Times Art Writer

Edward Kienholz, a master of caustic assemblage who left Los Angeles 13 years ago, is suddenly all over the place in Southern California.

His once-controversial "Back Seat Dodge '38," which set off a raging controversy at the County Museum of Art in 1966, is now among the treasures of the museum's permanent collection, newly installed in the Robert O. Anderson Building. L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice hosts a show of recent assemblages called "Grey Works" by Kienholz and his wife, Nancy Reddin (through Saturday).

And the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum has filled its entire gallery with a Kienholz-Reddin installation called "The Art Show."

There's probably poetic justice in all this Kienholz exposure. It seems right that an artist who was under-appreciated while he lived here is so well represented at the moment when Southern California's contemporary art institutions are in an international spotlight.

If you believe the media coverage, from Vogue to Art News, Los Angeles is the place for contemporary art aficionados to be this fall. Few of them will object to reminders that Kienholz was a vital part of the scene here before it became so chic.

Though "The Art Show" was created from 1963 to 1977 and has been circulated off and on for a decade, this Santa Barbara presentation (through Dec. 19) is particularly timely. Arriving at a moment of art-institutional awareness and community self-satisfaction, the tableau reminds us that Kienholz got the idea for his cynical view of the art world while living in Los Angeles.

In the assembly of 19 talking figures, one stuffed dog, assorted artworks and tacky furnishings, Kienholz and Reddin cast squinty eyes on the intellectual and social apparatus that buries art in babble.

Each of the life-size figures--plaster replicas of the artists' friends and family--has an automobile air-conditioning vent jammed into its face and a makeshift tape deck fused to its chest. Fans in the vents blow hot air out of the figures' "mouths" while the tapes grind out pretentious discourses.

As you enter the gallery and see a blond attendant seated at a plexiglass desk, you hear a hum of recorded voices amplified through speakers in the ceiling. And if you push the buttons on the plastic tape decks attached to the figures, you hear numbing monologues in the models' native languages. The tapes are badly worn, but you get the idea: All this effusion about negations, dialectics, condensations, attributes and validations is so much intellectual goulash.

The self-appointed critics are far more interested in their own theories and interpretations than in the art that supposedly inspired them, but that may not be an altogether damning judgment.

Despite their inclination to hang their egos on other people's creations, the chatterers at least acknowledge art's catalytic power. Absurd as they look and sound, these groupies are vestiges of some higher ambition.

It's this twist--this suggested loss of innocence, truth and integrity--that gives "The Art Show" its profoundly human edge. The tableau is a castigation of art criticism but, like all Kienholz's and Reddin's best work, it's also an expression of fallibility.

Dressed in the models' own out-of-date clothes--from feather boas to bell-bottom trousers--and slathered with a yellowish fiberglass resin, the talking spectators are a curious mix of mechanization and humanity. Unlike flattering wax statues, they are preserved at their worst. They are rather like automatons with body odor and annoying human habits.

These sculptures observe artworks that tell about the figures' creation. Wall panels hung around the gallery incorporate photographs of the models being cast in plaster as well as drawings, notations and such found objects as cookie tins used as frames, wooden moldings and iron grillwork.

These mixed-media pieces are gray or yellowed, and they look like relics from an attic. But there's an elegance about them, mostly arising from a sure sense of composition and a loving attitude toward flea-market treasures.

There's also a sense of vulnerability. One woman looks like a frog shedding its skin as she emerges from her plaster cast in a photograph. Others are just lumpy people standing around in their underwear while Kienholz wraps them in plaster. The models' fleshiness contrasts sharply with their stiff reincarnations. And though the pictures are silent, you can almost hear the pleasant banter that must have gone on in the studio rising above the recorded din in the gallery.

This is art about a love-hate relationship. To be successful artists, which Kienholz and Reddin certainly are, is to participate in a loathsome system.

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