Jason Rhoades: Everything is Everything

The taboo-shattering LA installation artist is the subject of a major gallery retrospective, and striking a chord with a new generation, a decade after his death.

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Jason Rhoades
“My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…,” 2004, Jason Rhoades, Mixed media, Dimensions variable
Installation view, ‘Jason Rhoades. My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…,’ Hauser & Wirth Collection Lokremise, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2004. ©The Estate of Jason Rhoades
Photo: courtesy the estate, Hauser & Wirth and visvid Zwirner

Of all the artists of his generation to be having a popular renaissance right now, Jason Rhoades is perhaps the most unlikely, and the most perfect. He died at the age of 41 in 2006, when most of his new fan base was still in high school; ckt the real world we inhabit today has come to bear a striking resemblance to the world Rhoades created in his art, and they recognize it not as transgressive but as familiar. Also, Instagram. Instagram comes up a lot in the currency of the artist’s vision and legacy, and features heavily in theories as to what is making millennials queue up for long waits to get into his shows, like the current one at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, organized by Paul Schimmel.

Regarding his penchant for rampant consumerism, multi-sensory simultaneity, architecturally and performatively engaged sculptural installations punctuated with digital media, illicit sexuality, operatic, macho decadence, sentimental autobiography, and neon, neon, neon, what was considered both socially and aesthetically transgressive during Rhoades’ lifetime is now seen as not only mainstream, but even nostalgic. His preoccupation with systems of information production and dissemination, as embodied by the extreme manufacture and accumulation of domestic and industrial objects, both echoed the old analog world and prefigured the social media frenzy of the digital age. The impressively, overwhelmingly immersive wonderment of these freakishly photogenic installations themselves is in no way diminished by the realization that since they were made, we have achieved daily living in an actual world that seems made in their image.

At Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles (currently through May 21) are six sprawling installations made between 1994 and 2006—almost the entire span of Rhoades’ professional career. Only one—Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts—was shown previously in LA, at what turned out to be his first and until now only solo gallery exhibition here. “Swedish Erotica” opened in 1994 at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in West Hollywood, immediately following his inclusion in two group shows at her space, as well as his participation via David Zwirner in the Cologne “Unfair”, and his debut solo show, “CHERRY Makita– Honest Engine Work” at Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery—all of which had happened in 1993, the same year he got his MFA.

Jason Rhoades
“My Brother / Brancuzi,” 1995, Jason Rhoades, mixed media
Installation view, ‘Jason Rhoades. Installations, 1994 – 2006’
Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
© The Estate of Jason Rhoades. Courtesy: private Collection, Switzerland

It was a year that Felsen recalls with clarity. “I remember the very moment!” she says, of meeting Rhoades at UCLA, where he was finishing his MFA. “Richard Jackson and Paul McCarthy were teaching at UCLA. Richard had never asked me to meet one of his students before, so I thought, oh boy well I’d better go—and he was absolutely right.” She saw something called Jason the Mason, a man-sized brick dome based on his childhood nickname. “He was in there talking and working,” Felsen recalls. “He was so together, so much more worldly and sophisticated about art than most 21 year-olds. I was incredibly impressed and that was that.” Ralph Rugoff was going to be curating; I told him about Jason, he went and was equally impressed. Ralph did two group shows with me that both featured his work.”

David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth came through the second show, “Going Downstairs Diagonally.” Zwirner had heard about Rhoades from Paul McCarthy, and like Rosamund, took the advice and made the pilgrimage. Zwirner and Wirth showed him twice in 1993 and have been working with him, and now, his estate, ever since. In a way, it’s fitting that Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles should be the venue for Rhoades’ first proper solo show here since then; but it’s also ironic, because it was precisely the whisking away of the artist to all points East Coast and Europe in the considerable Hauser & Wirth orbit that made his career supernova and kept him away from home all that time. Although in fairness, Rhoades himself had mixed feelings about exhibiting here as well. In a 2000 lecture at Weber State University, he told the audience, perhaps in jest, “I live in Los Angeles. I don’t show in Los Angeles. I’m not interested in competing with Hollywood.”

But back in 1994, “Swedish Erotica” almost sold out. It had been inspired by the distinctive yellow exterior of the gallery, in turn inspired by her then-gallery staffer Frank Lloyd’s yellow Ford pickup. “Jason was very taken with the color too, and bought this Fiero and painted it that color and all the stuff inside was yellow, in a direct IKEA reference. Plus his mother was also Swedish, blonde, very attractive… so it all came together that way.” Rhoades described a similar inspiration. “I wanted to make a monochrome work that had to do with the outside of the gallery being the sculpture that you walk into. You go into the gallery and you’re inside the sculpture and then there’s other sculptures inside the sculptures, so that you kind of keep on going, like how IKEA works. Within IKEA there are furniture set-ups and then there’s individual pieces of furniture…” Felsen recalls that when it was time for the show, “Jason came in at 6 PM, stayed all night with one or a few helpers and when we came in at 9 AM it was done and impeccable. It was a huge space. It was like walking through IKEA aisles, where they suck you in, lure you further, get you lost deliberately, steer you through a series of vignettes like miniature stage sets, orderly and specific.” She admits to being somewhat nonplussed by what she sees as a muddled installation of the piece as it now sits at Hauser & Wirth. “It leaves you wondering if can you go in or not and where to start and how to proceed; it is not clear, not like it ought to be. It does not encourage becoming part of the experience in the way Jason intended.”

