[September 21 2018]
JASON RHOADES, AMERICAN ARTIST
: Do you think of your work as a self-perpetuating machine?
: Yeah, when it runs perfectly. My work has to have information to feed on. It doesn’t feed on itself. It doesn’t feed into some bathtub conception of art. I never sit in a bathtub and come up with ideas.
—Jason Rhoades in conversation with Bernard Elsmere and Mark Sanders, Dazed & Confused, August 1998
As Paul Schimmel astutely observed to the writer of the Los Angeles Times’s August 2006 Jason Rhoades obituary, “The amalgam or juxtaposition of seemingly arbitrary elements, which Rhoades was as adept at exploring and then quickly stockpiling, exemplifies the experience one might have while surfing the internet.” This characterization is as true of such early Rhoades installations as CHERRY Makita (1993) and Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts (1994)—works produced before the mass internet age, prior even to dial-up—as it is of the later, massive and grotesquely intricate Rhoades works such as Meccatuna (2003) and Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret (2006).
Although Ryan Trecartin is widely considered the avatar of the internet age, with his highly performed and reflexive, anarchic and gender-blurred videos, what Schimmel describes is a binarized process of association, capable of infinite splitting, that does and does not originate from a human mind. From Jason the Mason (1991), Rhoades’s first installation, produced at UCLA while he was still a graduate student—which featured (among other things) an air-powered ejaculation of detergent from the penis of a small doughlike figure toward a sculpture of Venus— through the pussy harvest, frozen yogurt boot feedings, and hot wax ejaculations of Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret, Rhoades’s prodigious work has always been intensely physical, gleefully vulgar, “offensive,” yet at the same time as affectless as the demeanor of an idiot savant or made-for-TV serial killer.
While working with Rhoades on his important 1998 exhibition at the Nürnberg Kunsthalle (titled The Purple Penis and the Venus (Installed in the Seven Stomachs of Nurnberg) as Part of the Creation Myth) the curator Eva Meyer-Hermann had the inspired idea of producing an encyclopedia of this encyclopedic artist’s already dense, heavily cross-referenced lexicon. VOLUME A Rhoades Referenz is not so much an “artist’s book” as it is a textual manifestation of the linings of the artist’s mind. For example: the entry for ASS-HOLE (“Body part; A vulgar term”) cross-references five other entries, including The Body; Bert; Rhoades Construction; Creation Myth, and Smoke, all of which in turn cross-reference dozens of other Rhoades myths, objects, and icons.
Brilliantly, VOLUME parodies Rhoades’s process, but also serves as a guide to a body of work that, in its relentless mixing of “low” cultural signifiers through channels of algebraic complexity, has been sometimes misread as “post-scatter art” or “Rhoadesian crud.” As Meyer-Hermann explains in her intro- duction, “Jason Rhoades’s work forms chains of . . . crystallizations . . . Like some complex, neuronal net, his work has been a web of associations from the outset and has now become so dense that it is difficult to isolate details.”
American artist, American psycho. Rhoades was born in 1965, at the end of the mid-twentieth century, when the proliferation of image and consumer culture had already subsumed and come to define American consciousness. His intent was never to offer something so futile as a “critique of consumerism.” Rather, his genius was to plunge into the heart of the image-flow and feedback the experience of pure information, demonstrating in the process how thought triggers thought, leaving only material traces. Clearly, Rhoades was two decades ahead of his time. His installations are ontological shaggy-dog stories wherein each part of the story is equally weighted. As the writer Trinie Dalton summarized Meccatuna, his 2003 epic:
A baroque investigation into the history of Islam as a mode of questioning ideas of idolatry within a materialist, celebrity- based American culture. In lieu of his original plan to send a live tuna on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Rhoades presented canned tuna with documentation of its presence in the holy city along- side a scaled Lego replica of the Ka’bah, fiberglass donkeys, two hundred neon pussy word signs, and his self-manufactured building material, PeaRoeFoam. This substance, made of light green dried peas, “virgin” Styrofoam beads, and bright red salmon eggs bonded in with adhesive, was packaged in replicated 1970s Ivory Snow soapboxes bearing an advertising image of the then soon-to-be-porn star Marilyn Chambers, giving the invented material a feminine connotation at once maternal and sexualized.
