Ed and Nancy Keinholz
One of the most exciting cultural events of my youth in Spokane, Washington, was when, in 1984, artist Ed Keinholz, having been invited to create a traveling exhibition in the U.S. after living and exhibiting abroad for many years, stipulated that the show should open in, of all places, Spokane.
Keinholz grew up in Hope, a tiny town in North Idaho. In that part of the country, Spokane is the only city of any size for hundreds of miles. As a kid, Spokane was the big city to him, the place to go for culture and excitement, and for that reason, he wanted to open his show there.
Sollie 17, exterior
The prospect of an artist of his calibre exhibiting locally would have been thrilling enough to local art lovers, but Keinholz, together with his wife and collaborator Nancy Reddin Keinholz, decided to also create the pieces for their installations from places and things found in Spokane.
As in many other cities in the western U.S., downtown Spokane in the 1980s was a place where poor people lived, many in old hotels that had been converted to apartments. These homes, referred to by bureaucrats as SROs, or single-room occupancy dwellings, had no kitchens and limited bathing and toilet facilities, which meant that the rents were very low. It also meant that some people considered them a blight on the downtown landscape. At the time that Ed and Nancy Keinholz were planning their Spokane exhibit, several of these old Spokane hotels, as well as other downtown buildings, were scheduled for demolition.
The artists removed entire rooms from these old buildings to the gallery space, where some were enhanced and altered and others were left virtually intact. In Sollie 17, for example, the hallway and a room from one of the hotels was moved to the gallery, and a human figure in time lapse placed inside the room.
Sollie 17, interior
The Jesus Corner was a display window that had been made into an improvised public alter. It was left intact for the exhibition and credited to its original creator, Roland Thurman.
The Jesus Corner
One of the most fascinating pieces in the Spokane series was The Pedicord Apartments. It was created from the lobby and hallway of the Pedicord before it was torn down, and it was the only piece that I can recall that allowed the viewer to actually enter the installation. As you walked down the hallway of the old hotel, which had been altered to decrease in size the farther you went, you could hear the tenants in their rooms. A television was on — I even remember that they were watching Let’s Make a Deal — a dog was yapping, someone was crying.
From the beginning of his career, Keinholz’s art was never meant to be “about nothing”. It was always meant to provoke, and often focused on the lives of the marginalized. The destruction of the old SROs, combined with Reagan-era cuts to services for the mentally ill that forced the closure of many government mental hospitals, was a great tragedy for the poor and mentally disabled in the U.S., and caused a tremendous increase in homelessness that is still a shameful fact of urban life in America. Many of those old hotels and hospitals were terrible places to live, but they were better than nothing. The Keinhoz’s Spokane series is a moving artifact of that time that still haunts me more than 20 years later.