Of course the main thing that all his work had in common was the artist’s presence, either in effigy, in evidence, or, most often, in person. As such, questions about the process of restaging the pieces linger. Rick Baker (who managed the artist’s studio and now his estate), explains that, “Fortunately, Jason left us with an incredible amount of documentation… tens of thousands of still images, drawings and maps, in addition to hundreds of hours of video.” The Rhoades team includes dozens of people who knew and worked with the artist, he says, but of course, “The most challenging aspect of exhibiting these works is, simply, his absence. Though to some his work may seem chaotic, Jason always had a clear vision and was always remarkably determined to fully realize that vision.” Back in 1994 the show was a smash. Then, according to Rosamund, her collectors starting calling. As time went on, it seemed they were having less fun living with and caring for these huge encampments of things occupying their homes than they thought they would. “They called me for advice,” says Felsen, “and I said, call Paul Schimmel at MOCA and donate it to them! I knew he would be receptive, that he understood the work.” That judgment proved sound, and that’s largely how MOCA ended up with a solid collection of early Rhoades works, which they have since displayed from time to time, though not in the way of a full show.

“Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts,” 1994, Jason Rhoades
“Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts,” 1994, Jason Rhoades, mixed media, dimensions variable.
Installation view, “Jason Rhoades. Installations, 1994 – 2006”  Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017
©The Estate of Jason Rhoades. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, 
Courtesy: the estate, Hauser & Wirth, private collection, Switzerland and lenders

When the wider world next met Rhoades, it was in 1995, at the first of what would be his three inclusions in the Whitney Biennial (the others were in 1997 and 2008), with the work My Brother/Brancuzi—also currently installed at Hauser & Wirth, frighteningly enough including the original well-preserved donuts for which the piece is remembered. The Whitney inspired Rhoades to explore the core ideals of Modernism, and he was moved to compare and contrast the studio of Constantin Brancusi and the extremely ordinary bedroom occupied by his own brother. Witty and eccentric, personal and art historical, this work celebrates a slightly greasier take on mass consumption alongside a love of clean industrial form. This personal/historical mash-up animated the whole arc of his education and career. From his studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Art Institute, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and finally UCLA, where he got his MFA under professors like Chris Burden, Nancy Rubins, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, and Richard Jackson. “In order to see my work,” said Rhoades in his 2000 Weber State University lecture, “you have to see it in connection with my person, at least while I’m alive for a while, and I’m conscious of that.”

Paul McCarthy, his teacher, close friend, and mentor, has often spoken of Rhoades’ work in terms of “forging connections between things that don’t belong together,” and thereby unearthing patterns be they geometrical, chromatic, numeric, or Freudian. Rhoades’ interest in mass consumer goods and the desires they represent resonates with McCarthy’s own elevation of the abject cast-off by-product, and debasing of the sacred. A perfect example of this is Rhoades’ affinity for the big box store. IKEA, Home Depot, Costco, Walmart. In a 1998 interview with super-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Rhoades elaborated on his deeply emotional but also rigorously conceptual relationship with consumerism. “I believe in the gesture of buying,” he said. “I like the interaction that happens. I’m not interested in the object’s history before I bought it. I’m interested in having it, in it being new, that it smells like new, that it shines like new. And struggling with the thing.” Obrist recalls elsewhere how Rhoades viewed shopping as “a sculptural gesture. Driving to the place, getting the box, opening the box, taking the thing out— he said that’s the same as chiseling marble. Purchasing was part of his artistic process.”

Fittingly, a great many of Rhoades’ installations were deliberately organized in the format of bazaars, markets, and shopping centers. For example, before the infamous 2006 Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé, which took place in Los Angeles in the weeks prior to his death, the first component of that project had begun a year earlier at Hauser & Wirth London. The Black Pussy… and the Pagan Idol Workshop (currently installed at the LA gallery in its first showing since 2005) was less like a party and more like an overstuffed international marketplace merging commerce, religion, and taboo. A black-light labyrinth of about a million shelves and a floor to ceiling stockpile of hookahs, dream-catchers, cowboy hats, woven blankets, kiosk souvenirs and household saints, and ultraviolet neon signs spelling out euphemisms for the vagina. Earlier works like Meccatuna (2003), which is not in the show, and the heavenly My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage… (2004) which is, had already broached the subject of Islamic history as an entry point into a more broadly conceived deconstruction of what the gallery press materials rightly call, “ideas of idolatry within a materialist, celebrity-obsessed American culture.”