—Catalogue, Whitney Biennial 2008
The history of Islam, lawn ornaments, dried peas, and urban legends of American porn stars are recast as generative integers. Each element exists for itself and simultaneously as a link in an associative chain.
Cady Noland is arguably one of Rhoades’s closest precursors. The impact of Noland’s installations upon Rhoades’s generation of artists cannot be overemphasized. Seeing Noland’s collection of beer cases, chain link, and redneck debris entitled This piece doesn’t have a title yet installed at the 1991 Whitney Biennial was a watershed moment for many young, soon-to-be artists. Blunt and aggressive, composed of violence and low-culture paraphernalia, as if this paraphernalia were part of a larger and universal language, Noland’s installations opened a door toward art that might look the way America looks like outside of its museums and major cities.
No coyness about this: no pandering, no clueless embrace of trash culture as “pop.” And yet Noland, nearly a decade older than Rhoades, sought a kind of meaning and demystification through her installations. Studying violence and psychopathic behavior rather than losing herself in the blur, Noland remained highly aware of cause and effect, i.e., aware of class, power, and politics. As she remarked in a conversation with Michelle Cone, “You consume all of these celebrities each week, then you turn them into trash. This trashing helps to dampen people’s anger over their situation or their place in the hierarchy . . .”
But in viewing Rhoades’s work (which began to be professionally shown just two years later), no such explanations seem possible, or even desirable. Rhoades’s project was, at least partly, to enact a self-immersion in an overload of cultural detritus— Image/Religion/History/Meaning/Sex/Physical Culture—to an extreme point at which connections between things became visibly animate. As his friend and collaborator the artist Alex Israel observed, “Jason was like a magician. It was as if all the things between the objects were as important as anything physical. There were the cars early on, and all that Americana . . . that was just stuff that was available, he came from a rural upbringing. But what he was most into was finding the glow or the magic.”
Born in Newcastle, California, a small town thirty-one miles west of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Jason Rhoades was, according to his mom, Jackie Rhoades, “a 4-H kid who raised sheep and pigs” and charmed his way through school.
Rhoades spent two years in New York and Europe after receiving his San Francisco Art Institute B.A., and things apparently came into focus for him when he moved to L.A. to study with Paul McCarthy in UCLA’s MFA program.
According to his fellow student, the critic Doug Harvey, “[Rhoades] was a ferociously ambitious and competitive artist— in both his art making and his careerism—and he enjoyed pissing people off. For one quarterly review he offered to jack- hammer anyone’s initials into the floor of the Warner grad studios for $5 a letter—the resulting cacophony virtually nullified the possibility of civil critical discourse anywhere in the building. Perhaps anticipating the complaints, Jason also provided an endless flow of delicious, freshly pulped carrot juice from a blow-up sex doll equipped with a spigot.”
Paul McCarthy and Richard Jackson, another faculty artist, introduced this unusual student to their galleries (David Zwirner in New York and Rosamund Felsen in Los Angeles, respectively). Contributing greatly to the department’s later prestige as the “hot” MFA program, Rhoades would have one-person shows at both galleries within his first two years out of art school.
“Richard [Jackson] never asked me to go see any of his student’s work except for Jason,” Felsen recalls. “Richard thought he was the greatest artist. When I went to see his first installation, Jason the Mason (UCLA, 1991), I knew immediately he was someone important. I remember being impressed that there was an energy and intelligence there, a new approach to art making. He wasn’t just making an object. It was a whole concept. Ambition was a big part of it. I remember thinking, This is the real deal.”
