Monet had his lilies, Degas his dancers. If one leitmotif defines the madcap oeuvre of Jason Rhoades, it’s pussy. By the time he died, in 2006 at the age of forty-one, Rhoades had collected more than seven thousand euphemisms for female genitalia in several languages. He was on a quest, he said, for “the ultimate pussy word.” This dubious grail—a satirical ode to testosterone-addled idolatry and locker-room patois—gave rise to brashly festive sculptures and performances, as well as delirious, room-size installations. His series “Pussy Trilogy,” 2003–2006, for instance, addressed the crossroads of East and West, sex, religion, and commerce in works such as Meccatuna, 2003, a project involving a scale model of the Kaaba shrine made of Lego bricks. Rhoades was fascinated by the history of Islam, particularly Mohammed’s destruction of false gods in Mecca, and his late works explore what we fetishize—from material trinkets to getting laid.
Tijuanatanjierchandelier, 2006, the artist’s last major piece, which made its New York debut at David Zwirner, deals with similar themes. Dozens of vaginal appellations, immortalized in neon cursive, gave the gallery a sordid radiance. Some of the slang terms are gross (STENCH TRENCH); others are ridiculous (PINK SLINKY). Many are both (FILTHY HATCHET WOUND). They hung in clusters, like radioactive fruit, from his signature “chandeliers”: snarls of electrical cables, metal spokes, chintzy souvenirs, taxidermied animal heads, and suggestive dribbles of glue. With their dense tangles of baubles and hardware, the works resembled gonzo weather vanes after a cyclone. Tijuanatanjierchandelier, which was presented first in Málaga, Spain, then at the Fifty-Second Venice Biennale, simulates a sprawling bazaar—the kind of open-air market that crops up near the mouths of tourist attractions. Rhoades gathered the knickknacks on display from vendors in Tijuana and Tangier, and arrayed them on striped serapes and kilim rugs along the perimeter of the space. In the center of the gallery, ten mattresses lay at random angles on an island of overlapping carpets. Piles of faded, torn-up T-shirts suggested dead leaves waiting to be bagged.
The success of Tijuanatanjierchandelier lies in the artist’s eye for revealing totems: dream catchers with plastic beads and acid-pink feathers, tiny sequined sombreros, cheap leather pouches stamped with camels and palm trees, ceramic bongos, trilobite fossils, bullwhips, bandolier ammunition belts, cowrie-shell bracelets, breast-shaped mugs with big brown nipples, glass margarita goblets, knockoff Prada handbags, and TruckNutz in every color. Rhoades presented them all without judgment, marveling instead at the weirdness of the stuff that sells. A video on the gallery’s website shows the artist browsing for materials in Mexico, appraising racks of fake jalapeños with the quiet, discriminating focus of an antiques connoisseur. At another point, he tells a companion which kind of leather fedoras to gather. “The ones that look worn,” says the man, assessing the specimen hat. Not exactly. “Just ugly,” says Rhoades.
Ugliness was a fascination for the artist, who delighted in the seamy detritus of suburban America and the grimier expressions of gender and sexuality that mass-produced flotsam can inadvertently contain. Like the late Mike Kelley and their mutual friend and mentor Paul McCarthy, Rhoades took a puckish approach to skewering consumer culture and macho posturing in his work. He has been hailed as a prophet of our current pussy-grabbing, wall-building, Muslim-banning political climate: an archaeologist of the contemporary moment. Rhoades was particularly adept at exposing the nostalgic fantasies and self-delusion that attend much global travel. So many of the souvenirs the artist selected speak to our desire for the cultures we visit to perform campy versions of themselves, to masquerade in traditional dress and sell made-in-China versions of the crafts that flourished before the first tour buses rolled up. By mashing these objects together with sexist slang, Rhoades evokes the way vacationers exploit other countries as amusement parks. At its worst, tourism can resemble sexual violence in the one-sidedness of its fleeting extraction. While the work’s zany humor made the show hard to resist, its more sinister content made it impossible to forget.
How would Jason Rhoades's desire to offend go down now, in this era of call-outs and open letters? Many of the late artist’s raucous installations are like elaborate exercises in trolling: They appear orchestrated to provoke, conjuring the specter of an overactive macho id, preoccupied by cars, power tools, guns, pornography, dick jokes, cum jokes, pussy jokes, religious jokes, junk food, and celebrity.
