Revving Up

1.
Jason Rhoades was a great artist of enormous talent who had the ambition to create audacious, epic, monumental sculptures that he envisioned as tools for exploring life’s big questions, the answers to which are as irreducible as the art itself.

This exhibition is the first opportunity to assess Rhoades’s achievements since his death at age forty-one in 2006. Even during his lifetime, his work was not widely contextualized or much critically engaged – a lack in exact disproportion to his reputation as a leading figure in contemporary art. Part of a generation that came to prominence during the early 1990s that included Matthew Barney, Liam Gillick, Karen Kilimnik, Cady Noland, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Jessica Stockholder, Rhoades used mass culture – it’s materials and media – as raw ingredients with which he built an immersive new form of installation art. Ingloriously referred to at the time as “Scatter art,” today the work of these artists appears to have standardized an assemblage approach to making (and seeing) contemporary art as a kind of sculptural situation, one that incorporates traces of process, and potentially performance, amidst a surplus – or surfeit – of objects, information, images, stuff.

Like collages dispersed across space, these installations are composed from loosely related materials, held together as much by artists’ construction of powerful narrative, associations, and formal connections as by viewers’ capacity to follow and interpret those links. As works of art, they call for a close, at times almost forensic, reading of visual culture: its icons and iconography. Particularizing matters of history and abstraction, politics and fashion, theory and pop, the scatter is a structure rather than a style. The content is specific to an artist’s particular interests, materials, and gestures. However disparate, though, these works do share this: a feeling of suspense in viewing that can verge on frustration. To be drawn in by images and materials embedded in collective memory and everyday life, only to be left out by work whose fragmentary nature refuses to resolve into coherent meaning, is to veer close to the violence and void that lie at the heart of the consumer culture that these installations both embody and fill.

For Jason Rhoades, that heart was proudly American. Cowboy culture, California, cars, guns, pioneers, new frontiers, freedom, power, industry, ingenuity, individualism: these are the basic themes of Rhoades’s art. Made of hardware store materials, handicraft items, Legos, computer parts, video games, power tools, motorbikes, aluminum foil, neon lights, and souvenirs, his installations are immediately eye-catching and accessible. They feature good guys, like the racecar driver Ayrton Senna and the actor Kevin Costner, as well as bad girls, like Marilyn Chambers, the Ivory Snow girl turned porn star. More personal heroes, like the artist Donald Judd and Rhoades’s mother, Jackie, point the way to other, steeper and more winding inroads into Rhoades’s installations, which, given their scale, are always blockbusters.

His work puts a high premium on entrepreneurship and impact. As if an endless competition with himself, Rhoades approached each successive installation as an opportunity to demonstrate his capacity to command increasingly vast resources – of capital, labor, materials, and space –and to produce something unlike anything ever seen before. Imagination in endless supply is a natural resource of Rhoades’s art, along with charisma. The raw humor and reckless energy, expressed everywhere in his work, makes it feel almost dangerously subjective. To say nothing of the rude and abrasive provocation Rhoades used to shock viewers into paying attention. There is something disturbing in the power and scale of his vision. As when being swept up in the pitch of a maverick wave or born salesman, it’s not clear whether leery caution or sheer abandon is called for. For the most exhilarating experience, go where Rhoades’s art leads: into a bewildering pictorial terrain that will engage your every faculty in the navigation of its many aesthetic and moral contradictions, as well as in the extreme personal pleasures of its creative interpretation.

Jason Rhoades was cheerfully flat-footed when it came to doing what he considered the job of being an artist: to represent the world. He created an operation that pretty much, straight-up, contained everything in it. And what was it? It was his world: the one Jason Rhoades lived and worked in. Running his studio like a light industry, Rhoades manufactured art out of everything he did, heard, saw, thought, or bought. And boy, did he love to buy stuff: cheap stuff, useful stuff, new stuff, electronic stuff, ceramic stuff, trashy stuff, by the cart, the carton, the pallet, the gross. Shoveled into a flow od sculptures, installations, pictures, performances, and events, these materials became part of a single assembly. “For one thing,” Rhoades said, “I don’t understand my works as being separate from one another. There are a few breaks, but I basically understand them as one piece. In order to see one work, you have to look back in reference to the others.”1

That’s an enormous proposition: to create a work of art that absorbs and connects everything entering its orbit while constantly moving ahead. “I understand art as a pursuit if something,” he said.2 As an artist going from one ambitious opportunity to the next, Rhoades was perpetually in motion. And though the blur of his activity has stopped, the work still stands, doing the job it was built for. Loaded with images and objects that animate narratives and ideas, which connect to larger contexts and meanings, Rhoades’s installations are art’s pursuit: they take us deeper into the world through the sheer act of looking.

For viewers, it can be easy to get lost in the details or simply stop at the brink – especially when faced with the sense of totality that each installation contains. How to proceed without some perspective on the whole? More than with other artist’s work, in order to get the most out of time spent with Jason Rhoades’s art, a viewer might well want some kind of plan to open up the investigation. That’s the job of this essay: to provide a useful guide – something between a map and a manual – to Jason Rhoades’s enterprise.

2.
Born in 1965 near Sacramento, California, Jason Rhoades had what he always (and often) portrayed as an idyllic rural childhood, full of ranch and farm activities as well as crafts: he could ride rodeo, rope a steer, rebuild an engine, shoot, and sew. These skills were honed over years of membership in the 4-H Club, an agricultural organization for youths, whose slogan is “learn by doing.” And Jason did. Excelling in all areas, he learned much that would serve a future artist well. In one of his first press clippings, Rhoades, a age fourteen already a consummate showman, poses with his prize-winning Chester White pig.3 (His family nickname was “Jason the Mason,” after the brick-laying, overall-wearing, busy little builder of a pig in Richard Scarry’s children’s book What Do People Do All Day?) In his last year of high school, Rhoades cleaned up in the clay category of the California State Fair, with a funky figurative sculpture titled This Town Blows My Mind.

In pursuit of becoming an artist, in 1983 Rhoades headed for college in the Bay Area, a cradle of Funk since the 1950s, when artists started using collaged debris, and later clay, to envision – through their depictions of everyday objects and the passing scene – a world gone all loony and abject. He studied ceramics, as well as painting and drawing, at the California College of Arts and Crafts, before transferring to the San Francisco Art Institute.4 There he developed a fascination for one of the legendary objects of California Assemblage, which had been created at the Institute by the artist Clay Spohn.5 A collection of found and slightly-made objects displayed on shelves, The Museum of Unknown and Little Known Objects was unveiled at a studio party one night in 1949. In San Francisco, Rhoades also met the artist twins Rachel and Toba Khedoori, fellow students, and married Rachel, who would be a close presence throughout his work’s formative years. Both sisters became part of FOM (an acronym for “Funk-o-metric”), a loose affiliation of artists grouped around Rhoades and Peter Warren, “who occupied themselves above all with esoteric, baffling research projects.”6

When not conducting “baffling research” – an inquiry into the Masonic meaning of G (for “God” and “Geometry”) proved particularly absorbing – Rhoades was busy making roughly abstract paintings and arranging assemblage tableaux of objects in his studio, writing and drawing, and experimenting with Super 8 film Spiral Jetty, Rhoades made a short movie – showing a harvester instead of a bulldozer – cutting a big G into a field of grass.7 In other words, he was a young artist hard at work to find his won mode of expression. In 1988, Rhoades was accepted to the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Traveling east, he stayed after the summer in Maine for a two-year stint in New York before returning west for more school. In 1993, he received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he studied sculpture, and where the artists Richard Jackson and Paul McCarthy were influential teachers who became lifelong mentors and friends.

It was shortly after starting at UCLA in 1990 that Rhoades originated the system and embarked on creating the one big work the rest of his art would perpetuate. He launched this project by constructing a chimney-like structure out of bricks.8 Often he last sign of a building left standing, the chimney, a hole to blow smoke through, embodied on of the key pursuits of Rhoades’s art: to conjoin the physical and the ephemeral in a singular form of experience. He later came to refer to this work as his Venus of Willendorf, after the Paleolithic figurine that is widely considered to be the first sculpture in Western art history.9 With her exaggerated breasts and vagina, the original Venus was a caveman signifier of good reproduction; Rhoades would use that Stone Age symbol – with emphasis on the vagina – throughout the rest of his art to stand for the act of creation in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Besides beginning to settle on an iconography and a palette of materials, another thing Rhoades quickly established at school was the use of performance as a means of building his work. In the process of constructing his Venus – for an informal audience of whoever happened to walk by the studio – he wore a pair of overalls and a mason’s mortarboard, heaped with a working pile of (foam) mortar, on his head. Reflecting on his former student, Paul McCarthy said, “I think that throughout Jason’s work there was always a relationship of sculpture and performance. They were interrelated and entangled.”10 It’s a telling observation coming from McCarthy, who, like fellow artist and UCLA instructor Chris Burden, is famous for having created iconic works of Performance art during the 1970s by using his own body to test the limits of art, behavior, regulation, and endurance. And even though Rhoades’s approach to performance is far more sculpturally contained and less bare naked, he clearly learned much from his teachers, the most basic lesson being what a powerful tool the body – it’s actions, impact, and absence – can be when it comes to creating extreme physical works of art.