By then Rhoades had already married his fellow student, the artist Rachel Khedoori, whose background as the child of Iraqi immigrant parents provided Rhoades with a parallel heritage. Beginning in 1991, he evoked the Mideast in his UCLA installation More Moor Morals and Morass. He would continue to do so for the next fifteen years. If, as Rhoades’s assistant Rick Baker suggests, the artist “regarded the world’s perception of him as an artistic medium . . . to be manipulated just to see what might happen,” it should come as no surprise that Rhoades’s engagement with all things Islamic increased after 911, when the very mention of “Islam” became as provocative and polarizing as Rhoades’s “search” for the ultimate vagina synonym across history and cultures.
In More Moor, Rhoades dressed up in a nude fat man suit and set up a raffle and sale of paper-crafted “Oriental rugs” in a parking lot near UCLA. The piece was concerned with, among other things, commerce and religious belief: two vital, enormously generative conceptual blocks within the Rhoades lexicon. From the history of Islam—which began with Mohammed’s destruction of 360 pagan idols housed in the Ka’bah—to the confluence of religion and early commerce, to the reinvention of pagan idols as celebrity culture with its White Virgins (ca. 2006, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Mary-Kate Olsen, who actually attended one of Rhoades’s Black Pussy soirées). Sex, which would be a constant element in Rhoades’s breathlessly cerebral work, connects with religion via creation and The Creation Myth . . . the subtitle of Rhoades’s 1998 Ghent exhibition in which “a tor- rent of images from various sources—everyday life, the artist’s work and life at a very basic physical level (PORNOGRAPHY)— constitutes the reality that engages in multiple interaction with the terrain.”
In his first commercial exhibition, CHERRY Makita (Honest Engine Work), presented at David Zwirner New York in the fall of ’93, Rhoades hewed close to a constellation of myths drawn from his own cultural background. Old West, Gold West, Deranged Loner, Gold Dust, Cocaine, Faded Star Racer, Low Level Coke Dealer . . .
The recreation of CHERRY Makita for the New Museum’s recent NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star exhibition gave American viewers a rare chance to see Rhoades’s work, which until now has, since his death, inexplicably faded from art-critical narrative. But time is on the work’s side. Occupying most of the first room on the third floor, CHERRY Makita looked just as witchy and troubling as it must have looked two decades ago. Unlike most contemporary art—and particularly installations—Rhoades’s work looks far better in life than it does in the documentation. None of the photos of CHERRY Makita begin to convey the cerebral and queasy encounter that the installation enacts on the viewer.
CHERRY Makita is, principally, an unfinished 6’ x 8’ garage/shed overflowing with stuff, although off-camera circumstances seem to have required the addition of several haphazard annexes: a rabbit hutch in front of one exterior wall, an unfinished drywall shelf set on another. Cheap white plastic trash bags piled outside the door contain unknown materials. There’s also a basketball hoop; a dead, headless sheep; and, inside the shed, some topless calendar pin-ups, a still from the 1968 film Paint Your Wagon, some tinfoil sculptures, and a tool belt. More or less at the heart of this excavation is the famous Makita itself, a small electric drill powered by a Chevy 350 engine. Although CHERRY Makita was initially read as an incomplete “critique of masculinity,” twenty years later it is clear that the work enacts something much deeper and stranger. It is Rhoades’s most autobiographical work, and the only one of his installations to present a single, albeit multifaceted, persona or character. The “Man in the Garage” who ostensibly built and inhabits this space is, variously, a studio artist who attended “art school”; a retired race-car driver turned handy- man, plummeting down into the ranks of the self-underemployed; and a counterfeiter and/or low-level coke dealer.
