A Reagan-era Ed Kienholz installation is mounted again with a different president, and the same political message

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Ed and Nancy Kienholz's 'The Ozymandias Parade' (1985). (Courtesy Pace Gallery)
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“It's nonsense! Nonsense!” Elzbieta Kopec-Schrader, 54, said last night at the opening of The Ozymandias Parade / Concept Tableaux, a new show at Pace Gallery.

She was referring to the show’s centerpiece, The Ozymandias Parade, a large-scale sculpture made more than 25 years ago by late artist Edward Kienholz and his wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Schrader’s outburst was no insult, though. She was reading the piece as it was intended: a bleak, deathly satire of U.S. politics.

“This guy with the electrical [wire] sticking out from his penis,” she said, pointing. “This other guy is [backwards], and this guy, with like six or seven pistols on his back. You see, it’s the international world,” she continued, singling out the flags lining the outside of the structure. “It's like a boat ... it’s ludicrous!”

A broken statue of blind justice steers the ship—a massive mirrored podium on which are placed a host of other figues—in the shape of an arrow­. A garish light illuminates her back and close to 700 flashing lights in red, white, and blue border the sculpture. A tattered American flag blows in the artificially-produced wind (powered by a fan).

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It's hard not to read the decision to mount this exhibition, forged in the Reagan administration, in the middle of the Hope and Change presidency of Barack Obama as a bit of a statement about promises deferred.

There are three main figures in Kienholz’s sculpture. The “president” rides underneath a rearing white horse, saddled onto its belly and carrying a sword pierced through a deflated globe. The electrical wire is actually attached to that horse’s penis, connecting to a phone the president carries in his other hand. The “vice president” is saddled facing backwards on the belly of a felled brown horse, its legs sticking straight in the air and its head lying on its side. The last figure, the general, is saddled upright, but mounted on the back not of a horse but of the weary, skeletal “taxpayer” propped on two white canes. The general is dangling a cross (the “religious carrot”) to propel her towards the “third world”—represented by a grouping of small figurines of African, Indian, and Asian people ahead of her, near the end of the great stage.

“It is history to today,” Nancy Reddin Kienholz (pictured at left) said to a few of us at the opening (including designer Thakoon Panichgul, pictured to the right of Kienholz, a favorite designer of First Lady Michelle Obama), giving a tour of the piece and describing the meaning of its parts.

She was explaining the corner of the piece, diagonally across from the “third world” where another grouping of figurines, Reddin Kienholz's flea-market finds, gazes on the three-man march to power.

“Liszt is in there, Kennedy, and then some regular figures,” she said. “And when I say ‘today,’ I mean, up to 1985,” she clarified, “but it's still relevant. Nothing has changed.”

Across the eyes of each of the large figures are blindfolds with the word ‘NO’ scrawled across them. They are part of the piece’s operational rules. The country in which the piece is displayed determines the color of the flashing lights and the flag held by the vice president, while a poll determines whether the blindfolds read “YES” or “NO.” Pace had held a poll in the weeks leading up to the show asking “Are you satisfied with your government?”

I asked Kienholz how she felt about politics today.

“Same as I felt about it then,” she replied swiftly. “[The] survey…. It's a simple question, ‘Do you think the government is doing a good job?’ And it's always been ‘No.’ Only one time was it ‘Yes,’ and that was [when the piece was shown in] Switzerland, which was kind of a kick.”

The wall text for the show is an essay by Edward Kienholz, explaining how he conceived of the work, some of the hidden “trite symbols” in it (like broken speakers intended as broken speech promises), and his perfect answer to his own survey. He wrote: “Hopefully someday someone may step up to you and say, 'Pardon me, how are your leaders doing these days?' And you can come right back with a smile and a snappy 'Oh, just fine, thank you.' Hopefully, also you can hold on until that day.”

“We had a landslide of NOs,” Pace’s sales assistant, Beatrice Shen, told me. “We polled online and [at] all of our gallery spaces and at the Avenues school and it was all ‘NO!’”

Edward Kienholz’s rebukes continue in the back gallery with his Concept Tableaux, text-based works made in the ‘60s. Each displays a written contract where Kienholz offers to sell a concept—like that of Ozymandias—and gives instructions for its real-life installation. Many of the tableaux refer to Kienholz’s strong views on societal inequalities, making most of them pretty hard to execute. In one, titled, Mayor Sam Edsel, Kienholz imagines a scenario in which the mayor of a city recently threatened with riots in the “negro ghettos” gives a television interview where he offers to solve the “negro problem” by repossessing their property and moving them to reservations.

But it didn't seem most of those attending the opening were as pointedly negative about the political situation here. Kopec-Schrader—born in Poland, raised in Europe, having settled in Australia for a time and now living in Queens—is proud to say that she has traveled to nearly every country in the world.

“I deal with international medicine, so I move around a lot,” she told me. “The U.S. is still in very good shape. People just don’t see it, so they don't appreciate it. They can go anywhere in the world and come back and then see it. [There is] no other country but this in the world that's so heterogeneous and so large in population. To make everybody happy? That's impossible.”

The Ozymandias Parade / Concept Tableaux’ is up at Pace Gallery at 510 W. 25th Street through Dec. 22.