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PRINT October 2006

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Jason Rhoades

Well before his untimely death on August 1, 2006, at the age of forty-one, Jason Rhoades had made an indelible mark on the art of his generation. Artforum asked four of Rhoades’s colleagues and friends to reflect on the man and his work.

LINDA NORDEN

The thing with Perfect World is you can fall off of it and it can kill you. You can walk on this surface, but it has these holes, these cracks and these soft spots, these traps, where it’s just papered over. It is kind of a reality of (my) working. I wanted to build this thing which somehow mimics real life.
—Jason Rhoades, in a 1999 interview with Eva Meyer-Hermann

JASON “THE MASON” RHOADES was as prolific a talker as he was a form maker. As soon as one met him, the talk began, and the intensity of word-flow easily rivaled the density of encounter he so carefully staged in his art. His interviews remain the best accounts of his work—a discursive component that amplified and complicated his projects rather than subsuming them to explanation. Rhoades’s talk was so thoroughly enmeshed with his art that it often became impossible to extricate oneself from the spell of the telling, even when that telling was in print. Like Robert Smithson, Rhoades held a tight grip on the reading of his work. He was not a writer, as Smithson was, but his penchant for open-ended interviews worked, much as Smithson’s involuted essays had, to project a type of voice-over for his larger productions.

“The control aspect is important,” Rhoades would say, stating what seemed to be obvious, when of course it wasn’t. He credited his teacher-peer Paul McCarthy with alerting him to the recognition that “the controlled action is the formal action.” The desire to isolate some of these formal actions is what first made me want to write about Rhoades: For him control seemed to extend well beyond the ostensible parameters of a given project. His art, he intimated over and over, had to incorporate, within the piece, the anticipation and preparation of a form, the form itself, and the interaction with the form.

Rhoades’s art built no distance into the viewing experience—he often said explicitly that he treated viewers as figures in his fields. He structured the encounters and “territories” he staked out with such manic precision, and took such personal pride in their execution, that he not only made you believe, as he did, that everything was somehow connected (and potentially amusing or meaningful or useful or dangerous), but that you the spectator had a part to play. While his vision might at first glance seem better served by film or video than by the sculptural installations that Rhoades preferred, this would have preempted the palpable, kinesthetic, awkward material encounters that Rhoades, more than Matthew Barney, more than Mike Kelley, more even than McCarthy, made his own.

The pursuit of such encounters gave rise to a kind of process art as obsessed with internal control as with what the process catalyzed, which, at the risk of hyperbole, might be described as a transformation of consciousness played out as a secular transubstantiation—in reverse. Rhoades systematically identified the most sacred of our cows, and he was the first artist since Andy Warhol who managed to tap the vestigial roots of religious belief in the investigation of contemporary obsessions. The consciousness Rhoades was working toward depended on conflations of our inherited ancestral beliefs with the fallout of a postindustrial consumer culture, on the basis of what an older and a newer mythology elicit emotionally.

My own thinking on Rhoades first crystallized around Perfect World, his 1999 installation at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. Aside from marking the pre-9/11 millennial turn with a forest of shiny aluminum scaffolding in what was billed the world’s largest sculpture (“with no inflatables!” Rhoades would boast), the installation also incorporated a viewing platform precariously placed atop this scaffolding, christened “the garden,” and fitted with an actual-size photo collage of his father’s garden. One could look from garden to ground. A hydraulic ramp allowed visitors to “pop up” into the elevated space, like a jumping bean or a stalk. One could also trip and fall, since the platform was littered with cords and carpets and drawings and photos, and it didn’t spread out as a continuous surface. Perfect World showed Rhoades’s capacity to shift between performative, immersive sculptural installation and pictorial composition—another lesson he attributed to McCarthy. The platform, moreover, made Rhoades’s desire for the viewer to be both in and at a remove from an experience—to both enact and interpret a complex of ideas in the work—literal and physical.

