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JOHN BERNHARDT, EDWARD
KIENHOLZ and GORDON WAGNER

September 9 - November 13, 2004 at Tobey C. Moss Gallery, West Hollywood

by Elenore Welles




John Bernhardt, "Hommage to Leger,"
assemblage, 11 1/2 x 10 3/8 x 3", 1960.








John Bernhardt, "Upper
Middle Shrine," 1961,
assemblage, 47 x 25 x 11".
The philosophy that anything is art, depending on the attitude and values brought to it, is particularly applicable to the art of Assemblage. Characterized by how recycled materials retain their functional and individual identities in spite of manipulation, the origins of Assemblage grew out of the collage sensibilities of synthetic Cubism and Dadaism.

When artists began to extend their application of materials to dimensional relief sculptures, the distinction between collage and assemblage became blurred. It was Jean Dubuffet, who in 1953, first designated three dimensional works as assemblage.

In 1961, William C. Seitz, curator of a seminal Assemblage exhibit at MOMA, wrote “assemblage consists of preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects or fragments not intended as art materials.” Essentially, he posited the premise that works created from consumer waste or discards were designed to mystify, inspire reflection and amuse. It’s an assumption that remains relevant.

Certainly humor is paramount in the early assemblages of Gordon Wagner, John Bernhardt and Edward Kienholz. They also share a love for the process of deconstruction and regeneration, and the ability to mine formal beauty from disintegrating surfaces. Although they each started as painters, their segue into the area of assemblage reflects individual experience and values.

Gordon Wagner was a precursor of assemblage long before it became a Pop phenomenon. His influence is notable in younger contemporaries such as George Herms, Michael McMillen and Betye Saar. A native Californian, Wagner was an avid beachcomber, scavenging objects ravaged by weather and sea. He was also influenced by the environment of beach city amusement parks; a hurdy gurdy atmosphere of kitsch and fantasy. Travels to Mexico and the Southwest exposed him to cultural rituals and beliefs such as Indian-Christian mysticism and symbols. They fed into a personal belief system that embraced creative impulses as an avenue to the unconscious.

Indeed, in works such as The Mexican Night Clerk and When the Devil Set the Castle on Fire, it is up to the viewer to invoke a narrative from juxtapositions of weathered woods, broken typewriter keys, oxidizing photographs, faded fabrics, old nails, numbers and signs. The shamanistic elements and bizarre juxtapositions appear as manifestations of surreal dream visions.


Edward Kienholz, “The Old Rugged
Double-Cross," 1963, assemblage:
metal/wood/horns, 21 3/4 x 16 1/4 x 13".




Edward Kienholz, “Hope for '36," 1959,
assemblage: paint/cut wood/metallic
paint partially covered by oil on
canvas, 37 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 4".




Edward Kienholz, “Untitled," 1958,
assemblage: paint/resin/
cut wood mounted on
plywood, 48 7/8 x 30 1/8".



Gordon Wagner, "Two Loves",
assemblage, 67 x 31 x 5 1/2", 1960.







Gordon Wagner "Mojave Freight Yard",
assemblage, 54 x 19 x 18", 1963.







Gordon Wagner "Untitled (Aqua Yoi)",
assemblage, 24 x 13", 1987.
Like Wagner, Kienholz also saw art as a way to tap into the unconscious. Holding a prominent position in contemporary art, he is perhaps the most Baudelarian in terms of having his pulse on the decadence of modern society. Certainly his provocative social/political tableaux pack an emotional wallop. But before he dived into those angst-ridden realms, his early works displayed his fondness for discards marked by the passage of time. In the 1950s, he created wall-relief assemblages that grew out of abstract expressionist gestural painting. They consist of house paint, resin and cut wood mounted on plywood. As the reliefs got more intricate and grew larger, he declared his intent to make them “as ugly as possible.” When he started attaching found objects onto the panels they eventually extended into three dimensions.

When John Bernhardt first saw Kienholz’s assemblages, he was surprised to see someone working in a similar vein to his. He too came to the medium as an avid collector of “junk,” particularly weathered mechanical parts. Homage to Leger, for instance, is made primarily of rusted hinges. Take Me to Your Leader is a curious mix of dental molds, piano keys and a hand mixer, and evokes the specter of a witty robot.

These pieces may appear the result of a junk yard explosion, but they are, in truth, honed by excellent craftsmanship. Their dynamic mutations of recycled objects organically unfold into commanding physical presences. A fusion of fantasy, quirky wit, pathos, spirituality and poetry manages to amuse, perplex and resonate emotionally. If irrational connections are mysterious and confusing, it’s that psychic disconnection that give these works their power.