Rhoades made being a performer integral to his work on every level. It was the means by which he abstracted and ritualized all the activities that went into his installations – from driving to shopping, to free-associating, to deciding, to placing, to naming, and even to explaining his work. It was how he transformed huge quantities of materials into theatrical installations, which perform for viewers who are practically commanded into active spectatorship – if not actual participation, Even though Rhoades himself is no longer driving the performance forward, the performative element that’s built into these works continues to animate them with an open-ended sense of theatricality.

At UCLA, Rhoades performed the construction of his work in character, for instance, by assuming the role of a contractor or salesman, someone who was simultaneously making and hocking the work of art. Trying to get viewers to buy into work that looked like a speculative project at best, Rhoades initially played for slapstick. In the role of a Middle Eastern bazaar trader, he keeps up a constant patter, with occasional pauses to inveigle potential customers into helping him stay inflated by inserting an air compressor hose into the asshole of the fat suit he is wearing. “A lot of my pieces are about mistakes,” Rhoades later stated, “and this piece… was a bad idea when it started and just continuously got worse… to be super big, super fat, and then be this kind of a stereotyped thing of an Arab guy.”11 This kind of a broad caricature rapidly smoothed into a more challenging persona, one that was, like that of comedian Andy Kaufman, eerily inseparable from the artist himself. Affable, charismatic, reckless, intense: by all accounts, Rhoades was a genuine character. Richard Jackson recalls a weekend crit during which Rhoades never broke form, showing up even after his review “still dressed as he had been the day before – looking like a sleazy salesman, unshaved, in a cheap suit” and trying to sell model-ships-in-bottles from a hand truck that he pushed around campus in order to complete his project on “entrepreneurship.”12

Even before he graduated in the spring of 1993, Rhoades’s career was up and running in Los Angeles. After Jackson told his dealer Rosamund Felsen to check out the work of his student Jason Rhoades, Rhoades was almost immediately invited to participate in the gallery’s 1992 summer group show, organized by curator Ralph Rugoff.13 Two years later, in the spring of 1994, Rhoades had his very own exhibition at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery; it was his second solo show. A call from Paul McCarthy had already opened doors in New York, where Rhoades showed his slides to the young German art dealer David Zwirner, who had just opened his gallery on Greene Street. In September 1993, Zwirner inaugurated his second season with Rhoades’s installation CHERRY Makita – Honest Engine Work. By 1994, Rhoades was showing in museums in Europe.

During the early 1990s, Rhoades participated in some of the key exhibitions around which Relational Aesthetics was being formulated. Based on the notion that art existed not in discrete objects, but in social forms of exchange – in sociability as an art form – the exhibitions tended to be structured as dynamic situations. Artists were given institutional time, space, and resources, then everyone (artist, curators, viewers alike) would see what would happen. Given his performative approach, Rhoades seemed affably well-suited to such transactions. And he was, so long as he got to be in full control of his share. When the curator Nicolas Bourriaud invited him to participate in Traffic (the catalogue essay for this important 1996 exhibition, held at the CAPC musée d’art contemporain, Bordeaux, is where Bourriaud actually theorized the terms of Relational art), Rhoades responded with a counter-proposal. He would contribute to Bourriaud’s invitation to artists to “give shape to what we are most deprived… the relation with the other, with others,” if the museum would agree to his, Jason Rhoades’s, terms. “I am asking the [museum] to become my partner with 49% in a 92-95 Caprice Classic 4 door sedan, (the classic whim).”14 The agreement was made, and Rhoades purchased a used cop car in Carmel, the California coastal town where Clint Eastwood was mayor. When budget constraints prevented the car being shipped from Los Angeles, Rhoades shifted conceptual course and dubbed the Caprice his mobile studio, sending pictures from it to Bordeaux, where Bourriaud made them part of the didactic panels that appeared throughout the exhibition.15

Throughout all of this activity, Rhoades’s concept of one continuous body of work is taking shape. Specific elements and materials flow like magma from one installation to the next. Red bricks from his Venus of Willendorf bob in the sea of yellow legal paper that was his Rosamund Felsen show. A plaster pizza, painted gold and leftover from the Young Wight Grand Prix – an installation staged as a car race – stands in the doorway of the CHERRY Makita garage. Heavy-gauge orange extension cords and plastic shop buckets are everywhere. Another scheme also begins to emerge. Setting goals for himself to tackle and achieve, Rhoades conceived of his work in terms of a series of levels or plateaus. Having completed art school, he literally graduated to the next challenge: how to demonstrate his transition from student to professional artist? If his UCLA installations had served as sets for Jason Rhoades to perform the act of learning to become an artist, now he needed to quit that stage and start making work that stood for the knowledge he had gained and the system he had mastered. At every summit, the goal was the same: to gain ever-increasing visibility, value, and support.

Featuring figurative structures in the midst of larger compositions, Jason Rhoades’s first museum and gallery installations look like pictures made out of stuff. There is a shed, a garage, a big-box store, and, believe it or not, the Ghent Altarpiece. From the very beginning, site responsiveness was another significant aspect of Rhoades’s “one work.” Each iteration begins with the artist absorbing something from the immediate surroundings or situation to catalyze his new work. For a group show at the museum of contemporary art in Ghent, Rhoades was inspired by the local Renaissance masterpiece, a magnificent triptych by the brothers van Eyck, which he sought to copy as if seen through the eyes of a young guy from California. Turning the baptismal font into a Jacuzzi also seemed a relaxing way to relate to the other twelve artists invited to live and work in the museum for the duration of the show. Allegedly – and despite there being plenty of fluffy white towels, freshly laundered in the washer and dryer Rhoades had sent over from America because the choir organ in the painting reminded him of an appliance – no one accepted his overtures to join him in the hot tub.

With every project, Rhoades’s first step was to ask for a floor plan. When the plan of the Kunsthalle Basel – with its compact foyer and long sculpture hall ending in a rounded tip – reminded him of a penis, Rhoades constructed an architecturally scaled anatomical model of the male member. The main feature was an industrial conveyor that, along with a disco light-and-sound system, as well as bubble and smoke machines, periodically jerked into hyper-simulation action. Uno Momento / The Theater in my Dick / A Look into the Physical / the Ephemeral was Jason Rhoades’s first solo museum show and it kicked his work to a new level. If the previous installations can be seen as having staked out an array of structures within the art world – the studio, the gallery, the store, the shrine – this next phase of work models bigger systems. Following the orgasm of Uno Momento in 1996, Deviations in Space, Various Virgins (1996-97) posed a cosmic view of perception, and The Creation Myth (1998) presented a sprawling model of the brain as a site of storage, memory, and process. These culminated in an installation that would be a new plateau in its own right.

Claimed by Rhoades to be the biggest indoor sculpture ever made, Perfect World opened in November 1999 at the Deichtorhallen museum, a vast industrial terminal building that had formerly served as the produce and flower market for the port city of Hamburg. Encapsulating and exploding all of the performative, narrative, and imaginative potential of Rhoades’s work to date, the installation filled the entire 15,000-square-foot space with a dense scaffolding of polished aluminum tubes. The cat’s-cradle-like structure, which reminded Rhoades of Duchamp’s 16 Miles of String (1942), supported a second story made of sheets of plywood that massed overheard.16 One at a time – and only upon signing a waiver – viewers could penetrate this upper realm, conveyed upward in one of several hydraulic lifts. The daring few could look precariously down upon a sprawling photographic reproduction of the artist’s father’s vegetable garden in California, the scale of which matched the Deichtorhallen perfectly.

Perfect World was the Garden of Eden and the Fall packed into one, with Jason Rhoades, as Mephistopheles, working the gate. A devilish prankster, he assumed his Faustian role with pride. “My shoes are in the garden photo a lot,” Rhoades says, pointing out the “Mephisto” brand of European walking shoe he had taken to wearing for his flat feet after years of wearing Nikes, as if adopting a European brand was just part of the deal if you wanted to make it big as an American artist.17 “I am more interested in creating problems than solving them,” he liked to say of his work.18 Perfect World is by far the biggest problem he ever created. After almost instantly capitalizing the original budget, the project was symbolically kept afloat by an investment scheme that involved the publication and sale of an oversized artist’s book. The books were produced during the exhibition on expensive flatbed color copier machines, donated by Xerox, and distributed throughout the installation, as if a copy shop had been swallowed by a whale.19

The problems of financing Perfect World were appropriately enormous – it might have been better, Rhoades confided, if the Deichtorhallen organizers had said NO to him at a certain point.20 But money seems a negligible concern compared to the even larger artistic risk that Perfect World represents. It’s a challenge all artists face, no matter the scale of their work: how to model that most vulnerable of things, one’s own subjectivity? Having realized an answer in the form of the biggest sculpture ever made, Rhoades not only achieved a new plateau for his work, he also created the next hurdle: how does one ever surpass the Perfect World?

