Meccatuna, PeaRoeFoam, Tijuanatanjierchandelier. Jason Rhoades’s exhibition titles are an instant gateway to the artist’s obsession with language. For him, words could express humor, critique, transgression, identity—an endlessly compelling and adaptable device. Treating language as an index of culture and an experimental ground, Rhoades gathered words, invented his own terms, and often included English dictionaries in his work. Sometimes controversial and always idiosyncratic, Rhoades’s linguistic playfulness extends into the very fabric of his installations. Tijuanatanjierchandelier, currently on view at the gallery in New York, is filled with Spanish and English slang for female genitalia rendered as glowing neon signs—taboo words and phrases visualizing the “pornographic” excess of information in a media-saturated age (Rhoades, who died in 2006, was always ahead of his time).
One might imagine language moving through Rhoades’s work like a vehicle through Los Angeles, where the car culture deeply inspired him, cruising through an accumulation of contexts, meanings, slogans, and slang, colliding to form hybrids, changing and evolving. “Language is plastic,” the critic and curator Ingrid Schaffner writes; “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.”
Compiled in connection with the succinctly titled exhibition Jason Rhoades: The Purple Penis and the Venus (Installed in the Seven Stomachs of Nürnberg) as Part of the Creation Myth at Kunsthalle Nürnberg in 1998, A Rhoades Referenz is a glossary of terms, some accompanied by drawings or photographs, that was conceived with the artist as a tool to help understand his installations.
Describing the book “as a sort of prosthetic for what he would have said about the work,” Rhoades’s friend and fellow artist Julien Bismuth explained in conversation with the gallery how “the Referenz is great, because in my mind it’s the clearest encapsulation of how he thought about his work, that he had these nodes of explanations, and they cohabited in the same place, and you could structure and restructure them in different networks. It’s very open and fluid.”
Here, just a few examples from the Referenz, with uniquely Rhoades-ian takes on terms such as “Evolution,” “Gesture,” “Dialogue,” and “The Artist”:
Cover image: Jason Rhoades, drawing from A Rhoades Referenz, 1998