My most immediate association with Rhoades had for a long time been his uncanny deployment of color. He used it like a painter; he also administered it like a drug, as a kind of cathartic antidote to his own impulse to make a mess. At the Deichtorhallen, perfectly placed, brilliantly jewel-colored vessels and rolls pushed into and up out of the most unlikely nooks and cracks, and pastel piles of cloth wrapped around the bases of the scaffolds like hundreds of dropped trousers. These clear shapes and looser daubs of color punctuated the seemingly endless web of aluminum that stretched across the vast interior. Color thus became one of the formal devices—along with drawings on the walls and on the platform floors, hard-edged geometric piles of lumber, goofy crash decoys (stuffed and bound Jason-dummies)—that Rhoades used to structure eye and body movement through the vast porous “construction site” and garden.

Later, with PeaRoeFoam—an elaborate send-up of industrial production, postindustrial consumer behavior, and artistic self-expression, conceived as a trilogy and tailored to three distinct sites in 2002: David Zwirner Gallery in New York, the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, and the second Liverpool Biennial—I became newly preoccupied with Rhoades’s structured overlay of what might be described as simultaneous mind and body spectatorship, his aggressive handling of sculpture as the directing and shaping of an action (the orchestrated movement of the viewer through the installation), and his keen sense of a projected composition of spaces one could not image as a whole.

At “PeaRoeFoam. The Impetuous Process & From the Costner Complex,” installed at Zwirner, one had two distinct experiences. In the first, you moved from station to station, through a sequence of carefully composed mise-en-scènes: For instance, from model Marilyn Chambers, “the all-American girl,” posed nude on a poster for the pre-rating, adults-only film Behind the Green Door, to Marilyn Chambers, mom with baby, swathed in white, on the iconic incarnation of purity, the Ivory Snow soap box. Elsewhere, other Ivory Snow boxes were emptied and refilled with dried peas, salmon roe, and “virgin” (i.e., unrecycled) Styrofoam beads, and further boxed into specially marked “PeaRoeFoam” cartons, which were in turn stacked and packed with squeeze bottles of Elmer’s glue and a pair of rubber gloves into shrink-wrapped “kits” for the making of Rhoades’s personal product—a glue-glazed compound, at once an elegant, signature “medium” like Jackson Pollock’s poured paint, a functional designer building material, and a potentially stinky mess. This was PeaRoeFoam: McCarthy in shrink-wrap.

But the second experience, overlaid onto this procession, and inspired I think by the literal platform views in Hamburg, was a corollary composition perceived subliminally, as a picture viewed from above: two rooms, one densely filled, the other more open, with a green door in between. The shift from ground to overhead views, from worm’s eye to bird’s eye, parallels McCarthy’s moves from performance to its representation via video, in which the act of recording inspires performances carefully composed for their impact within the frame. It also reminds one of Ed Ruscha, whose paintings routinely moved from what he called “roadside” to aerial views, each a commonplace of late-twentieth-century Los Angeles experience.

In both these installations, experiencing their overlaid composition helped explain Rhoades’s ability to immerse us in, then pull us up and out of his mad moves. It was one among many of the structural controls Rhoades took, which were always countered by his desire to keep things real, to leave the cords and holes and piles of wood out and about without worrying about the viewers’ welfare, or the consequences of silly liabilities like tripping. He wanted, somehow, to hold on to what he called the “dirt floor,” the base level, while continually introducing means to “pop up” from that base.

At the intimate gatherings Rhoades staged in Los Angeles for his Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé, 2006, you could feel the same overhead plan of architecturally and behaviorally informed shapes as you were directed from the plant-and-neon-and-chandelier-filled front gallery to an open studio carefully organized into squares and rectangles of sofas for sitting, a stage for singing and shtick, a hospital bed, tables for food, tables for talking over, shelves with carefully sorted accumulations of objects such as cowboy hats; and tables piled with “vintage” T-shirts and string—accoutrements for such unexpected assignments as tying macramé knots or coining synonyms for pussy. Despite the radical shift in scale, from vast and public to intimate and private, the directed moves from station to station and the sense of being at once a participant in a sculptural performance, a diorama, and a picture, persisted. But Black Pussy made it all intensely personal.