The Brant Foundation—which has mounted a focused presentation of Rhoades’s work, including three major installations—has an obvious fondness for those who have at one time or another taken up the mantle of bad boy. Most of the Foundation’s solo exhibitions have showcased men, among them Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Rob Pruitt, Josh Smith, and Dash Snow. And yet the very exclusive environment of the foundation—a converted historic barn in Greenwich, Connecticut, amid polo fields and mansions—has the effect of taming such work, making this ostensibly transgressive male energy seem consequence-free, like little more than titillation for the ultrarich. Rhoades’s premature death in 2006 additionally gives his antics a subtle pallor of loss, and serves to contain the work of an artist who strove to never be contained, and who often made himself present in his own installations. Despite this absence, and beyond the macho role-play, however, Rhoades’s work addresses a timely subject—the confused, postindustrial landscape of California, which has, in the intervening years, come to define American cultural life. Rather than demonstrating a return of the repressed—a strategy more readily identified with Rhoades’s influential teacher at UCLA, Paul McCarthy—the younger artist sought to capture the aftermath of desublimation, tracing the psychodrama of products already in circulation.
In 1995’s My Brother/Brancuzi, first shown at that year’s Whitney Biennial, Rhoades squared the figure of the suburban DIY tinkerer with that of the canonical modernist artist. It’s still exhilarating to see the joy that he took in carefully positioning workaday objects taken from his brother’s wood-paneled bedroom in arrangements that recall famous photographs of Constantin Brancusi’s Paris studio. In place of elegant wooden and stone sculptures and plinths, Rhoades presents a calculated mess of gasoline engines, foam-carpet padding, extension cords, tinfoil, cheap veneer furniture, and endless doughnuts. (The baked goods commemorate a childhood doughnut-business scheme dreamed up by Rhoades’s brother; here they even form a Brancusian “endless column” that reaches into the air.) On the gallery walls, Rhoades placed photographic diptychs juxtaposing images of the two “studios”: In one pairing, his brother stands before a huge fish tank, looking as proud and authoritative as Brancusi amid his sculptures. Piles of Legos in the installation suggest the early joys of the child builder, and the installation as a whole summons the raw, near-universal thrill of fabrication and construction. As in many of Rhoades’s works, he controls the act of looking, in this case forcing viewers to circle an inaccessible center, encouraging them to lose themselves in the detailed drama at the periphery.
When I was ten years old, Jason Rhoades gave me a pump-action air rifle–not strong enough to do any real damage, but summer-defining nonetheless. A few years later, he exhibited a sculpture titled PeaRoe Ramp (from Wastewedge, Part of Impetuous Process, 2002), with Embedded HiFi and Honda XR50 (2003). The ramp was precisely what the long title describes: a bike ramp made of a new material Jason had invented called "PeaRoeFoam" (bright green peas, red fish roe, and small white foam pellets mixed together with glue), with a stereo embedded in it (HiFi). It came with a 50cc miniature Honda dirt bike: a child-sized dirt bike, the kind Jason would have ridden growing up in Northern California.
After the show came down, Jason let me use the little bike all summer. I discovered a hidden path off Otis Lane near my family's house in Bellport, and I rallied around there for months, creating obstacle courses, crashing, and driving again. Then, one day in late August, while I was riding in circles on the lawn, a friend of mine aimed Jason's air rifle at me and fired. I swerved, fell down and became hysterical, screaming incoherently the way children often do when they aren't sure how much pain they're really in. I had a bruise the size of a cherry on my back for weeks.
I never got to tell Jason this story–he died the following summer–but he would have loved it. And in a way, for me, it holds clues to one of the most significant aspects of his work.
Jason loved the seemingly insignificant–chance connections and encounters that present themselves over the course of everyday life. He hunted for them, was always alert to them, and when he found one, he would pour his energy and thought into it until the moment became a system of connections, the system a work of art.
A world furred with bright-pink, hand-knit “pussyhats”; a President who said, “When you’re a star . . . you can do anything” to explain his approach to non-consensual sexual contact; Ivanka’s perfume reaching No. 1 on Amazon; a Muslim ban; a wall—if it were not our political reality in America in 2017, it could be a long-form immersive piece by the late Los Angeles-based artist Jason Rhoades. Infuriatingly provocative, diabolically generative, charismatic, beloved, punkish and yet sincere, Rhoades, who died of an accidental overdose in 2006, at the age of forty-one, was known for producing enormous, messy pieces that ran rough over the tender spots of our fragile national experiment.
