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Sawdy is a wall-mounted work comprising two parts: a red car door and a licence plate. The door is mounted with the inner side facing outwards. The artist’s intention was that on approaching the door window, the viewer’s first image would be his or her face reflected in the closed door window. He or she would then wind the window down to reveal a silkscreened photographic image on a plate of glass mounted in the window frame and illuminated by a fluorescent light behind it. The photograph is an installation view of Kienholz’s mixed media tableau Five Car Stud 1969-72 (Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura, Japan), an environmental scale tableau commissioned by Gemini G.E.L., who are an artists’ workshop and publisher of limited editions prints and sculptures based in Los Angeles. In 1971 Kienholz installed and photographed Five Car Stud in Gemini’s parking lot in order to create the image he used in Sawdy. Five Car Stud was subsequently exhibited at Documenta 5, Kassel 1972, inside an inflated dome.
Firmly located in the present rather than the past - like most of Kienholz’s previous tableaux - Five Car Stud is a fictitious portrait of an aspect of contemporary American life. It shows a night scene of uncompromisingly cruelty as, illuminated in the headlights of four parked cars, a group of four white men pin down and castrate a black man. In a pickup truck parked next to them a white woman vomits. The suggested narrative of the scene is that the four white men have come upon the black man and white woman together and are punishing him for their social transgression. The four men’s characters are depicted by grotesque rubber masks; their victim has two faces – a composed inner visage and a screaming outer skin. An involuntary onlooker, a small boy watches the scene from one of the parked cars. The licence plates on the vehicles read ‘State of Brotherhood’, ironically emphasising brotherhood’s lack. Kienholz referred to the work as representing ‘social castration’, saying ‘what a tragedy we didn’t use the richness of America, which includes the black’ (quoted in Pincus, p.82). He also commented: ‘my scene is invented – the germane complexities within today’s society are not’ (quoted in Pincus p.83).
The title Sawdy is derived from Clarence Fred Sawdy, whose effects were found in the pickup truck used in Five Car Stud. The sculpture was produced in an edition of fifty by Gemini G.E.L.. The licence plate element of the work is hung above and to the right of the car door. It bears the title, edition number and the label ‘Brotherhood ‘71’. Tate’s copy is numbered 04. The number four also appears in a large digit on the car window, which is wound down in display at Tate. Both works are documented in Edward Kienholz, Documentation Book: Five Car Stud and Sawdy, 1972, published by Gemini G.E.L. in an edition of seventy-five.
Born and raised in the rural eastern Washington town of Fairfield, Kienholz moved to Los Angeles around 1952. He began to make freestanding assemblages in 1959. The earliest of these – John Doe 1959 (Menil Collection, Houston) and Jane Doe 1960 (Laura Lee Stearns, Los Angeles) address the hypocricy of the provincial American culture Kienholz grew up with. They represent two archetypal figures Kienholz returned to repeatedly in his work – those of the aggressor, usually male, and victim, usually female. Their son, Boy, Son of John Doe 1961 (private collection), a standing male figure wearing a child’s car around his torso, represents a simultaneously aggressive and abject figure. During the 1960s and 70s, Kienholz focused on such powerless figures as criminals, prostitutes and unmarried mothers, with whose marginality he identified. Such works made at the end of the 1960s as The Portable War Memorial 1968 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) critique the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Other works made in the 1970s and 80s engage with sexual politics. With its reflective window, Sawdy affirms the viewer’s participation in the processes of social alienation and segregation it depicts. At the same time it suggests a collective voyeurism through one of the symbols of American liberty and mobility: the motor car.
Robert L. Pincus, On a scale that Competes with the World: The Art of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California 1990, pp.82-3, reproduced p.84
Walter Hopps, Kienholz: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American art, New York 1996, pp.148-52