Walking into Edward Kienholz’s installation, Five Car Stud, the pristine tile floors of the gallery have been replaced with sand. It is dark all around as four cars and a truck encircle and shine their headlights onto the scene of a violent, racially motivated attack. Life-size grotesque figures of white men, wearing masks to disguise their faces, are pinning a black man to the ground as they hold his legs and arms and begin to castrate him. The victim’s torso is made of a rectangular pool of water, which holds a floating alphabet whose words spell out “Nigger.” In the pick-up truck, a white woman (perhaps the victim’s girlfriend) weeps as a masked man stands by the car door observing the scene with a grin on his face.
Through the interactive nature of this tableau installation, viewers are allowed to immerse themselves in this discomforting scene. The experience is further heightened by the dirt floor, which helps create a different environment in the gallery and adds to the realism of the piece. The scene depicts one moment in this attack as the movements of the cast are frozen in time. The mid-century cars act as markers dating the piece to a period in recent American history. Five Car Stud is a social commentary on the history of violence acted upon African-Americans and race relations in the South during the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968). The presence of a young boy looking from inside one of the cars, echoes the mechanism of instilling racist values onto future generations.
Edward Kienholz (1927-1994) is an American installation artist and sculptor. Five Car Stud was first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1971 to mixed reviews. The following year the piece traveled to Kassel, Germany to be a part of Documenta 5. For 40 years, it has been in a private collection in Japan only to be recently exhibited in 2011 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.