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.