At the time of his death, Rhoades had just completed a series cohering around the ideas of the Middle East, Mexico, shopping, and female body parts, including an exhaustive (but forever incomplete) lexicon of “pussy words,” which he fashioned in neon—the medium we use to sell but whose in-lit design has the numinous quality of Tinkerbell. Taken together with the work of his teacher and sometime collaborator Paul McCarthy and his near-contemporary Mike Kelley, Rhoades’s installations stood at the core of what the art critic Jerry Saltz memorably named “clusterfuck aesthetics.” “Whatever the subject—be it bodily fluids, pop culture, or politics—terms that describe this sculptural strategy include grandiose and testosterone-driven,” Saltz wrote. It was an aesthetic formed in Los Angeles, the postmodern megacity defined by combustion engines and soft power. But as #clusterfuck continues to trend and #grabyourwallet (a Rhoades-like term if ever there was one) exerts real force on the consumer marketplace, Rhoades begins to look less like a product of his time and place, and more like a harbinger of this absurd and unforeseeable moment in which nothing is unspeakable.
Unafraid of awkwardness, Rhoades tweaked art-world sensibilities with a relentless energy. As a student, when Nascar was a synonym for political regression, he staged a mini Indy 500, calling it “Young Wight Grand Prix.” (Rhoades spelled like a backwoods William Blake, and had a weakness for puns and breadcrumb-style crossword clues: Milt Young was the director at the Wight Gallery, at U.C.L.A., where the show was held.) The material was often uncomfortably direct. In Rhoades’s first solo show, at David Zwirner’s then-new New York gallery, in 1993, he built a garage workshop, including a homemade basketball hoop, and crammed it with pinup posters, scrap lumber, a fire extinguisher, tin-foil tools, and—so you understood that this was an excavation of a dead culture—a book by Howard Carter on King Tut’s tomb. The sculpture’s heart was a Makita precision drill rigged to a V8 engine, which gave the piece its name, “CHERRY Makita.” Blue-collar semi-rural white male heterosexuality: In a downtown New York gallery in the early nineties, could anything be more inflammatory, more “wrong”?
Since the death of the Los Angeles artist Jason Rhoades in 2006 from an accidental drug overdose and heart disease at 41, his exuberant life has always threatened to overshadow his short career. But Rhoades, a canny student of pop culture, seemed to have anticipated that idea almost from the beginning.
His sculpture and writing were as obsessively self-referential as a celebrity’s Twitter feed. In “Volume A,” a 1998 book, he arranged information about his art and life into a cross-referenced encyclopedia that includes entries on sheep (he raised them as a youth in rural California); the movie “Car Wash” (he was crazy about it but not quite sure why); cocaine; Brancusi; and Bert, his father’s dog, born with an anatomical defect that caused its anus to be almost on its back.
In “Jason Rhoades, Four Roads,” the first American museum survey of his career, which opens on Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Bert the dog reappears as one of hundreds of biographical references in “The Creation Myth,” a room-filling installation that attempts to represent in sculptural form how humanity processes information, forms memories and produces potentially transcendent things like art out of such messy raw material.
The piece, never before seen in the United States, stands as a kind of metaphor for the questions the exhibition is asking about Rhoades’s work in the absence of its creator:
“Do the pieces need Jason to be here to animate them?” Ingrid Schaffner, the institute’s chief curator, said. “Do they stand apart from him and the tragedy of his death? And I think they do. They’re powerfully alive.”
An early practitioner and one of the champions of the form known as scatter art, he made environments composed of Home Depots’ worth of off-the-shelf hardware and electronics, eBay salvage, clothes, pieces cannibalized from other artworks and even food, all of which were assembled with painstaking precision.
This photo was taken during a 1995 visit to Jason Rhoades's studio in Los Angeles. Jason is showing me the two-part sculpture "The Future is Filled with Opportunities." It consists of a motorized kind of scooter with buckets forming a seat, which you can see here, and a part you don't see – two white buckets on top of each other with this weird vibrating, cushioned seat on top. The idea was that while riding the steer, you would try to lasso the seat.