Rhoades’s initial approach was pragmatic: he created projects and products that would sustain life in a perfect world. Asked to teach a seminar at the art academy in Frankfurt in 2001, Rhoades turned the class into a cottage industry, pickling vegetables. Packed in glass jars, the pickles were the project of the “Perfect Process,” which involved bathing the pickling produce in the glow of the complete oeuvre (on VHS) of Kevin Costner, the actor, singer, musician, producer, director, and businessman, whom Rhoades somewhat resembled and whose work in the form of in-flight entertainment he considered himself to have thoroughly absorbed by sleeping through trips to Europe. The Costner Complex structure was partially built using materials from Perfect World, which served as a Home Depot for all of Rhoades’s subsequent work. Polished metal poles and “garden” sections of plywood, for instance, stock the Sutter’s Mill (2000) edition of sculptures, based on the California landmark near the Rhoades’s family farm.

The artist also invented his own construction material: PeaRoeFoam. A nasty coagulation of bright red fish roe, dried green peas, white Styrofoam beads, and copious amounts of glue all mixed together in an “Impetuous Process,” PeaRoeFoam was introduced in 2002. Its liabilities were also its greatest asset as far as the artist was concerned: smelly when wet, prone to mold when dry, PeaRoeFoam makes it almost impossible to contain art and separate it from life. Rhoades used huge quantities of this invasive stuff to build several major installations, subsequent to which PeaRoeFoam appears dribbled throughout his work, as well as distributed in kit form. Packages of the ingredients come separately wrapped, ready for mixing, along with a bucket, a shovel, and rubber boots: everything you need to make PeaRoeFoam at home, and all attached to a handy wooden pallet.

The second approach to the Perfect World problem was more transcendent. The way is illuminated by thousands of “pussy words,” euphemisms for “vagina” that Rhoades collected and had turned into neon signs. How did he collect the words? At “pussy harvests,” naturally: whenever Rhoades could, he would solicit new words for his perennially growing lexicon. Captured in neon, the pussy words become a form of radiant pigment that Rhoades applied in a spectrum of ways: to set his installations awash in luminous color, to assemble elaborate chandelier sculptures, and to produce discrete text-based works. As both ornament and scripture, the neons sizzle with the cross-wiring of sanctity and profanity that Jason Rhoades loved to super-charge and saturate his work with.

Loaded with neons, Rhoades’s late installations literally drip with provocation. “Pussy words” dangle in a profusion of webs of wiring and tapestries of cords. And yet the overall effect is sublime. Gone are the sculptural forms and structural systems that grounded Rhoades’s art up to now; instead the installations are a form of surrounding. They are about space, space that swallows the viewers up in light. To determine a source, look to the installations’ titles: Tijuanatanjierchandelier, for instance, or My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage… They point to Islamic architecture and the swirling volumetrics of the mosque. Nature, too, is here. These installations spread out like rhizomes overhead and across the floor. The ground is covered with soft towels and mattresses that induce us to get horizontal and contemplate the heavenly hash of ridiculous (“Lawrence of O Labia”), violent (“Hatchet Wound”), poetic (“The Silk Igloo”), dumb (“Salami Garage”), Rabelaisian (“Hypogastrian Cranny”), darling (“Squirrel”), and spiffy (“Quiff”) terminology. And when you tire of reading, simply lose yourself in the throbbing void of Rhoades’s creation.

Jason Rhoades’s art peaked with Black Pussy. The project was based on a pair of installations – one for show, the other for use – that mirrored one another like parallel universes. In London, the exhibition version, titled The Black Pussy… and the Pagan Idol Workshop, was shown in 2005 by Hauser & Wirth, with the idea that the sale of this first part would subsidize Rhoades’s plans for the second. The installation filled the gallery with an impenetrable mass of neons, metal shelves, cowboy hats, ceramic donkeys, footstools made out of camel saddles, striped rugs, bundles of towels… in short, the whole bazaar, supermarket, palette of Rhoades’s late production. Drawn through, out the space were what seemed to be miles of orange extension cord, such as Rhoades had been using since the start – formally as line and functionally as power. Looping back to the beginning in a more significant way, The Black Pussy… and the Pagan Idol Workshop displayed itself not as a space or a system the viewer could explore and inhabit, but once again, like CHERRY Makita and the other early sculptures, as a picture to behold.

Throughout his art, Rhoades built distinctions between open situations and closed containers. In contrast to the closed tableau that was the London show, the Los Angeles version of Black Pussy was an environmental installation that transformed the artist’s studio into a stage for a series of performance events. With signature cocktails, booze, food, and a vegan dessert called “shoe-gurt” served to participating guests, this was also the wet version of the gallery’s dry Black Pussy show. Each of ten Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé evenings was highly controlled and exclusive, with a curated guest list designed to admit a microcosm of Rhoades’s Los Angeles constituency of art world and Hollywood types, folks from the hood, and guest entertainers. Instructions were to show up at Rhoades’s studio, located in an industrial zone of the historic Filipinotown, near Echo Park, at 7:50pm, when a choreographed sequence of events would unfold. Soirées began with guests mingling in “The Johnny Cash Gallery” and ended with everyone doing macramé, karaoke, or some other activity masterminded by Rhoades. By 11pm the scripted portion of the night was over and those who elected to stay went freeform with the artist, shaping an evening that wouldn’t end until early the next day.

As Rhoades’s co-host, artist Alex Israel, later observed, “Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé wasn’t an art object or a party. It was a nightclub, an orgy, or a show.”21 Guests were left to figure out for themselves that they had walked onto a set and were now under the direction of Jason Rhoades, who expected everyone to perform his or her part. Not that any filming took place. Only still photography was allowed.

Jason Rhoades didn’t live to see the Black Pussy project reach completion. On August 1, 2006, he died of a heart attack brought on by an overdose. The following year the entire studio, including all the reliquary residue, was transferred to New York and installed at David Zwirner. Exactly as planned, the exhibition coincided with the release of the major motion(less) picture that Rhoades had been creating on the set: Jason Rhoades’ Black Pussy Cocktail Coffee Table Book. As the title suggests, it’s a lavish compendium, verging on a vanity publication, of all the Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé evenings rolled into one big picture book.22

Looking like it was swiped off the coffee table of someone more likely to use a book as a coaster than actually read it, Rhoades’s book is a readymade mess, the dust jacket sporting faux stains and spills. It’s also covered with a smattering of (fake) stickers with the official Black Pussy emblem: a cartoon of one of the Chinese scholars’ rocks that were distributed throughout the installation. This example is especially tightly formed, like a gnarly butt, with a piece of elasticized panty lace tied around a deep wedge in the middle. A photograph of the dust jacket of curtains and neon, bathed in the ultra-violet glow of the Black Pussy cabaret interior, which was lit, like a strip club, in black lights, wraps the cover of the book.

Inside, the book is packed. Like a high school yearbook or a fashion magazine, the flossy pages are filled with picture grids and full-bleed images, as mix of informal snapshots and professional photography. Flipping through one sees some people who look like they’re totally having fun, while others seem slightly confused. Pretty much everyone, however, appears game: wearing bright white (as per the invitation’s instructions) to stand out against the black light, posing, acting, playing, flashing, chatting, passed out, sleeping, singing, dancing, drinking, watching. There’s a flamenco dancer, a blues singer, an Elvis impersonator. That man may or may not be the rock star Bono, but that’s definitely the actor Harry Dean Stanton, the museum director Ann Philbin, and the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. There are also lots of oddly cropped shots of the interior of the cabaret showing potted plants, a photography darkroom, the mess on the floor, drifts of snapshots, sheets of colored cellophane, a mountain of crumpled t-shirts. Some photos are so blurry or close-up they simply read as abstractions, inserting a pause in all the action packed between this book’s covers. Without any ongoing narrative or captions, the subtext on every page clearly reads: “you had to have been there.”