These “identities,” or maybe “moods,” prompt and mutate into one another. But to describe CHERRY Makita as a meditation on gender identity would be to strangely ignore the visceral sense of fragmentation and psychic chaos Rhoades feeds back from the culture through the remains left by this individual. Initially repelled by CHERRY Makita, Johanna Drucker revisited the garage and discovered that “The most conspicuous aspect of CHERRY Makita is its devaluation of labor . . . Nonwork, lack of work, lack of craft, lack of skill—these become the subject of an art piece . . . At the same historical moment, the values of real work, craft and skill were under attack in the economy of real production.” Looking back two decades through the cracked lens of this installation, one might recall that at the same time as organized labor was being eliminated and factory production outsourced to lower-wage countries, the phenomenon of “recovered memory” and “multiple personalities” was sweeping through American self-help and popular culture. At the same time Rhoades was conceiving CHERRY Makita, the editors of the DSM IV were adding DID (disassociative identity disorder) to this clinical encyclopedia of diagnosable, treatable psychiatric disorders. Published in 1994, the DSM IV describes DID as “a lack of a single unified identity.” The subject, lacking a single, unified identity, comes to rely upon multiple, disparate identities “as centers of information processing.” “Personality,” for those suffering with DID, can never be “whole” or “authentic.” The “multiples” of DID sufferers are disparate patterns of thought, feelings, moods, and behaviors that pulse through the individual.
The clinical definition of DID perfectly narrates this installation. To view CHERRY Makita is to receive psychic feedback from an uneasy stroll through the Old West Suburban Small- Town Handyman Loner image bank that describes swaths of that era’s American culture. A Schematic Drawing, hung on the museum wall behind the garage, traces the erratic trajectory of the Man in the Garage:
I take Job
As Fleet mecanic
For a Company Named
Bella McDina America Christmas bonus
Garage. Finds small Jobs, Freelances, and Becomes more of a Loner and spends More time in the Garage.
Makes connections to Do Drug Dealing
Deals coke Deals coke
Becomes so nonchalant about
Dealing and prossessing of cocaine
That it covers everything and De—– Him and this; He Doesn’t think people see it. And
Makes a featal effort to control it But
The working on the power (Engine) The internal explosion of the engine The Honesty of an “engine” mechanic
The honest of Blue collar The trust of a family businss
Neighbor: I Believe Jason can work on my engine Internally Because He is a Honest and Hard working young man
Art School Free Youth
. . . Frist Asses the phrase “use what you have”
For the First time
I discover that my
Fathers tools are important To me as Being From my Father not Just tools.
In CHERRY Makita, the vibration of the Makita drill cutting through Sheetrock creates a cocaine-like white dust that wafts down onto the Man in the Garage, who is otherwise absorbed in his work with an intense concentration that seems drug induced. The white rain of cocaine mirrors the gold dust that seeps through saloon floorboards in the overwrought Hollywood musical Paint Your Wagon. Set not far from Rhoades’s childhood home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Paint Your Wagon featured a drunken Lee Marvin, the young Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg, who, eleven years later, would overdose on barbiturates after being smeared by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which targeted her for donations made to the Black Panther Party.
Six months later, Rhoades produced his first Los Angeles gallery installation, Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts, at Rosamund Felsen. Inspired by the shade of yellow Felsen had painted the outside of her Santa Monica building, Swedish Erotica was as disassociative as CHERRY Makita, albeit more cheerfully. Felsen recalls Rhoades’s original proposal to arrange auto parts pulled from a $400 used Fiero. At the same time, he was equally interested in IKEA, both as craft and corporate ethos. (Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad famously sought to “make daily life better for people” with his mass-produced modernist furniture.) When Felsen casually mentioned that the gallery building had once housed Tom Kelley’s Red Velvet photography studio—the site of the nude Marilyn Monroe portrait that features the actress on a velvet bed—Rhoades remembered a Monroe-like photograph of his mother, taken when she was a young woman. Rhoades’s mother was blond—a color that is not only yellow, but quintessentially Swedish, and that coincidentally forms part of the title of a popular soft-porn Swedish film of the ’60s, I am Curious (Yellow). As Felsen recalls, the space was still empty one day before the show’s opening: “Jason said, don’t worry—I’ll come in, and we’ll work all night, and it will be done the next morning. But it was a big space . . . forty-four hundred square feet. But by the time I came in, at ten the next day, the whole place was filled and done perfectly. All of the ‘Swedish’ furniture covered with yellow legal paper. When you walked in, there was a bedroom set, kitchen stuff, bookshelves, washers and dryers, everything you can think of that you can find at Ikea was there, but he’d made it from card- board and wood and covered it with legal paper. It looked exactly perfect.” The yellow Fiero ended up outside in the parking lot. As Felsen recalls, “David Zwirner came, and he bought it.”