I find the body language so funny. I'm really, like, "What the fuck?!" That's for two reasons. One is that it's a classic studio visit, trying to wrap your head around what the artist is doing. But also, he's telling me, "David, you're gonna ride this thing." He was just coming off his demonstration, and now he's asking me to do it.
Growing up on a farm in rural California, Jason was very active with [the youth organization] 4-H – that stands for head, heart, hands and health – and he did a lot of rodeo riding. He was a very good lassoist (I don't even know if that word exists).
Not many people know how to throw a lasso. He was a smallish, slightly paunchy guy, but he was intensely strong and physical. Most of what he and I did together was talk. Then suddenly you see this person you know very well doing something that is at once athletic and like a circus trick. He had a clear vision of the artist being very special, set apart from the rest of the world. With this piece, he's saying, "You think art is special? I'll show you it's really special. And it's hard. You can't do this."
As for when I got on it, I have a faint memory of making it to the back of the alley that we were standing in before this thing started moving back and forth so extremely that I gave up.
He was really about challenging himself and the viewer, and you bet he was challenging his dealer. I would walk into the studio and think, "I have to show this? How are we going to ship it? Who will want to buy it?" You struggle at the moment, but that's what helps you grow as a dealer.
– As told to Brian Boucher
"By going between places, it will generate things. It’ll snowball, take on a mythology and a history, and then at some point it’ll just stop. And that’ll be it, it’ll be a finished sculpture." —Jason Rhoades
THE MYSTERIOUS “it” in my epigraph is Jason Rhoades’s IMPALA, 1998, the car-cum-sculpture the artist loaded up with cheese and Chanel No. 22,1 drove across Europe, and eventually parked outside the Kunsthalle Zurich, where it remained for the entire busy art month of June. But Rhoades might have been talking about any number of his “sculptures,” not least of all his last and, I am convinced, greatest work: the multi-episode dinner-in-an-installation he staged in a Los Angeles warehouse and christened with the delirious, toxic, altogether Rhoadesian title Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé.
By the time I showed up, the party was over, which, in the Rhoadesian scheme of things, is another way of saying it had turned into a sculpture. Of course, this is not entirely fair, as each work in the expanded field of his art is a sculpture before it is anything else. But this sculpture’s essence—its numen, as the ancients would say—is inseparable from the festivities that filled it with life. When the lights went up on the tenth and, by the artist’s own decree, final soiree, the sculpture was officially finished. That the final good-nights were followed a short month later by Rhoades’s untimely death on August 1, 2006, lends the proceedings a heartbreaking sense of closure, but, in truth, the afterlife of the party had by then already been scripted by the artist. As it happened, I slipped in under the wire: The entire prodigious morning-after mess was about to be packed up and shipped off to New York, where it goes on view this month at David Zwirner Gallery right on time for auction week—just as the artist had planned it.
It is a fact of life, or rather art, that any work with a real-time dimension depends for its existence—or survival—on that old-fashioned compromise: documentation. To this end, Jason Rhoades’ Black Pussy Cocktail Coffee Table Book, complete with an essay by bona fide gossip writer Kevin West (significant for a sculpture that is also a party), is due to show up soon in a bookstore near you. But oral history inevitably plays a part as well; in this case, as I discovered on my belated visit to BP headquarters, a certain Alex Israel is ably tending the flame.
Some swear by Jason Rhoades and his vision. Some just swear. But the artist exacts freedom. The guests arrived one by one, the wealthy art collector and the museum director and the others, all spilling into a 4,000-square-foot L.A. studio filled with tungsten, black lights and piles of paraphernalia from EBay. At first glance, it looked like a haphazard reproduction of a Middle Eastern bazaar.
A variety of objects assaulted the senses: violet neon signs with African, Caribbean, Creole and hip-hop slang words for female genitalia: "cho cha," "chinchilla," "Sea of Tranquility," "clabby," "whim-wham" and "Cape Horn." These terms were perched among 805 Egyptian-made hookah pipes, 556 dream catchers, 180 beaver-felt cowboy hats, 147 gongshi stones from China and Chinese prayer rugs embossed with images of Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears.