Leaving one free to form one’s own impressions of the Black Pussy soirées, the coffee table book leaves me thinking of two earlier picture: the Ghent Altarpiece (the Renaissance original plus Rhoades’s adaptation), and the movie Car Wash (1976). A low-brow, upbeat satire of Robert Altman’s Nashville – with Grand Ole Opry and gospel music replaced by a constant stream of LA disco radio and a guest appearance by Richard Pryor – Car Wash was one of Rhoades’s favorite films. Like an R. Crumb cartoon come to life, it featured a full funky lineup of urban stereotypes. As disparate as they seem, what the coffee table book, the B-movie, and the historic altarpiece all have in common is a particular form of narrative structure. Sprawling and episodic, each unites a diverse cast of characters within a single playing field that frames a highly detailed, big-picture view of the systems and hierarchies that organize human existence. Labor, leisure, class, patronage, ownership, exploitation, worship, are all signified within these tableaux.

Looking down on everything and everyone, including the man we thought was in charge (God in Rhoades’s Ghent picture was to be played by Marlon Brando) is the artist in control of his or her universe. Or not in control of it. “With my work it needs to be bigger than me to control it,” Rhoades explained. It needs to be more fucked up than me.”23 What he sought throughout his art’s pursuit – and fully realized with the Black Pussy — was a situation to give oneself up to. He wanted his work to overwhelm, making his sculptures as big as he did, and conceiving of al them as all one totalizing work of art. He ensured his belief that ideally museum goers would only ever see one work per visit. “I think you should come to a work of art and be able to offer it something… to stand there with it and just say, ‘yeah I’m prostrating myself, I’m giving in to you.”24

Who can divine what level Rhoades might have taken his art to next? Christian mythology permeates his work, as do references to Freemasonry, Scientology, and other more arcane systems of belief. Perhaps Rhoades was building a cult. Portraits staged inside the Black Pussy installation show him hanging out on a cruciform structure made from Perfect World metal poles. Wearing his own custom-made, Egyptian cotton, white suit of artist-martyrdom, Rhoades self-consciously strikes the same post as Jean-Michel Basquiat, barefoot and elegant in a black suit, in the famous portrait Lizzie Himmel took of the “radiant child” before Basquiat flamed out of the art world, and existence.25

There was, of course, also something Warholian about Rhoades’s Black Pussy cabaret: a picture factory fumed with traces of celebrity, pornography, art, ruin, and fun. Rhoades’s homage to Andy Warhol traces back to Beauty Parlor (1991), a student work made in the minimalist style of Warhol’s Haircut (1965) that lasts as long as it takes to perm the hair of Rhoades and two friends at a Mexican salon in Los Angeles. Blow-dried, they emerge looking like extras for Car Was, the first disco movie. And if one imagines the legend of the Factory sucked into the black hole that is all the famous nights Warhol spent at Studio 54 discothèque pulled forward in time by the vacuous fury of the Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé, it’s easy to see what oblivion both artists believed art had the power to create.

When his work was all over, Rhoades would have been left with an empty space. He still had his main studio, but the energy of production had shifted during the Black Pussy project, leaving it more an administrative hub. With nothing immediately ahead, there was an unusual pause in the perpetual motion machine. Until now, the next project always began even before the current one was done. Was he deliberately detaching himself from the role and responsibility of running such a demanding operation, as well as from his galleries’ claims on his work? It would have been a liberating gesture, consistent with all of his work’s ambition: to use art and the art world’s systems as a means of gaining the freedom to live and work in a state of total subjectivity. Even before the soirées ended, Rhoades was spending more and more time at a retreat he was building out near Palm Springs. His next move may simply have been out to the desert to do whatever he wanted or perhaps figure out how to start anew.

It takes conviction to build the same work for fifteen years. Looking back over the trajectory of Rhoades’s art, some features appear almost compulsively consistent. When it came to getting his vision out there, Jason Rhoades was not one to shy away from using a jackhammer.

More routinely, he used models. A small-scale model or schematic drawing accompanies almost every major installation, and often was built into the experience of the work. Peering down at a miniature version of the installation you are standing in offers an instant grasp of the big picture; at the same time, it makes uncannily apparent the role you are playing as a tiny figure within Rhoades’s art. The frequent inclusion of ladders, mini-bikes, and Genie lifts also implies other ways of moving through or looking at the work. Typically, Rhoades kept some part of the installation out of view. It could be a private black-box screening area, or a backstage sort of greenroom that only VIP guests had access to, or just some intimate enclosed space. For Rhoades, someplace hidden, even hidden from himself, was one of the things art was meant to make accessible.

Speaking of jackhammers, there is no way not to see the driving equation between creativity and sex in Rhoades’s work. Unlike Marcel Duchamp with his “bachelor machines” and erotic peepshow, Jason Rhoades didn’t pussyfoot around.<footnote=26> When it came to getting the job done, there was nothing so inspiring to an artist as a whack of pornography. Pins-ups, porn, donuts, cars, tools, things going up-and-down, in-and-out, penetration, vibration, lubrication, foam: there is almost nothing in Rhoades’s art that doesn’t harness an absurd-to-nasty expression of the sex drive. “[T]he low-decibel hum of crude sexuality” that critic Nancy Princenthal detected in one installation registers throughout.27

As a diagram, this essay would not be complete without some sense of what it is to experience the work of Jason Rhoades. Let’s start with its materiality: the early work’s ephemeral, handmade character is increasingly eclipsed by shinier, outsourced, and modular productions. (Imagine a micro-history of capitalism that begins with bricks and ends with a post-industrial entertainment economy.) Yet throughout, the overall nature of the work remains the same. Manic and improvisational, even the most elaborately produced installations have a temporary “road show” quality. Built from a roll-out of boxes and shelves, clip-on lights, and stock piles of surplus equipment, Rhoades’s art always seems ready to be broken down, packed up, and shipped on to the next venue.

“Chaotic” is a word that immediately comes to the lips of many eyewitnesses. Threatening danger and full of aggression, Rhoades’s super-storms of drywall screws and sheet-rock construction, torrential downloads of consumer crap, and haphazard jerry-rigging do inspire an anxious sense of disorder. The term “booby-trap” also comes to mind. Wires and cords snake to power tools, copy-machines, computers, games, radios, video monitors, and myriad neon transformers. Pause to listen to the din of Rhoades’s art, filling up space with ambient sound and distracting noise. One hears as well as sees the potential for things to melt-down, blow-up, spiral into entropy or collapse on top of you.

Despite its bullying charm, the work is intensely appealing. In part, this comes from the built-in accessibility of materials (like Lego and porn) that we are already familiar with. But also, formally, the work is simply stunning. Far from slapdash, Rhoades was authoritative in his handling of color, structure, line. His compositions are as rigorous as those of any Minimalist; Rhoades just liked driving to the hardware store more often. Suddenly what initially looked like an explosion begins to cohere. Visual themes and correspondences start to emerge, drawing out narrative threads and a sense of not-so-random order, suggesting that further systems of meaning are at play. For those who like puzzles, word play, and games of detection, Rhoades’s works offer boundless pleasure. With their rubble of trash and treasures loaded with references to Rhoades’s childhood and pieces of past works, the early installations read like archeological sites. As meaning becomes increasingly embedded in structures, so does the interpretation of Rhoades’s art shift to a more conceptual plane. Language is plastic. Not a careful writer, Rhoades used misspelling, bungled semantics, alliteration, spoonerisms, and puns to bend words into powerful tools for driving meaning off course and into all sorts of precarious and ridiculous places.

However it’s made, meaning travels with associative freedom and imaginative force. Everything in Rhoades’s art seems connected, even if by the most absurd or tenuous threads. Indeed, the work is so referential – seeming to point to anything and everything at once – that it pushes the limits of one’s capacity to make sense at all. Inevitably the bubble of absorption bursts (often at the point sheer annoyance sets in) and suddenly, with the same force with which t drew you in, Rhoades’s work shoves you back out into the midst of a space filled with nearly raw materials. Still, the work has changed. All the particulars you gleaned in the process of looking dissolve into a funk and shimmer that enlivens and deepens the big picture you now know is there.

Look as you might, there is one thing you should never find in the physical and ephemeral work of Jason Rhoades. That is dust. Patently uninterested in the patina of time – dirt was a random distraction drawing attention to a world outside his control – he always kept his installations immaculately clean.

3.
So what are the problems and where to begin? Righteously enough, the claim of greatness alone should trigger some resistance – and has. From his work’s earliest reception, the buzz that flew around Rhoades was an irritant to critics opposed to conferring the terms of cultural authority and consensus upon yet another young, white, male artist. “Every season an artist comes to town with bells on,” wrote the artist Collier Schorr in Frieze. “This September a young man named Jason Rhoades was tapped…. Here is the big boy.”28 His first solo exhibition featured a workmanly drill – the CHERRY Makita – powered by a V8 engine, enshrined inside a sculpture of a garage. Viewed against the backdrop of the early 1990s, when artists were directing viewers to look sensitively and think politically about gender, race, and identity, it’s hard to imagine a more gung-ho assertion of patriarchal power and privilege than the work of Jason Rhoades.