In subsequent years, the association/disassociation in Rhoades’s work exponentially multiplied, both inside and out of the studio. Often, these dovetailed associations were as much the product of L.A.’s obscure, layered history as of Rhoades’s own process. In a sense, Rhoades’s associative drift mirrors L.A.’s urban landscape, which, through the ’90s, reeked of histories abandoned more than erased.
The gallerist Brian Butler of 1301PE recalls producing Blue Room and Love Seat, the 1995 Jason Rhoades multiple featuring a large inflatable tent made of blue tarp, and A.B.S. Gun with Pom Fritz Choke and Aqua Net, elements used in his 1994 PIG (Piece in Ghent) installation. Each multiple in the 1301PE edition was named for a different California national park. Butler says he never knew why, but he recalls that while taking some photo documentation in the Santa Monica Mountains, they stumbled upon the old Peter Strauss Ranch. The Strauss ranch—not far from the Malibu Hills site of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1961 Shooting performance—would become the venue for Butler’s Jason Rhoades/Jorge Pardo collaborative installation-performance called Ranch. Staged over two days in October 1996, Ranch, according to Butler, was “mostly a bunch of people hanging around eating and drinking,” although it also included nightgowns designed by Pardo’s mother, audience minibike racing, and wheels fabricated by V’ketah, an astrologer/numerologist who was Rachel Khedoori’s cousin. But most important (at least to Rhoades), the Strauss ranch was originally owned by Harry Miller, an early auto-industrialist who invented the super carburetor.
“Jason was fascinated by that history,” Butler recalls. “And also by the second part, which was that during the Depression, Miller had to sell the property. After that, it became ‘Lake Enchanto.’ But Jason found out that when Miller owned it, he had monkeys there, monkeys running around, and draftsmen working there, outside in the yard, drawing cars.” Harry Miller was friendly with the Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, one of the denizens of the Jack Parsons group that gathered in Par- sons’s Pasadena house on Orange Grove Avenue. (Rhoades himself, at the time, was living nearby in the old Walter Hopps house, also on Orange Grove Avenue. The founder of Ferus Gallery, Hopps figures largely in twentieth-century L.A. art lore.)
Describing their mid-’90s collaborations, Butler observes, “The thing about Jason was how successful he was at turning all these ideas into something coherent. In the beginning, he had all these complicated ideas in his head; he kept finding more and more and more . . .When it came to his collaboration with Jorge, Jason was definitely the driver, going about 100 mph, and Jorge was the passenger, saying Jason, Pull over, we’re having lunch. By then, Jason already had a vocabulary that was coalescing. What I liked was the way Jorge disrupted Jason’s comfort. By slowing things down, in a funny way, Jorge was changing it. That was the difference between Jason’s collaborations with Jorge, and with Paul McCarthy. Jason and Paul were both speeding beyond a hundred miles an hour. Already, by the time Jason collaborated with Raymond Pettibon in ’99, things were really out of control. All this crazy folklore started building up around the work.
“Everybody,” Butler concludes, “has their own opinion about the decline of Jason Rhoades. I think the art world consumed him.”
I always imagine all these nymphs will come and stay so I can become a polygamist and just live in the strange fucked-up world that I have. I just think of something, and have it become reality.