Bits of Basquiat reproductions were arranged next to genuine Venetian glass fruit, while imitation Venetian glass fruit made in China was juxtaposed with aluminum replicas of artist Jeff Koons' bunnies. Donkey carts abounded — all of it meant as a loose reference to the pagan idols that Muhammad threw out of the Ka'bah in the 7th century.
If the dozen or so people invited to this private art opening earlier this month felt a little uncomfortable amid the provocative imagery, that's just what their host intended.
"You can push moral lines, you can push emotional buttons," said Jason Rhoades, the artist who held the event — a combination dinner party and interactive art exhibition that he has dubbed "Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé."
"That's why I do what I do," he added, "because it is the supposed absolute freedom of art and what art can be."
The 40-year-old Los Angeles-based sculptor plans to hold a soiree every Thursday night at the Filipinotown studio over the next two months. (Rhoades hasn't exhibited here in 12 years; the last work was an IKEA-inspired exhibit called "Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts" at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery.) His guest list includes a variety of notables from the arenas of art, entertainment and beyond: painter John Baldessari, TV personality Jack Osbourne, actor Dennis Hopper and dozens more.
Some will undoubtedly walk out of the show dismissing it as kitsch — or worse. But many swear by Rhoades and his vision.
"I don't think anyone can hold a candle to him," said Linda Norden, who last year curated the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, one of the biggest and most influential art shows in the world. "I just think the way he orchestrates actual space and imaginary space is kind of incredible.... I love the way you get lost in it."
Getting lost in it, though, can take time. At one point last week, Rhoades and his co-host, art consultant Alex Israel, urged their guests to join in the creative process by attaching a vintage T-shirt to the macramé sculpture hanging on one wall while shouting out a favorite word for the vagina. No one said anything. A few in the room laughed nervously.
Finally, contemporary art collector Rosette Delug tied a scrap of material into the giant twisted web of cotton shirts and the neon sign saying "sweet briar." Then she shouted out in Turkish, "Om!"
Others quickly followed. Meanwhile, on a small stage, a three-person band scat-sang an Ella Fitzgeraldstyle rendition of the idioms being offered up. To the pulsing beat, the partygoers become increasingly bold. One guest fashioned a macramé version of underwear and put them on; another volunteered to tie her own underwear to Rhoades' macramé sculpture.
Soon, mini tuna tacos were brought out with Cajun oyster shots, oddly shaped chocolate truffles, pigs in a blanket, salad, chocolate-covered espresso beans and strawberries, all of it under the banner "International Food Pile."
A bit later, the guests were invited to jump into a glowing white bed, fluffed with pillows. Rhoades held up a canister containing a slippery rubber imitation of female body parts, and the guests came forward to stick their hands inside. "I guess you should try everything once," Keith Boadwee, a Bay Area artist, declared before taking his turn.
Relaxed by now, the guests circled the stage and Rhoades discussed his methods. Since 1993, when he began exhibiting his work after graduating from UCLA, Rhoades has used materials from Home Depot along with reproductions of rare objects.
For his last two exhibits in Europe, "My Madinah" and "Meccatuna," he glued thousands of terry towels to the floor with a phallic glue gun.
"The wonderful thing about this entire experience is it can't be institutionalized," said Annie Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum of Art and one of last week's attendees. "It's free and it's untethered. If you put it in an institution, I think it takes a little bit of the life out of it."
As the night wore on, more music played. The so-called Jewish Elvis, Jelvis, sang "My Blue Suede Yarmulke" and other tunes while clad in a late-era Presley costume adorned with gold Stars of David. He serenaded each woman in the studio before the guests followed Rhoades to his "Shoe-gurt" machine. There, they sampled a soy frozen yogurt substance that the artist says he invented and insisted must be eaten out of a shoe — or, in many a case, knee-high leather boots.
Then the finale. The guests returned to the stage area, and the Chapin Sisters paid tribute to Britney Spears with a plaintive version of "Toxic."
Around midnight, Rhoades bid his guests goodbye. "I'd like to thank the pagan parts in all of us," he said.