Another problem is one of visibility: although Rhoades has been hailed as a great American artist, his work has barely been seen in this country – at least not outside New York, where he participated in three Whitney Biennials and exhibited routinely at David Zwirner. Even in Los Angeles, where he always maintained an active studio presence, there have been few opportunities to experience Rhoades’s art firsthand. In part, this was a Los Angeles problem. Famous for great art schools and a provincial art scene, LA is a city where artists have until quite recently thrived or survived in “sweet neglect,” according to Los Angeles artist Lari Pittman.29 That reputation began to change in the 1990s, and LA is now known as a place where artists can live, work, show, and sell their art (as well as see great museum exhibitions). Rhoades was part of the pivotal generation of artists – including Ingrid Calame, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie, Laura Owens, Jorge Pardo, Jennifer Pastor, Yutaka Sone, Jennifer Steinkamp, and Diana Thater – around whom this shift occurred. While it was happening, however, some found his tsunami of success troubling.

In his acerbic, insightful account of the nineties scene, Los Angeles art historian and critic Michael Duncan illustrates “HOW TO GET A BUZZ” by detailing the “quick rise” of Jason Rhoades.30 Rhoades, Duncan summarizes, “enjoyed the perfect combination for a local artist: The support of an influential Los Angeles dealer and influential Los Angeles artists combined with the cachet and power of a New York dealer with international connections. His quick success in Europe put him over the top.”31 This too is part of the story of LA – a city in which popular culture is a local industry of fabricators, prop shops, and movie production. To stay in the place their work was most identified with, such quintessential California artist as John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Matt Mullican, and Allen Ruppersberg all began their careers by leapfrogging over New York and exhibiting in Europe. Only after their work had established an international reputation through exhibitions, criticism, gallery representation, and sales in Europe, was it discovered in America. Rhoades may have received some initial support in the US< but his art found its traction abroad.

“It looks like I will be in Europe for most of the spring with the exception of the last weeks of April when I will be here,” Rhoades faxed Hans Ulrich Obrist from Los Angeles in a 1997 correspondence about the curator’s Unbuilt Roads: 107 Unrealized Projects.32 It was a consistent pattern for the artist, who divided his time between Los Angeles (where, in the lap of car culture, he said his work found its “eloquence”)33 and Europe, where a driving beat of exhibition projects kept him busy and traveling for months at a stretch. His exhibition itinerary for 1998, for instance, begins in Zurich with The Creation Myth, Rhoades’s first solo show at Hauser & Wirth (which added its European muscle to the artist’s gallery representation); then onto Stockholm for a group exhibition Daniel Birnbaum organized on the theme of Ikea; then to Vienna for another group show, where Rhoades erected a monumental corridor out of video arcade games; then Nuremberg, where he rolled The Creation Myth into Jason Rhoades: The Purple Penis and the Venus (Installed in the Seven Stomachs of Nürnberg) As Part of the Creation Myth, his first museum survey. Organized by Eva Meyer-Hermann, the survey then traveled onto Eindhoven, where Rhoades configured and retitled the exhibition Jason Rhoades: The Purple Penis and the Venus (And Sutter’s Mill) for Eindhoven: A Spiral with Flaps and Two Useless Appendages After the Seven Stomachs of Nürnberg As Part of the Creation Myth. And those are just the year’s highlights. Did he go to Cologne for the Hommage à Dieter Roth? It doesn’t matter. Rhoades’s omnipresence in Europe was duly noted by an American critic who signed off reviewing another young sculptor’s show with “a reminder to Rhoades to call home once in a while.”34

“If Jason Rhoades didn’t exist, some European curator would have invented him,” jabbed a blurb in the New Yorker announcing the latest exhibition by the “kunsthalle boy wonder.”35 As an artist at large on the international stage, Rhoades had acquired a particular reputation, one that points to problematic perceptions of American identity, for appearing to affirm stereotypes of gleeful consumers whose belief in their own exceptionalism makes them almost childishly insensitive to other cultures and to culture in general. Coloring in this cartoon, Rhoades’s installation Meccatuna had as its centerpiece a model of Islam’s most holy site, the Kaaba, made from one million pieces of Lego; 550 neon “pussy words” festooned the surrounding space. It was 2003, American, already at war in Afghanistan, had just invaded Iraq when Rhoades’s show opened two years nearly to do the day after the 9/11 attacks. Critics took the provocation. Meccatuna is the most thoroughly reviewed of all of Rhoades’s exhibitions and the response is instructive.

“Fatwa, anyone?”36 Every writer who reviewed Meccatuna observed the obvious offense against Islam. A few appreciated “the show’s juxtaposition of the many stereotypes of womanhood,” including “hidden women embedded in Islamic fundamentalism.”37 Many detected “the incursion of American consumer projects into every sacred precinct on the planet.”38 One found prescient “[t]he insistence on the mythic dimension of our seemingly enlightened society,”39 while others lamented “the increasingly traffic rift between impassioned Eastern spirituality and Western rationalism and materialism.”40 Not knowing what to make of it, one critic simply chalked the show up as “anything but minimal, and oddly diverting.”41 This is just a narrow sampling of the complex battery of readings the installation elicited.42

No matter how compelling critics found Meccatuna to be, a few seemed willing to concede Rhoades’s art capable of having any real significance. One writer decreed, the “work’s aggressive infantilism… effectively reduces what might otherwise be compelling insights into flip one-liners.”43 This was a widely held criticism – that Rhoades was too juvenile to have anything serious to say. High-minded spanking resounds throughout his work’s reception, as if it were necessary, or possible, to smack down those “flip one-liners” before they hit the gentle viewer in the face.

It’s a defensible reaction: Meccatuna is obnoxious and crusades for offense. Or was the work just being ironic? That’s how the more jack=asinine aspects of Rhoades’s art – all that lewd drilling, for instance – had been seen until Meccatuna crossed a line. “Adding insult to injury,” one offended critic wrote, “Rhoades sheaths his willful provocation in the impenetrable prophylactic of postmodern irony, such that any criticism of Meccatuna can be countered by the argument that the installation isn’t really sexist or blasphemous; it’s ‘about’ sexism and blasphemy.”44

But Rhoades wasn’t wearing a “sheath.” His work openly violated the rules of political correctness, which, along with the codes of academic deconstruction and the conditions of postmodernism, he saw as simply restrictions to be broken, like any taboos. Rhoades insisted he was a modernist – preferring that his work be referred to as sculptures and not installations – even as he drew freely from the toolbox of postmodern contemporary art strategies, using fragmentation, narrative, and, yes, irony. But in the modern tradition of sincerity, he took his irony near: no “abouts” about it. (Likewise, he aimed to be a genuine asshole.) The incongruity between the absurd offenses of Meccatuna and the truly offensive rhetoric of America’s “crusade against terrorism” is plainly ironic. Reading the confusing, conflicted response to Rhoades’s installation, dazzling with neon and overloaded with junk, it’s hard to imagine a more striking and vociferous self-portrait of American facing the end of its global dominance.

Rhoades provoked and played with those fears and prejudices that have an obvious and dangerous grip on contemporary imagination. “So I think my job as an artist is just to pull back the skin of something and expose parts of it… Trying to be sensitive, but having no morals or no fundamentalism about it.”45 In a nation where religion is inseparable from politics, race is taboo, the word “vagina” makes people uncomfortable, and class is not supposed to be an issue, Rhoades’s art drops us into a vast terrain of cultural irony, fear, and repression. It’s unstable ground, for sure, made all the more shaky by the sense of embarrassment, shame, and physical vulnerability that makes Rhoades’s art so disarming. Where the work does stand firm, however, is on the ideals of democracy that undergird Rhoades’s very ambition to be an artist. He cherished his right to freedom and expressed it by creating situations that seemed nearly out of control or totally fucked up, then inviting the public in for the experience. Opposed to regulation in all forms, he made art that, while careful to do no physical harm to any other person – no matter their race, faith, creed, or gender – pushed hard against all safeguards, limits, proprieties. For viewers, entering the radically open terrain Rhoades claimed for his art can be as exhilarating and challenging as any new frontier.

Paradoxically, Rhoades’s radical laissezfaire can be most problematic here, within the sphere of contemporary art. Given contemporary art’s political homogeneity, it’s unusual to encounter an artist who, for example, stands by the right of his work to bear arms. When David Zwirner took Rhoades to Cologne in 1993 for his very first art fair, the artist turned his dealer’s booth into a county fairground, complete with shooting gallery.46 And that’s just one piece of the artillery Rhoades built up over the years. There is a firearm hidden – often in plain sight – in practically every one of Rhoades’s’ installations. Rhoades’s work stands for the profound individualism not only of the artist, but of the viewer, who is free to look, understand, and judge for him or herself. Indeed, Rhoades’s art practically insists we take that liberty.