—Jason Rhoades as quoted by Heimir Björgúlfsson in “Charisma Catcher,” Artnet 2006
In 2005 Alex Israel moved back to L.A. from London, planning to help Rhoades produce Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret, an installation that would involve human and real-time material. Israel had not yet begun showing his artwork. The two met at Hauser and Wirth, where Israel did administrative work. As Israel recalls, “Jason was frustrated he hadn’t had a show in L.A. for so long. He was separated from his wife, and he wasn’t getting along with a lot of his old L.A. art friends. He wanted to reengage with the city, but his studio was all the way out on Rosemead [in East Pasadena]. He wanted to reach the west side as well. In a way, Jason saw Black Pussy as a way to improve his social life, and make something on his terms, without any art critics.”
When Israel agreed to cohost what would become ten highly curated evenings, Rhoades had already acquired the large storefront space at 3113 Beverly Boulevard, a derelict stretch about a mile south of hip, upscale Silver Lake. Hauser and Wirth was going to show Black Pussy in London the following year, and Rhoades saw this as a chance to create an installation composed not only of objects but of animate energies. As Israel says, “Jason wanted to do something he could live in and with. He wanted the luxury of being able to work on something over a long period of time: work on it, live in it, and invite people in.” Israel knew people from various cultures throughout the city. His conversations with Rhoades centered on who they’d invite, what the evenings would be like, and how the space would be used.
Beginning in January 2006, Rhoades divided the Beverly storefront into areas and devised certain activities that would result in the accretion of objects and photos and art. Following My Medinah (2004), Black Pussy was to be the concluding work of his “pussy trilogy,” but really—although the highlight of each evening’s proceedings was the “harvesting” of new “pussy words” suggested by guests—Rhoades’s greater ambition was to capture his guest’s “charisma” and fold it into the larger work.
As Israel says, “With Black Pussy, it felt like it was all happening in an organic way. The macramé [a group warm-up activity] got much bigger because people would add to it, and the photo pool [party pictures developed and printed on-site by a naked technician] got bigger too. The whole idea of having the parties was to finish the sculpture, which would be finished only by activating it. I booked the bands. All kinds of people attended—Kenny Scharf, Jay McIntyre, Vidal Sassoon, Pamela Des Barres, Alexandra Kerry (John Kerry’s daughter), Mary-Kate Olsen . . . We had ten events, spread over six months. Jason believed the project would end when the sculpture was finished.
I asked Alex Israel how he would know that, and he replied, “When it had charisma.”
In a sense, the work was conceived to never be finished.
The artist Nathan Danilowicz, who served as BPC’s naked darkroom technician, has since described the Black Pussy evenings in the most Rhoadesian way:
Dionysian orgies where outlandish machines and props do what they aren’t designed to do, namely become sexually charged organs. Donuts are made but not eaten, leaf blowers give “blow jobs,” a drill is turned on but nothing happens, turning into something else. Rhoades injected his rebellious instincts into useful, yet used-up objects, making them his tools of liberation . . . inverting and re-inflating the habitual uselessness of things. Just like an orgy in the dark, doing what and whom you are not supposed or even want to be doing, using/sharing/being used—thanks to a host of incubi, familiars, or other uplifting vehicles.
Writing in ArtUS after Rhoades’s death, Danilowicz compared the artist’s work to the Japanese video game Katamari Damacy, in which a Japanese prince sets out to rebuild the world by rolling a magical adhesive ball around the earth’s surface until the ball is so large it turns into a star.
Discussing Jason Rhoades’s work in his Guardian obituary, Jerry Saltz suggested that “there is a sense in which Rhoades art resembles not so much sculpture as dance—once the dancer is gone, it disappears too . . . It may be difficult for those who come to get an adequate idea of what he did.” Or maybe not. As Alex Israel says, Rhoades was intent on “creating something bigger than anything physical.”
The intensity of this cannot be missed when viewing the work as it was installed.
“Social Practices” will be published by Semiotext(e) on October 30th, 2018.