Everything goes pop! pop! like bubbles constantly exploding. Here in LA, it's a wasteland, the beginning and end of the world. There's so much garbage but also strange, quiet things I've never found anywhere else. Making bubbles, making foam and this action is my job. The water here contains everything. It's as sick and contaminated as culture is. I stir it up and make it rotten... Warhol and Oldenburg and all those guys, they cut down trees and cleared territory. They made a place where things could happen, and we're all living off that. Culture today is foamy and fluid, and changing all the time. I can constantly move from IKEA to Jamba Juice to under a small shrub in the mountains. Last week I went to Ozzy Ozbourne's Ozzfest, with all those speed metal bands. A huge bunch of angry white people – so pure and low. the parking lot of Ozzfest was one of the most amazing things I've seen for a long time. The beautiful thing about bubbles is that they reflect you and the world. They're so psychedelic. And then they go pop! Warhol's bubble might have deflated a bit, but I don't think people would have let it pop. Or did it without anyone noticing?
– As told to Daniel Birnbaum
Supposedly motivated by a drive to “deconstruct” the nonexistent word “Meccatuna,” Jason Rhoades originally intended to journey to Mecca, circle the ancient, holy cuboid structure at its heart—the Kaaba—in the company of a live bluefin tuna, then bring the fish to New York. This plan frustrated, the Los Angeles–based artist hired a Saudi local to drive to the sacred city, buy a case of Geisha-brand canned tuna, and send evidence of its unprecedented proximity to hallowed ritual back to the gallery. Rhoades takes the documentation in question—a few snapshots of the tins on the back of a truck—as the starting point for his gleefully eccentric assemblage of bought, salvaged, and manufactured objects.
Centered on a one-third scale model of the Kaaba incompletely built from Legos and added to continually during the show, Meccatuna also includes several hundred slang terms for the vagina (“Hair Pie,” “Bermuda Triangle”—the list goes on and on), rendered in multicolored neon tubing tied to Plexiglas panels. These cast a sickly tinted light on a polished aluminum orifice based on the vessel for the Black Stone, a holy relic of Islam, as well as on several life-size fiberglass casts of donkeys, a pile of camel saddles, and a clutch of structures modeled partly in “PeaRoeFoam” (a repellent cocktail of dried peas, fish eggs, and foam beads, into which Rhoades sinks a variety of other objects).
In an article on the artist in these pages, Daniel Birnbaum has claimed Rhoades as “perhaps the most American of contemporary American artists,” agog at his apparently insatiable hunger for ever more indigestible displays of material excess. This maximalist tendency is apparent even in Rhoades’s self-authored press release, which consists of an exhaustive list of the eclectic array of materials (including, in several cases, details of their use in previous installations) poured into the making of the show. While Rhoades’s recycling of his own media and methods might seem more an aimless pileup than a useful part of a “bigger picture,” it has a kind of logic (albeit fuzzy) if considered as a model of the ungovernable process of memory itself. Like unfinished thoughts, ingredients that linger from older works (the Ivory Snow boxes emblazoned with the face of Behind the Green Door star Marilyn Chambers, for example) impose themselves on the argument. And though any “deconstruction” of “Mecca” or “tuna,” of religious tradition or post-Minimalist sculpture, is ultimately secondary to the entertainingly unhinged spectacle at hand, that spectacle, in its uncomfortable juxtaposition of the sacred and profane, is a prodigious (albeit cynical) attempt at a portrait of contemporary American life.
The most memorable show in a while by this excessive slacker bricolagist and techno-installation provocateur picks up testosterone-charged themes and materials he has previously explored.
What he calls PeaRoeFoam consists of dried peas, salmon roe and packaging foam pellets. Among what sprawls through several rooms here are sculptures made of PeaRoeFoam and Ivory Snow detergent boxes.
There are also 1,000 Lego ''Creator'' boxes, each containing 1,000 Lego pieces, totaling one million pieces; five enlarged casts of a petrified camel toe bone found in Florida, which Mr. Rhoades purchased on eBay; various painted automobile tires from a previous installation by Mr. Rhoades; several beat-up donkey carts he acquired in Guadalajara, Mexico; a Honda 2003 XR50 motorcycle; chrome shelves; folding tables; 48 cans of Geisha tuna from Saudi Arabia; 600 small ceramic donkeys with donkey carts; a pile of 20 vintage footstools made from camel saddles; 5 life-size fiberglass casts of donkeys; and several of what Mr. Rhoades calls ''Mecca vulvas,'' which are aluminum casts he designed in the shape of the mount that holds the Black Stone to a corner of the Kaaba, or holy shrine, at Mecca.