Riding in from the West, Jason Rhoades’s rendition of the good, the bad, and the ugly American was a homemade spaghetti Western that played especially well in Germany. It’s nice to think that Winnetou and Old Shatterhand had something to do with it: the Apache chief and his cowboy blood-brother have inspired generations of Germans, who grew up reading Karl May’s classic tales, in a romance with the American Old West. More likely, however, it is another tradition that made Germany so open to Rhoades’s art, namely, the gesamtkunstwerk. Coming out of the cultural liberalism of Romanticism, the gesamtkunstwerk merges many artistic forms into a “total work of art.” Using music, visual art, singing, poetry, mythology, movement, dance, Wagner’s Rising Cycle is the original gesamtkunstwerk. Today the term speaks literally of “opera,” which means “work” or “labor,” as the gesamtkunstwerk has come to refer to any ambitious attempt to merge art and life into one synthetic chronicle. Joseph Beuys’s social sculpture, Hanne Darboven’s studio practice, and Martin Kippenberger’s art and nightlife are all contemporary examples of gesamtkunstwerk – not that being German is a requisite. Dieter Roth, the artist whose Fluxus-based approach to conducting his life as one endless stream of performative production culminated in a wall of 128 videos monitoring his every move – cooking, eating, shitting, napping, sleeping, and puttering around his house and studio – over the last year of his life, and whose work was extremely significant for Jason Rhoades, was Icelandic.

Still, the gesamtkunstwerk flourishes in Germany for an institutional reason: the kunsthalle system of gallery space, dedicated to presenting temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. (The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia is the rare model of a non-collecting kunsthalle in the United States.) With a kunsthalle in almost every city in Germany, the country boasts not only a developed channel for the widespread exhibition of contemporary art, but also a commitment to facilitating artists’ work – no matter how uncertain, complex, or outlandish their projects might be – which informs museum culture as a whole. American museums can seem lily-livered by comparison. Since his work never lent itself to a checklist that could be approved in advance, it’s hard to imagine how Rhoades could have received the kind of large-scale, largely open-ended exhibition opportunities, so essential to the development of his art, here in the US. But opportunity is a two-way street, and Rhoades created his own roadblocks as well. After agreeing to do a project with one American museum director, his first requirement was an abandoned elementary school to art working in.47 Needless to say, the project ran aground even before it could begin; Rhoades’s demands were simply too exorbitant.

In Europe, Rhoades’s art was championed by a number of prominent curators. Harald Szeemann, whose historic exhibitions of contemporary art are nearly synonymous with the gesamtkunstwerk model of creativity, attributed to Rhoades a whole new sensibility. His art was the germ, Szeemann told interviewers in 1997, for the two big international exhibitions that he was preparing in Lyon and Ljubljana. Rhoades told him, “Ya know, I feel I’m in a certain genealogy. But it’s no more abstract, it’s no more figurative. We are Giving artists.”48 And Szeemann said, “I like this term. It’s a new generosity. ‘We are giving.’ Franz West is a giving artist. Brancusi was a giving artist.”49 Yes. A giving artist is one whose work is so accessible that a viewer doesn’t need to be invited, or instructed, to be immediately drawn into its imaginative complexity. That’s what Rhoades, Brancusi, and West all share.

A giving curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist drew Jason Rhoades into the “endless conversation,” which Obrist is still having with artists and cultural producers all over the world, when he interviewed Rhoades in 1998.50 Driving around Los Angeles, the microphone dangling like a clunky phallus from the rearview mirror, Rhoades explained the concept of the car in his work – originating with the idea that for Los Angelenos putting a broken-down car in front of your house is like placing as sculpture in public. Cars are instrumental to the progress of his work, because they exist in the space between consumption and research that he drives daily. As mental space, he considers the car an extension of the studio, a place where the mind can race and idle. Referring to Ed Ruscha, Rhoades observes how much distance American artists have covered in cars and on highways. (He bypasses Tony Smith, whose drive on an unfinished stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike one night in the early 1950s set a course for American sculpture and abstraction.) It’s different in Europe, Rhoades tells Obrist. There, car space and mind space tend to lead an artist backwards; you often have to turn around to get to the place you’re trying to find. As the drive continues, Rhoades talks about his plans for the “Impala Museum” (of minor works by major artists installed in a car) and elaborates on the iconography of the Caprice and the Fiero (symbols respectively of luxury and performance for the middle class), as well as other car models he has used as materials for various projects. It’s a great ride.

The curator most closely associated with Jason Rhoades’s art is Eva Meyer-Hermann. Between 1997 and 2000, the two were in almost constant dialogue about various exhibition and publication projects.51 So integral was her art-historical, theoretical, and philosophical thinking to his art’s construction (Rhoades jokingly referred to her as his Eve) that “MEYER-HERMANN, EVA” appears as an entry in the definitive companion to his art: Volume: A Rhoades Referenz.52 Published in conjunction with his 1998 museum survey, the Referenz is an inspiring exemplar of the artist’s book as exhibition catalogue.53 As Meyer-Hermann, who organized the survey and edited the book, writes in the introduction, it offers “a literary approach appropriate to [the artist’s] complex metaphorical thinking and work.”54 The Rhoades Referenz is organized like a dictionary of thought. There are entries on concepts (Abstraction, Gesture, Naming, Placing of Sculpture, Reflection), titles, touchstones (Corvette, Duchamp, Mother, Video Games), and props (Brown Box, Buckets, White Cowboy Hat). There are drawings and diagrams representing ideas, and photographs illustrating the work and related subjects. Everything is thoroughly cross-referenced. Bouncing around the pages of this book gets you fast and deep into what Rhoades was thinking. It also suggests connections between the complicated interconnectivity of his art and that of the Internet which was new at the time. About which, Rhoades, who was fascinated by computers – he used them as objects and experimented with them as operating systems – had this to say in his Referenz:

INTERNET: Technological phenomenon. Medium using computer technology that gives access to worldwide network of information. Visited by many users specifically for its countless pornographic sites. Many of the hard-core pornographic images (PORNOGRAPHY) in Jason Rhoades’s THE CREATION OF MYTH were downloaded and printed from the Internet.55

No one could explain Rhoades’s art quite like Rhoades himself. Confident, friendly, and full of conviction, his voice is audible in every entry of the Rhoades Referenz, which is based on tape-recorded conversations with the artist. And it also makes invaluable the catalogue for Perfect World, which ahs six cassettes’ worth of interview material, conducted and transcribed by Meyer-Hermann. Thanks to Rhoades’s penchant for performing and explaining his art – at openings, installations, press previews, artists’ talks, wherever, whenever – quite a big of video documentation exists as well, showing him captivatingly in charge of any opportunity to control the perception of his work. And though this documentation exists outside of the art per se, it’s this constant narrative flow that invisibly holds Rhoades’s production together. As he assembled thoughts in his mind, so did he organize objects in space, and like a good storyteller, he never “told” an installation exactly the same way twice.

Supposed you wanted to own an installation by Jason Rhoades. The problem of selling his work is one that he solved pretty quickly after an early misstep in the merchandizing of Swedish Erotica, which critic David A. Greene encapsulated as follows: “Here’s what’s irksome about this exhibition: The absurd prices slapped on the end of each absurd description on the end of each absurd description on the gallery list…. [T]he power of this work disappears when the show is divvied up into parcels and sold….[O]n their own, those arrangements have no ‘life’….”56 Rhoades evidently arrived at the same conclusion. After that exhibition in 1994, the checklists for his exhibitions featured one big work with many, many, materials. Installations were never presented piecemeal again.57 Still, this is not to say that sorting out the parts of Rhoades’s oeuvre isn’t complicated. There are discrete sculptures related to each of the installations, as well as independent objects created and sold as editions. Pretty much as long as objects were in the studio, there was a constant blur in status between art and materials, as Rhoades freely harvested from and reconfigured his own work. However, once an installation sold (or was otherwise solidified as a piece), the boundaries were set: you were meant to acquire the whole enchilada or nothing at all. Plus you agreed that only Jason Rhoades had the authority to install it. Initially, these terms didn’t pose much of a problem, but the more his art went out into the world, the less Rhoades could, or wanted to, keep up with it.

