Art: Darkness made lite

    Kienholz had a mighty impact on me in my art-critical youth. I now realise this impact depended on its context. Before Tate Modern became Europe’s most popular museum of modern art, the title was held by the Pompidou Centre, in Paris; and before that there was only really the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. By today’s monomaniacal museum standards, the Stedelijk is a modest establishment. In the early 1970s, when I was preparing for life as an art critic by sleeping rough in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, the Stedelijk was the epicentre of European progressiveness. I’d spend entire days in there, drenching myself in the new.

    The Stedelijk owns a great Kienholz, called The Beanery. It’s a life-size re-creation of a crummy bar in LA, at which hunched-up lowlifers have paused to refuel, and are joined, I seem to remember, by a posh lady with a poodle. They’re all made out of plaster, painted loosely with gooey resins, as if real life has started to ooze. The Beanery was the first artwork I remember that smelt: of resin, lowlife and armpits. This smell imprinted itself on me as powerfully as the sights. Here was an artwork determined to crash through the roadblock between real life and it.

    In those days, you could walk through The Beanery and inspect its countless details. It was a most claustrophobic experience. You had to stoop. You brushed against things. The embalmed boozers remained creepily oblivious to you as you explored their seedy terrain. These days, alas, you’re not allowed inside. A valuable experience has become an expensive asset. You can peep, but you can’t feel. Something similar happens to the many Kienholz installations gathered together by the Baltic in the first British survey of the artist’s career. The Baltic is a great big refrigerator looming over the Tyne. Kienholz’s display has been stretched across two floors of the fridge, and hardly ever manages to rustle up any of that unsettling claustrophobia that implicates you so totally when it works. It’s like watching a brilliant club band attempting stadium rock, and failing.

    Kienholz began as a minimal conceptualist in the 1960s, and the show makes the mistake of doing the same, greeting you with a set of signs describing the installations Kienholz was hoping to make. He would have his ideas engraved on brass plaques and sell them to fund the making of the actual installations. It’s a cute enough conceptual wheeze, but in exhibition terms, it’s a visual dud. You don’t begin a show with promises, you begin it with stuff.

    The next display is devoted to mini-installations from the 1970s and 1980s, when Kienholz was busy tearing into corporate America, accusing it of warmongering and corruption. It’s the traditional terrain of the dissenting American loner. Some grow up to be the Unabomber; some grow up to be Ed Kienholz. Both make things out of recycled materials found in the trailer park: home-made bombs in the case of the Unabomber; home-made anti-Establishment figurative sculpture in Kienholz’s case.

    A bunch of corporate types circle the American flag, drop their pants and play with each other’s willies. My Country ’Tis of Thee, the sweaty sculpture is called. Various giant penises turn into various bullets and bombs, as Kienholz spots so readily — too readily? — the familiar Freudian parallel between willies and weapons. But the obviousness of these ideas wouldn’t matter so much if the art came at you as it should do, like a slap in the face or a spit in the eye, impolitely, angrily, accusingly. Instead, it forms a neat circle around the edges of the gallery and disappears into the distance.

    The show is clearly trying to transform Kienholz into a proper museum artist. It’s a tragedy, really. The next display ought to have foiled this dastardly attempt to house-train him, because it is a full-size re-creation of a slab of Amsterdam’s red-light district: a dark street packed with prostitutes displaying themselves in shop windows. You walk along this mock street at night and peer into the windows, where detailed re-creations of the whores’ spaces are grubbily achieved. It ought to be creepy. It ought to be tense, but somehow it isn’t. It feels more like a location found on the first page of the Time Out Guide to Amsterdam.

    I worried about this nonexistent sense of seriousness and eventually realised that the piece doesn’t work because it actually is a tourist’s view. The spectator is always outside the whore’s window, looking in. The Beanery offers exactly the opposite experience.

    What is made clear, however, even by this missed opportunity, is why Kienholz is so important for British art, and indeed for British museums. The grubby, handmade seediness of his installations was borrowed, so successfully, by all the key Brit Artists: Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, the Chapman brothers, Tracey Emin. They borrowed also his obvious keenness to annoy the Establishment, and that dark air his stuff has as the consumer dream becomes nightmarish. Then there is that feeling of entering a mysterious environment, of being swallowed by it. It’s the happening thing in art. Everyone’s doing it, from the fabulous labyrinths of Mike Nelson to the sinister murder houses of Gregor Schneider.

    Kienholz’s work also played a crucial role, I suggest, in the making of the modern museum. It was Kienholz who taught museums how to upgrade the viewing experience into an act of participation; how to involve spectators more directly in the art. I doubt that Tate Modern, with all its buttons to press and its rooms to discover, would have been what it is without the example of The Beanery at the Stedelijk. Kienholz invented the artwork as an adventure.

    All of which makes it sadder still that the Baltic has got so much wrong. We needed reminding of Kienholz, but not like this. The second floor of the exhibition is an improvement, and features a clutch of mightier works that win at least some of the battle with the huge space they’ve been plonked in. The centrepiece, The Ozymandias Parade, is gigantic, a chaotic anti-war float on which a horrible army of full-size mounted soldiers pass before us in a gruesome military march past. One of the generals rides a crippled human skeleton on crutches. Another clings ridiculously to the underside of the Lone Ranger’s rearing horse. There is comedy here as well as horror, as Goya meets The Addams Family.

    Wherever this piece is displayed, the locals are asked a simple question in a survey: do you think your government is doing a good job? The piece was made in 1985. Until now, every single locale has answered “No”. Gateshead answered “Yes”. And that is the word scrawled across the masks of the rearing generals.

    The Ozymandias Parade, and the carefully themed antiwar works around it, have a fierceness to them that’s missing elsewhere. They improve the show significantly, but perhaps don’t save it. Another problem is the inclusion of work by Kienholz’s wife, Nancy, who claims an equal partnership with her husband in pieces produced since 1972. The two of them appear together in films, beavering away jointly on their naughty, feral agitprop sculptures. I cannot comment on the exact nature of their partnership. I only know that the work in the show produced by Nancy since Kienholz’s death is particularly feeble. I’m reminded of Paul McCartney’s recent attempt to change Lennon and McCartney to McCartney and Lennon.