Encircling the upper reaches of the walls, like calligraphy in Islamic architecture, and piled on pallets are hundreds of colored neon signs bearing deranged or naughty euphemisms for vagina, continuing the misogynist theme.
A female employee of the gallery has been spending eight hours a day atop scaffolding since the show opened, patiently constructing a one-third-scale model of the Kaaba, which is to say an immense cube, out of all those little Lego pieces.
New world battles old, West battles East. Sex and religion, crudely blended, make an incendiary cocktail, which Mr. Rhoades cheerfully serves up as festive comic spectacle, as if begging for a fight, while suggesting a purely aesthetic motif in the formal comparison of the Minimalist Kaaba to Minimalist sculpture, both as objects of reverence. The results are anything but minimal, and oddly diverting.
In a recent installation, Rhoades recycled materials from a larger presentation in Germany to create to schematic models of Sutter's Miller, ground zero of the 1849 California Gold Rush. The result was his richest meditation to date on consumption and the dreams it inspires.
"The idea came from the cliché of taking it to the next level," Jason Rhoades says of "Perfect World," the colossal installation he created last winter in the Hamburg Deichtorhallen. There, Rhoades split the 22,000 square-foot exhibition space, with 52-foot-high ceilings, into two levels. The "below," freely accessible, was occupied most prominently by highly polished aluminum scaffolding (it referred in part to the false floor constructed for the Deichtorhallen when it was transformed from a train station concourse to a kunsthalle). The other, "above" realm, 25 feet up, was mostly off limits: two brave viewers at a time could be hoisted up to it on a hydraulic ramp, but mainly this area was reserved for the artist. Much was in progress over the course of the exhibition, so a comprehensive view of the work was prohibited in time as well as space, lending the installation a provisional quality that in no way constrained Rhoades's ambitions. If "Perfect World" invoked the memory of Chris Burden hiding in his locker or Vito Acconci lurking under the floor, Michelangelo lying atop scaffolding was not excluded either.
And yet, as always, this massive installation was not quite enough for Rhoades. "If you know my work," he says, "you know that things are never finished." So, this fall at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, Rhoades recycled the aluminum pipes from the Hamburg piece to construct "of perfect world," an installation consisting of two identical Erector Set-like models, roughly life-sized, of the legendary Sutter's Mill. This 19th-century sawmill, built by Swiss immigrant John Sutter to mill lumber for American homesteaders, became the serendipitous point of origin for the California Gold Rush when a chunk of gold was discovered in its tailrace. Metonym for the many deceptive promises of instant, fabulous wealth that drove this country's development, the short-lived Gold Rush soon led to the demise of the mill itself, and subsequently to the loss of Sutter's own fortune.
Similarly, at Zwirner, one or another of the shiny aluminum models, each in a separate room, was always in a state of deconstruction, the disassembly of its parts starting as soon as it was complete. Evidence of this labor, including rags for buffing the aluminum, backpacks filled with hardware and wooden racks for storing the decommissioned pipes, was on display, along with flat-screen video monitors showing slowly changing images of the installation at the Deichtorhallen. Also shown on flat-screen monitors was documentation of a performance, for friends and family back home, in which a wooden model of the mill was built and unbuilt in a single day: participants dressed in period costume.
An additional element of both the New York and Hamburg installations relates to the vegetable garden that Rhoades's father maintains California, near the site of the original Sutter's Mill. Roughly 3,000 1-to-1-scale photographs of the garden papered the wood floor of the "above" level at the Deichtorhallen (which is roughly the same size as the garden). These photographs also appeared at Zwirner – partially covering the wooden platforms on which the aluminum mills stood, stitched into handmade paper sun hats draped over handmade shovels that leaned in the corner of each room, and slowly dissolving on two flat-screen monitors. Rhoades compares the garden to the Gold Rush: "It could be that you came one day and there is nothing, and the next day, there is a tomato. This always fascinated me about the gold discovery myth," he says. But the admittedly weedy, unkempt garden also raises the question of what is deliberate and what circumstantial in Rhodes's work. In "of perfect world," he cultivates chaos less than is his wont; this is much the tiediest, most coherent installation he has made so far. But he continues to make unpredictable choices about what is constructed and what bought (why the rather crude handmade shovels, for instance?) and to court ambiguity about whether what we see is part of the work or an incidental accessory (metal folding chairs in each room at Zwirner, for instance, could have been either).