Already in the habit of informally documenting his work when it left the studio, starting around 2004, when one of his biggest collectors, Friedrich Christian Flick, formed a partnership with the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, Rhoades began to focus on institutionalizing the installation of his art by creating detailed instruction manuals. The manual for Creation Myth runs to three binders full of explicit directions (starting with how to unpack the work from its fourteen enormous crates), diagrams, photographs, specifications in case something needed to be replaced (a new G-scale model train was recently purchased after the old one stopped engaging smoothly with the track), and suggestions for trouble-shooting some of the myriad problems that could arise in the process of an installation that can take a crew of people weeks to complete. Furthermore, not just anyone can successfully follow these instructions, which assume a lot of knowing that could only have been learned by doing. Over the years, Rhoades worked closely with teams of studio assistants, technicians, and professional preparators, most of whom were artists in their own rights. When Rhoades could not be present at an installation, designated individuals needed to be on hand – different people for different works. After al, as much as he liked gizmos, power tools, copy machines, etc., there is nothing mechanized to the production of Rhoades’s work. The disposition of every element requires a certain looseness of handling, understanding of the appropriate density, way of dispersing color, tautness of line, drape of materials, oomph or abjectness of expression. Thousands of individual judgments must be made. Further complicating this already complicated matter, everyone who ever worked for Rhoades has his or her own interpretation of the artist’s vision and touch.

The further the work gets from its source, the greater the problems of owning and installing Rhoades’s art are bound to become. This is true of any work that deploys installation, performance, organic and ephemeral materials, electronic equipment, computers, consumer goods, and other stuff that is not necessarily made to last. Jason Rhoades’s art presents the issues of conservation – writ large and loud – that are certain to plague all of contemporary art, bound as it is to unconventional modes and materials, in years to come. The technical term for art made unstable by the very substances from which it is made is “inherent vice,” and conservators have long dealt with it. Attracted to vice in all forms, Rhoades worked with whatever materials were right for the job at hand. Yet he also wanted his art to last. Around the time of Perfect World, he stated to consult regularly with conservator Christian Scheidemann, one of the leading figures in contemporary art restoration. However perverse this might seem, like bringing a mortician into the nursery, Scheidemann works closely with a number of artists, including Robert Gober, who are, like Rhoades, aware of and inspired by the “inherent vice” of their studio practices, practices which in turn inform Scheidemann’s own. He recalls Rhoades “toying with the idea of putting a barcode on the individual components of his works,” so that installations could be done with GPS trackers indicating where each part belonged. “I find it fascinating,” Scheidemann says. “I’m constantly learning new technical details from artists.”58 Another lesson learned is more paradoxical: “You can’t really ‘restore’ contemporary art,”59 he says; when it comes to preserving work as spontaneous as Rhoades’s, the essential thing is to keep it alive.

For ICA’s installation, four of the most expert installers of Rhoades’s art will come from Zurich, New York, and Los Angeles to work with ICA’s chief preparator and crew of twelve art handlers. Four solid weeks have been scheduled to unpack, erect, and get the show running.

Four is the golden number. Jason Rhoades. Four Roads, conceived as a primer especially for American audiences, presents four of the artist’s major installations: Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita), 1993; The Creation Myth, 1998; Sutter’s Mill, 2000; and Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage…), 2004/2013. Each work represents a distinct phase or level of Rhoades’s art; all four together stand as a microcosm – loaded with the full spectrum of materials, ideas, structures, and forms – of the one work Rhoades conceptualized all of his art to be. These four works also have this important quality in common: all have been successfully installed in the past without the artist’s direct involvement. Not that this will silence the question “What would Jason do?” and its surrounding anxiety. This question will persist, offering us an opportunity to productively respond to the artist’s absent presence. However, when organizing the first major exhibition to take place without Rhoades’s animating presence, why compound reasons for speculation? There is already so much that remains to be seen.

Jason Rhoades was a protean artist, whose work took variable forms and was constantly in flux. “If you know my work,” he said, “you know that it is never finished.”60 Since he is no longer here to shape it, the question “What is the work?” now looms especially large. In the artist’s guide to his universe, a chapbook titled Various Virgins, Rhoades ruminates on that question, offering this cosmic speculation: “Now I have never believed that someone can see what someone else sees and I don’t think that one can wear somebody else’s shoes, but if we can create some way of being an object, it might be possible that the object is able to look back at you….[And when] you are forced into simply trying to see something, you see it for what it is.”61 Jason Rhoades spent his lifetime as an artist trying to make a work that contained everything he experienced – to crate an object that could stand in his won Mephisto shoes. At this point, that object is more legend than something we are familiar with. This exhibition is a first look, an opening up of a body of work that needs to be vastly seen, experienced, and explored. We have work ahead. Given that, the best approach to all the problems Rhoades’s art leaves us with is to try and see it for what it is. Then we shall be able to see what looks back at us.

4.

To get a closer look at the works in this exhibition, turn to the four roads: Jason Rhoades, American Artist; Systems; Jason the Mason; and Taboo. These are the exhibition’s four interpretive paths, designed to help viewers navigate the vibrant, multilayered morass of materials, provocations, and references that is the one work of Jason Rhoades. As mapped out in the next section of this catalogue, each interpretive path leads into a deeper discussion of one of the installations, which could easily be traversed by any other or all four roads. Following these entries are “Roads Beyond,” three texts composed in response to the invitation to take one interpretive path in any direction its author wanted to go. Bringing a range of perspectives, the writers are art historian Martha Buskirk; author and cultural critic Chris Kraus; and curator Paul Schimmel who was close to the artist.

The next section of the catalogue is a picture chronology placing the four works on view within the larger trajectory of Rhoades’s one work of art. It’s only a partial view. In particular the omissions of Rhoades’s collaborative projects (especially those with Paul McCarthy) and his car-based sculptures represent significant bodies of work calling for independent study. The additional twenty installation depicted are each accompanied by narrative diagram of the basic circumstance, main features, and overall plan. (For a more interpretive read, Rhoades’s own narratives are essential and available.62) With an illustrated exhibition chronology and a scholarly bibliography, composed buy Katherine Rochester o add a final lap of understanding and detail, this manual concludes.

Start your engines, please.

All quotations from materials in the artist’s archive are reprinted with kind permission from the estate of Jason Rhoades; I am extremely grateful to Rachel Khedoori for making the archives accessible to me and for her invaluable reading and insight.

Endnotes:

