PRINT January 1994


JASON RHOADES’ NEW YORK debut show, titled “CHERRY Makita—Honest Engine Work,” represented the culmination of an ongoing project: the re-creation, through several incarnations, of what variously could be seen as a mechanic’s or carpenter’s shop, a sculptor’s studio, and the suburban garage of an obsessive-compulsive hobbyist. The centerpiece was a ludicrously overblown drill (fashioned from a Chevrolet 350 V-8 engine, so large that it hung from a winch), which the artist would sometimes start up and use to bore holes in the wall of the mock garage that housed it. It was this futile contraption that inspired (or was inspired by) the name “Makita,” a leading manufacturer of drills and screwguns.

As for “Cherry,” Rhoades points out that it is hot rod lingo for a souped-up car. But the term is of course better known as slang for a woman’s genitalia, and within the macho den of the installation, femininity was in fact invoked by various pinup calendars scattered throughout, which showed a swimsuit model oddly—yet inevitably—posing with different samples from the Makita product line. This “corporate” figure, posed in stark contrast to the exaggerated phallicism of the big drill, seemed to serve as the artist/hobbyist’s personal muse. Less symbolic, if not deliberately nonsignifying, were the peripheral ensembles surrounding the garage: various bits of equipment and shelving cobbled together from cardboard and drywall; tools modeled from tinfoil, dough, or plaster; drawings in motor oil on kraft paper; red buckets; chunks of Styrofoam and foamcore, piles of random Polaroids, loose screws and nails, sawdust, grease, and anonymous effluvia. Ladders stood here and there. Clip-on lights provided much of the lighting. Everything was held together by some combination of duct tape, drywall screws, glue, or clamps. Even the jerry-building was jerry-built. Nothing was finished. Nothing wanted to he finished. Rather, these partially formed or transitional elements shuttled the viewer back and forth between the literalism of real tools and work processes and the artifice of dysfunctional or solely representational objects and events.

A sporadic and less evident feature of the installation was the artist’s habit of showing up in the gallery/workshop from time to time to putter around, as any self-respecting hobbyist would. The occasions when he used the drill functioned as cumbersome, ritual displays of functionality-as-potency. These casual personal appearances, which never quite coalesced as performances, continuously altered the material particulars of the installation, bringing the work’s logic into line with the spirit of Fluxus—minus that movement’s self-memorializing aspects. These interventions also highlighted the fact of making as a metaphoric process. They dovetailed with the tautological introspection of the project as a whole: this was sculpture concerning the tools, materials, and techniques that produce . . . sculpture. Psychologically, the installation also addressed the quirky refuges many people (stereotypically men) seek—and construct—for themselves: space reserved for a comforting solitude (under the pretext of work) in lieu of ostentation or display (although the tropes of masculine identity may he reenacted there). In this respect Rhoades’ project qualified as a kind of vernacular Pop art, an image of a scene perhaps even more ubiquitous than Elvis and Marilyn icons, yet less visible and recognizable. The installation exuded the most charm when it focused on these oddly escapist nooks and crannies, dead spots in the calculation of capitalist time.

“Honest engine” may sound a lot like “honest Injun,” but here it was pretext, the supposed need to get the job done, that was the mother of invention. So what, then, binds the perception of masculine identity to tools: the hubris of exerting control over the world (or failing that, over a chunk of wallboard)? The dated personification of the worker as male? With only a few heavy-handed exceptions, such as a hand-lettered sign that asked “Lost tool?,” Rhoades made it hard to tell when his parody of male hegemony was celebrating and when mocking its target. His exhibition showed affinities to Rube Goldberg, Jessica Stockholder, and Fischli and Weiss, but in the end its thematic orientation came closest to Alfred Jarry’s John Henry–like allegory, The Supermale.

John Miller is an artist and writer who lives in New York and Berlin.