My Madinah belongs to that arc, offering references to mosque design in its makeshift sea of carpets beneath the warm glow of 240 pussy-word neons, complete with pan-religious accoutrements like incense, statuettes, prayer kneelers, and a centrally displayed holy book containing thousands more vernacular words for vagina. Far from satirical, these works were in large part Rhoades’ way of countermanding the post-9/11 anti-Islamism eating away at his beloved America like a cancer. “Rhoades created My Madinah in 2004, when the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were particularly intense,” writes Schimmel, “and Rhoades took a real interest in Islamic culture. It’s political work.” It’s the religious and profane, layered on top of each other because layering is what Rhoades did best; a conflated construction of personal and geopolitical history, with humor and darkness. This is further explored by the inclusion of the epically cheerful and bright Tijuanatanjierchandelier (2006), which addresses consumerism in the colorful hybrid tongue of border-town tourism in both Tijuana and Tangier—and caresses the eye in the saturated gem-toned neon pussy-word chandeliers, the archetypal Mexican-blanket palette anchoring an unknowably vast warehouse of goods ranging from sombreros to ceramics.

Jason Rhoades
“Tijuanatanjierchandelier,” 2006, Jason Rhoades, Mixed media, Installation view, ‘ Jason Rhoades. Installations, 1994 – 2006’ Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2017
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.
Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and lender

Back in 2000, when Rhoades’ career was in full flagrante, curator and scholar Russell Ferguson wrote in Parkett about the artist’s “almost alchemical ability to make something out of nothing… a capacity for ex nihilo” that Ferguson likened to Duchamp’s gift for transforming the mundane into something transcendent through the power of the artist’s own idea. Ferguson characterized Rhoades’ relationship to art history as “reverential” which is telling, considering the apparently iconoclastic aesthetic of Rhoades’ enterprise. But the truth is, Rhoades’ subversiveness was aimed at social and political stereotypes of what was considered beautiful, elevated, valuable, and human; he was fluent and eclectic in his emulation of art historical strategies in this pursuit. “There is a reason why the five-gallon plastic bucket comes up so many times in my work,” Rhoades explained in the 1998 Obrist interview. “I really see that object as a perfect sculptural thing. It can sit around a farm or an office building or a suburban house, or a loft… anywhere in the world. It can stand there naturally, it could stand there synthetically like a sculpture or a Duchampian readymade and it can stand there as a tool. All these multiple uses and at the same time, it has no real use value at all. I didn’t understand Duchamp’s urinal until I really understood the bucket. You can piss in the bucket.”

Besides Brancusi, Duchamp, McCarthy and his student, Mike Kelley, there are numerous influences, references and relationships to peers and successors; resonance with artists as diverse as Suzanne Lacy in her clothing-gathering projects; Andreas Gursky, and his images of the low grandeur of the 99-Cents Only stores; Christoph Büchel with his reputation for mammoth excess; Dieter Roth with his Fluxus-based love of rotting food; champion assemblagists with a taste for the difficult and distasteful like Bruce Conner, and Ed and Nancy Kienholz; the intricate metonymy of Michael C. McMillen’s Garage (1981). Then there are the other clutterers and eccentric archivists like Cady Noland, Mike Nelson, and artist Martin Durazo, who was in that infamous UCLA MFA class, and knew and worked with McCarthy and Rhoades, including on a porno shoot performance project for fancy investors. Add Warhol on account of his conflation of religion and pop culture, and because, like Rhoades, he acted with genuine awe and sincerity.

Asked for an opinion on the warm reception this work is getting from younger audiences, Rosamund Felsen asserts: “It’s glitzy. The kids have never seen art like this. It’s entertainment. It’s overwhelming. It foretold the future, and he knew that could be ugly or beautiful or scary or comforting. What an artist, to have had the power and strength to do that!” Durazo concurs. “It’s Instagram. The work is immersive, photogenic, funny—and now it is also nostalgic.” In that 1998 interview with Obrist, Rhoades articulates a view of modernity that had already begun to be altered by the digital age. “There is a big separation between analog and digital thinking. We think completely digitally now. We can grab and cross-reference simultaneously and pull from this and change to that. The agility makes our thinking incredibly open. Modern thought in the beginning was linear. It was a drag strip in a way. It’s much more complex now… Digital technology can grab things at various entry points and at all times.”

The potential juxtapositions are enticing and endless. So yes, Rhoades loved the internet, but we can only guess how he would feel about Instagram. It might seem too superficial, too easy an experience. Or, he might luxuriate in the informational onslaught of simultaneousness. Would he turn his attention to virtual consumption, or dig in, double down, and remain committed to the physical and experiential? Whatever the plan, he’d eventually find a way to piss in the bucket.