This indeterminacy extends to the work's physical characteristics: "of perfect world" was shiny, irresistible and expensive-looking, but never completely or reliably "there." Rhoades explains that he favors the chromelike "hot-rod esthetic" for the same reason that he admires Brancusi's stainless-steel and bronze sculptures: they are polished to a finish so reflective they seem to nearly vanish. He also explains that he rejects that part of the Minimalist legacy that stands as a last line of defense for the sufficiency and necessity of concrete objects. Hence, in his own work, the tendency toward disappearance that reaches paradoxically epic proportions at the Deichtorhallen and at Zwirner; hence also the largely invisible (to all but the most intrepid viewers) nature of the Hamburg installation's upper realm. But there was risk there for the artist as well. Conceding that "Perfect World's" jerry-built upper level was riddled with death-dealing "cracks, traps and soft spots," Rhoades says, "In a perfect world you don't build a handrail."
The bad-boy posture, which includes an inclination to dwell on fast cars and babes, is no small part of Rhoades's mystique (or notoriety: the American press has not been especially kind to him, though a warmer reception overseas suggests that some Europeans still relish the brutish in things American). Of course, the inclination to provoke (or insult) has ample recent precedent, especially in West Coast art, the work of Rhoades's teacher, Paul McCarthy, being a case in point. But Rhoades's misbehavior has occasionally pushed the envelope – for instance, at the 1993 Cologne "Unfair" (an alternative to Cologne's official Art Fair), where he re-created an American country fair ("Fair Blur"), with stalls devoted to the Gold Rush. "Fully entering into this role as the go-for-broke Westerner," critic Russell Ferguson reports, "Rhoades repeatedly fired a gun in his installation, smashing a number of beer glasses. He caused panic outside the fair when he pulled out the gun in a Cologne bar, later going on to shoot out some shop windows and streetlights." Says Rhoades, "Artists have shit on people for thousands of years. It's like throwing rocks off the overpasses of a freeway."
There is not much to like in this kind of aggression, even if it's mostly bluster. But, to revive a term that has quickly grown quaint, the transgressive inclination in Rhoades's character is elsewhere manifest in more interesting ways, perhaps above all in his engagement with the legacy of Duchamp. In discussing "Perfect World" Rhoades more than once refers to Duchamp's 1942 "First Papers of Surrealism" installation, which encumbered an otherwise conventional exhibition with a mile of string (out of 16 originally purchased), fashioned into a disordered web between walls and ceiling. This seminal bit of mischief is clearly reflected in the roughly five miles of pipe with which Rhoades filled (obstructed?) the ground floor of the Deichtorhallen. Just as important to both the Hamburg and New York installations, though, is Rhoades's own interpretation of the object-trouvé tradition, which from Duchamp forward has involved items plucked from well-established use and renamed art. By contrast, Rhoades (like others in his generation, though he is perhaps exemplary) has shown himself to be altogether uninterested in materials with a past. He doesn't redirect everyday items from working lives to estheticized leisure, and he certainly isn't interested in objects that have accrued personal and social history. Particularly in earlier, more freewheeling installations, Rhoades's primary artistic gesture consisted, conspicuously, of consumption (mostly of merchandise at such warehouse stores as Home Depot, Costco and Ikea); the role he usurped was not the Conceptualist one of critic (which ultimately derives from Duchamp), but rather that of collector. It is the circulation of goods through systems dominated by cash, not theory, that captured his imagination.
The success of the Zwirner installation is that it takes this idea much further, historically, thematically and formally, than Rhoades has previously done. The perpetual construction and disassembly of the gleaming mill, apt symbol for the vicissitudes of fortune-hunters everywhere, is a generous metaphor, too, for the general tendency of things to break down – or, more positively, break out – a theme remarkably widespread in new art work this season. Rhoades concedes to a Doctor Evil element in his installations; witness the scaled-up Mephisto-brand shoe box, containing plexi-mounted drawings, that was part of the Zwirner exhibition. But he also says, credibly, that he is a Romantic and an optimist. "It's not about breaking the bank, it's just about pushing things to the limits. All the pieces are a bit short. They are always a bit unfulfilled to me." Hard to believe. But it is the dreamer in Rhoades that is most apparent, and appealing, in this recent work.