Cut short by his death at the age of 41, Jason Rhoades’ career lasted barely over two decades (overlapping his current retrospective at Hauser & Wirth, from 1994-2006). But the impact of his work remains undeniable. Like Jeff Koons, an artist who is otherwise his formal opposite, Rhoades seems uniquely tied to the zeitgeist, reflecting back a view of society that’s often gaudy, tacky and vulgar but also viscerally compelling in its material sensuality and commitment. Both, too, offered up a vision that was rooted in commerce: in Rhoades’ case, a bazaar of personal fetishism and mundane materiality. Like Duchamp, or Rauschenberg, Rhoades embraced the ordinary; then transformed it—and luxuriated in it. His works sprawl exuberantly across their vast spaces with a teenager’s disdain for authority and a hoarder’s self-indulgent and immersive glee. Almost a generation after their creation, they retain their transgressive edge (perhaps more formally these days than in content) and self-conscious, bad-boy stance. They want to shock you, and often do, parading his own personal obsessions with theatrical abandon. Turning the staid gallery space into his own private red light district / pawnshop / storage locker / temple of kinky worship, Rhoades truly took the art world on his own terms. Whether or not you like his sensibility, there’s something liberating in that.
If Rhoades’ work represents an extension of his own fervid id into the shared public sphere, the work of artist Paul Ramírez Jonas might be said to represent the opposite impulse—the internalization of the public sphere into the artist’s individual persona. His early work retraced the imaginings of early explorers and inventors, whose investigations expanded humanity’s reach into the world. His work of the past decade marks an ongoing examination into the nature of civic space and community. Often, the pieces are consciously participatory, gaining purpose through the viewer’s interaction. In some works, this centered on the symbolic use of keys, which he sees as emblematic of such issues as exclusion, access and trust, as when he distributed keys to a local park, or instigated a key exchange with spectators. His 2011 work The Commons offered a monumental statue of a (rather triumphal-looking) horse, as might be seen at a public square, but crafted out of cork—transforming it into a giant bulletin board, and inviting viewers to push-pin comments into its base. The charm of Ramírez Jonas’ practice is how he melds his aspirational queries to a level-headed practicality; through deft manipulation of materials and symbols, he invites viewers to see themselves, and each other, in a hopeful new light.
Although both artists are of the same generation (born in 1965), their works point in opposite directions. Ironically, these seemingly contradictory attitudes are ones which many of us share: wanting to do our own thing, to bend society to reflect our own eclectic tastes and will, while at the same time, yearning to address real world problems, to improve public trust and our own relationship with our fellow citizens, be they local or global. Given the messy, contradictory world we live in now, it’s no wonder the visions of both artists resonate so powerfully.
For over a decade, the many writers (and steadfast staff) of this magazine have strived to present compelling art writing on a spectrum of influential artists, curators and collectors from our perch in Southern California. We remain confident in the durability of that vision, and that community. It’s a lot of terrain to cover: from Oxnard, Aspen and Tacoma to Chicago, Chelsea and beyond. “From California, to the New York island, from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulfstream waters,” to quote Woody Guthrie. (Not to mention Basel, Kassel, Venice, London, Hong Kong and Dubai.) Ahh well. I guess that train didn’t stop there then. Still, though: what a ride.