For centuries, art has dealt with the way people make a living. I dare say there is not a single occupation that painters and sculptors haven't explored, often in some depth. Subjects such as farmers, the clergy, cowboys, chiefs, cooks, and bottle-washers have all found their way to canvas and hung in frames on the walls of art museums. So, it shouldn't be surprising that the world's OLDEST profession is the subject of a current exhibit in, where else--the Nevada Museum of Art. The artist is Edward Kienholz. But the subject is not those ladies of the night plying their trade from "historic" venues some 15 miles away at Reno's Mustang Ranch, but those from Herengracht Street in Amsterdam. And the room-size sculpture tableau is not new, but dates from 1984-88 when the artist and his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, cast several of their friends in plaster for the grouping of 11 figures.
The installation is entitled "Hoerengracht." The mood is darkly symbolic and haunting. The environment is weathered wood, dry leaves, a back-alley desolation colored in browns and grays set outside a brothel. The head of each figure is enclosed in a clear plastic box with a lid, where thoughts and dreams can be shut inside while the body goes to the highest bidder. The exhibit makes no statement for or against prostitution, it only acknowledges it's existence. It is typical of Kienholz's work, always on the cutting edge of some controversial subject--abortion, geriatric neglect, madness, illness or sexuality. An early work not unlike "Hoerengracht," from 1961, entitled "Roxy" dealt the same subject except from a grittier, more humorous point of view. But with "Hoerengracht" there is still a touch of humor. The title comes from the Amsterdam red light district street name with the addition of the "o." The pun is intended.
The work is very much a male fantasy. Kienholz, who died in 1994, made a point of saying he liked whores. His wife, who supervised the retrospective and collaborated in the creation of the original exhibition of the work, does not share his fascination with the subject. Her reaction to the Amsterdam Street scene she summed up as, "...a tough day on the job." Even for Nevadans, where prostitution in rural areas is legal, the exhibit represents a lifestyle that is foreign and unimaginable. The exhibit mixes the real with the surreal. The white plaster figures are drenched in epoxy resin not unlike tears while all about them are the all-too-real trappings of the street, a bicycle without wheels, smelly garbage, a broken, discarded TV, and all about, the filth that makes the women's services a tough sell. The show runs through June 27 in Reno, then returns to it's permanent home in the Louvre Gallery in Venice, California.