.

Ed, and thus Nancy, were amongst the age of self-taught artists, in which no rules were set upon style, craftsmanship or content, because there was no looming expectations from mentors and tutors. Though you might not think it, prostitution wasn’t an all-together ignored reality in the history of art; however, there is something about the forceful presence of the 3D and of life-size that builds a stronger, more shocking impression, and thus caused some in its day to put up a moral barrier to the work of Ed individually, and the Kienholzs as a couple.

Being self-taught, Nancy admitted that Ed found making the hands and the feet of the models boring, and so didn’t invest time in forging them accurately, where natural talent couldn’t carry him. Having to an extent been taught art, (though I don’t believe at any level of my practical art education that I was restricted in any way by rule,) I noticed this immediately on one of the whore’s figures, and it jarred with me.

This however, isn’t a comfortable piece. It’s a fight with our human nature, to look but not to stare – to understand but not to judge – to be interested, but not to know too much. To enjoy art as you usually do when you go to this exhibition, but to be in a physical setting that is uncomfortable, almost surreal as it jumps back in time. For me, to recall my brief detour through the city’s 2009 Red Light District. To see what Ed saw in it – a life of intellectual fascination, and an artistic view: to see the instillation as affectively a collection of 3D portraits lit by dramatic red light, and framed by shop windows; that is to narrate the women of the work, but not in a sense of guilt, or to promote justice; just to state in a time when such topics were even more elusively discussed.

‘Kienholz: The Hoerengracht’ is in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery, 21 February 2010, and admission is free

http://nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/kienholz-the-hoerengracht

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