  1. Jason Rhoades and Corrina Peipon, "Alumni Profile: Jason Rhoades B'88," San Francisco Art Institute Magazine, Summer 2000, I9.
  2. Ibid.
  3. From the artist's archive, this article from a 1979 issue of the Sacramento Bee is just one of many newspaper clippings to appear in the official "Member's Record" book that Rhoades kept for ten years, detailing his activities in the 4-H Club, from the age of nine to seventeen.
  4. Of note during this period of undergraduate education: at CCAC Rhoades took a "Modern Drama" class with Beat poet and playwright Michael McClure. At SFAI, Rhoades's teachers included Bill Geis, Irene Pijoan, Jim Pomeroy, and Sam Tchakalian, and Irv Tepper; he also took a class with Angela Davis. In 1986, he spent six months in a studio program in New York and participated in a group exhibition (titled EROSCAPE, described on the announcement card as a "panorama of sexually inspired art") at the Burke Gallery in San Francisco.
  5. I am grateful to Jeff Gunderson, Librarian at the San Francisco Art Institute, for sharing his recollection: "When Jason was a student here he was also VERY CURIOUS about a faculty member from the 1940s/early 1950s named Clay Spohn, who was a painter, friend of Rothko's, knew Duchamp, and encouraged Calder to do wire sculpture." Correspondence with the author. April 19, 2013.
  6. Evan Meyer-Hermann, ed., Volume: A Rhoades Referenz (Cologne: Oktagon, 1998), 71. Other members of FOM included Bill Becchio, Sebastian Clough, Laurie Steelink, and Marshall Weber. Rhoades's participation in the FOM collective seems linked to what Rachel Khedoori recalls as the deep interest he also had at the time in the Beats and the COBRA group.
  7. The 1988 film is in the artist's archive.
  8. For the Rhoades the smoke and chimney references also signaled a ritual ending of the FOM period of his work, according to Sebastian Clough, who was also part of the group and who saw the UCLA performance. As seen from above, the brick sculpture was built roughly to be a Masonic "G." (My thanks to Clough for permission to share his recollection.) In light of which, the skewed angle of the shelves in the surrounding installation resemble the compass and angle that are also part of the Masonic emblem.
  9. See entries for "Chimney" and "Venus of Willendorf" in Meyer-Hermann, Volume: A Rhoades Referenz.
  10. Ralph Rugoff, "Ralph Rugoff in Conversation with Paul McCarthy," in Jason Rhoades: The Big Picture, ed. Rachel Khedoori et al. (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2012), 32.
  11. From a video recording in the artist's archive of his 2000 lecture at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah (where Paul McCarthy had once been a student).
  12. Richard Jackson, "Constructed Reality," Artforum, October 2006, 62.
  13. Premised on Duchamp's contention that art is an addition, The Rosamund Felsen Clinic & Recovery Center was accompanied by a questionnaire - for instance, "Can you honestly say of your involvement with art: 'I can quit any time?" - composed by curator Ralph Rugoff.
  14. In his catalogue statement, Rhoades elaborated on the identity of the Caprice ("'bubble car,' cop car or New York taxi") a well as on the driving experience ("the unique yachting feeling of an elegantly skirted bubble car...the first in a lineage 'a misunderstood pioneer.'"). Nicolas Bourriaud, Traffic (Bordeaux, France: CAPC musée d'art contemporain, 1996), np.
  15. Thanks to Nicolas Bourriaud for clarifying these details and to Florian Berktold, at Hauser & Wirth, who pointed out that Rhoades, who considered the car a sculpture, later traded the work -worth far more than a Caprice- for a Ferrari.
  16. "I called it once the weird 'future forest.' Originally the idea to create the scaffolding, the structure in this way, was based on Duchamp's First Surrealist Papers exhibition. Even there you have this string connecting the lights to the paintings to the floor to these things. You had this kind of webbing. You also had this filling gap of space, it was a very kind of sensuous web of stuff....It is interesting to me that it fills this pre-white cube space and, by filling it, made a next level to it." Rhoades, "A Place Where Nobody Could Step Over My Extension Cords, Or: The Next Level. At the End of the Rainbow. Perfect World," interview by Eva Meyer-Hermann, in Zdenek Felix, ed., Jason Rhoades - Perfect World, Deichtorhallen Hamburg (Cologne: Oktagon, 2000), 16.
  17. Ibid., 50.
  18. Rhoades and Peipon, "Alumni Profile," 19.
  19. Paying tribute to Perfect World's two major corporate sponsors, The Xerox Book reproduces the 427 drawings Rhoades made for the project using a Montblanc ink pen.
  20. Weber College lecture, 2000.
  21. Alex Israel, "To Be Determined," MFA thesis (University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2010), 14.
  22. The book, edited by Alex Israel with a forward by fashion writer Kevin West, was designed by Brian Roettinger with photography by Alexia Pilat and Joshua White (along with pictures taken by Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé participants using the provided disposable cameras). I am grateful to Roettinger for taking time to speak with me about the design process, which he describes as having unfolded simultaneously with the soirée events. From the first, Rhoades specified that the book should not look like an art book and asked the designer to use typography that felt both Western and Middle Eastern. Once the basic structure was established - Rhoades initially wanted the layout even more densely layered, like the back of a fashion magazine - the artist and production team met regularly to picture edit and determine what shots needed to be taken, or art directed, at the upcoming soirée. Going through the pages, Roettinger also identified individuals in the mix of artists and dealers (José María Cano, Darcy Huebler, Kenny Scharf), musicians (Alex Greenwald of Blackblack, Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux), minor celebrities (statesman John Carey's daughter, the actress Robin Tunney), and hired escorts, who attended.
  23. Jason Rhoades, interview by Michele Robecchi, Contemporary, no. 81 (2006): 44.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Rhoades was fascinated by the role that personal mythology played in the perception of Basquiat's art: "I really like the way people look at it and think of him as charismatic and they rethink his history. They encapsulate these stories, that's all part of what it is that art is, for me." Rhoades, interview by Robecchi, 43.
  26. Though he did love fooling around. Taking a poke at Duchamp's enigmatic L.H.O.O.Q., Rhoades created his own anagrammatic inscription: L.A.L.A.W., which he explained is a reference to the TV show, as well as being French for "She's over there." From the 1991 video documentation, in the artist's archive, of More Moor Morals and Morass.
  27. Nancy Princenthal, "Jason Rhoades," artUS, January-February 2004, 41.
  28. Collier Schorr, "Jason Rhoades," Frieze, November-December 1993, 57-58.
  29. Jan Tumlir, "Tenth Reunion: Jan Tumlir Talks with Paul Schimmel and Howard Singerman," Artforum, February 2001, 123.
  30. Michael Duncan, "The Los Angeles Art World: Regenerative and Needy," in Defining the Nineties: Consensus-Making in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, ed. Bonnie Clearwater et al. (Miami: Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, 1996), 53.
  31. Ibid., 55.
  32. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guy Tortosa, eds., Unbuilt Roads: 107 Unrealized Projects (Osfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 1997), 88.
  33. Speaking of how necessary being in Los Angeles was to the process of figuring out ambitious European exhibition projects, like Perfect World, Rhoades said, "...its precision was built in L.A. It's eloquence was produced in L.A." Rhoades with Meyer-Hermann, Perfect World, 12.
  34. David A. Greene, "Object Lesson: Tony Feher," Village Voice, May 20, 1997, 89.
  35. "Jason Rhoades," New Yorker, October 20, 2003, 47.
  36. Steven Vincent, "Jason Rhoades," Art Review, November 2003,103.
  37. Barbara Pollack, "Jason Rhoades," ARTnews, December 2003, 117.
  38. Princenthal, "Jason Rhoades," 41.
  39. Margaret Sundell, "Pussy Pilgrimage: Jason Rhoades Reinvents the Journey to Mecca," Time Out New York, October 9-16, 2003, 63.
  40. Lilly Wei, "Rhoades Abroad," Art in America, December 2003, 98.
  41. Michael Kimmelman, "Jason Rhoades: Meccatuna," New York Times, October 10, 2003, E32.
  42. By far the most considered read is Daniel Baird, writing for the Brooklyn Rail. Like many, he compared Rhoades's installation to Thomas Hirschhorn's Cavemanman, which had recently been shown at Barbara Gladstone Gallery: "Where Hirschhorn's schlocky materials and refusal of stable form is wry, leveling, and democratic... Rhoades's work is charged with anxiety, alienation, and a kind of useless, ambivalent indulgence." Baird concludes, "[He] is certainly onto something interesting about consumption, desire, and history in an increasingly abstracted, globalized world." Daniel Baird, "Allegories of Debris," Brooklyn Rail, October 2003, 17.
  43. Sundell, "Pussy Pilgrimage," 63.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Rhoades, interview by Robecchi, 44.
  46. The shooting continues, as Russell Ferguson, writing on the artist's use of cars in his work, recounts: Rhoades "caused panic outside the fair when he pulled out the fun in a Cologne bar, later going on to shoot out some shop windows and a streetlight." Russell Ferguson, "Given 1. The Caprice, 2. The Ferrari," Parkett 58 (2000): 122.
  47. Thanks to Elsa Longhauser, Executive Director, Santa Monica Museum of Art, for sharing this anecdote.
  48. Cecilia Liveriero Lavelli and Franklin Sirmans, "Harald Szeemann," Flash Art, Summer 1997, 90.
  49. Ibid.
  50. A copy of Hans Ulrich Obrist's 1998 video interview is in the artist's archive.
  51. Eva Meyer-Hermann organized Rhoades's 1998 survey exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, in Eindhoven, and was also closely involved with Perfect World. She wrote the book on Rhoades (2009) for a series of monographs based on the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, and she contributed a major essay to Jason Rhoades: The Big Picture (2012). An independent curator and scholar, Meyer-Hermann's work is always as exacting as it is creative. In 2003, when the Van Abbesmuseum acquired Rhoades's SLOTO: The Secret Life of the Onion for its permanent collection, she organized a series of programs to contextualize the sculpture, including a lecture by a specialist in allium research (Rhoades strongly associated onions with a minor myth of gold's discovery in California).
  52. Meyer-Hermann, Volume: A Rhoades Referenz, 99-100.
  53. In his review of the book, Anthony Elms lauded its "economy of means, straightforward presentation, and borrowed use of structure (the dictionary)" that made it proximate to a classic conceptual artist book of the 1960s. However, he wrote, in "the 60s making an artist book meant making something as generic-looking but intellectually deep as possible; now it means making a book that competes on the same level as a video, painting, or installation - as well as fashion magazines." Anthony Elms, "Reshelved," New Art Examiner, April 2000, 31.
  54. Meyer-Hermann, Volume: A Rhoades Referenz, 5.
  55. Meyer-Hermann, Volume: A Rhoades Referenz, 89.
  56. David A. Greene, "I'm Just Mad About Saffron," Los Angeles Reader, April 1, 1994, 17.
  57. This is not to say that the installations were not sold, like property, in parcels in sections. The collector Harald Falckenberg, for instance, apparently acquired 8.5 percent of the Perfect World installation.
  58. Eva Meyer-Hermann and Christian Scheidemann, "Tangential Talk on Rhoades," Parkett 58 (2000): 143.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Rhoades with Meyer-Hermann, Perfect World, 11.
  61. Jason Rhoades, Various Virgins: Definitions of the Universe (self-published, 1997), np.
  62. Recommended readings include: Volume: A Rhoades Referenz (1998); the artist's interview in the catalogue for Perfect World (1999); and Jason Rhoades with Michele Robecchi in Contemporary, no. 81, 2006.