How exactly his viewers figured in his “perfect worlds” and “impetuous processes” may well have been Rhoades’s personal “black hole,” the uncontrollable unknown in an intensely controlled project. The Black Pussy salons seemed designed to tackle this topic head-on. Rhoades called it “the strange ongoing problem” of the viewer. In reference to Perfect World, Rhoades had said that he would be happiest with an audience of two, to forestall the possibility of his work being read either as decorative, or as spectacle. He seems to have succeeded, in Black Pussy, in structuring an installation and event that changed his mind. I don’t know whether the reception he got pleased him, but for much of the season and for many in the art world, Rhoades had become a lightning rod and Black Pussy a provocation—often, above all, for those who never attended. My suspicion is that, just as Warhol, in calling his studio a factory, knew that machine-made art in the age of Abstract Expressionism crossed a sacred line, Rhoades recognized that “black” and “pussy” were two forbidden descriptors that would keep some of his would-be audience at bay.

Among those who did attend, there were doubtless viewers for whom the salon was simply a send-up of all that an aging yuppie might imagine he or she desires—Elvis! hospital bed, with dildo! virginal girls singing! food! drink! “shoegurt”! embarrassment! art! live artist! status!—but for a quieter, more attentive viewer, the array of associative lines of thought built into the installation boggled the mind and served as a potent, oblique critique of the very objects that told the stories. What are those elements? What are the associative chains? UV neon signs spelling “pussy words,” cowboy hats, hookahs, Chinese scholars’ rocks, dream catchers—a maverick list of items whose common identity is kitsch, as available on eBay, where Rhoades had been buying in bulk.

In the catalogue for “Tijuanatangierchandelier,” an exhibition of Rhoades’s chandeliers currently on view at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga in Spain, Alex Israel, Rhoades’s assistant for the past year, gives a remarkable account of an evening at the Black Pussy salon. In excruciating blow-by-blow detail, he describes the segue from dumb intrigue, to self-conscious acting, to a kind of quiet recognition that you, as guest, were an interpreter in Rhoades’s obsessively planned series of conversations, not just among the events and the invited performers, but also among a gathering of objects. Israel goes on to discuss how Rhoades was actually attempting nothing less than the eradication of kitsch. This suggests an undertaking in keeping with, and on the scale of, Rhoades’s earlier projects, in its push past appropriation of stuff or styles to a full-scale simulation of the means of production or consumption (in all its idiosyncratic compulsion and self-conscious entitlement)—e.g., construction in Perfect World; industrial (and cultural) production in PeaRoeFoam; online consumption in Black Pussy.

I can’t comment on Rhoades’s personal life more than to say that the lines between life and art certainly did seem to blur, and since he took it all so personally and so seriously, it is ironic that his art was challenged around questions of morality. Rhoades, like his LA compatriots Mike Kelley, Barbara Kruger, and Paul McCarthy, thought big and probed deep. His capacity to envision, simulate, explore, and exit both perfect worlds and black holes was huge. Now he’s exited our real world and left us in the dirt.

Linda Norden is a writer and curator.

RICHARD JACKSON

WHEN JASON RHOADES WAS a graduate student at UCLA doing final reviews in 1992, he created an installation and performance titled Jason & Jason Entrepreneurship (Redwood Decks and Furniture, Ceramics Repair, Small Animals for Admiration and Spelling Murals). The piece featured Jason sitting at a child-size redwood table, chewing bubble gum, which he then used to stick genitals on ceramic figurines. Nearby a placard read: UPGRADE / ENTREPRENEUR SHIPS / IN A NICE PINK FOAM LINING / WITH FREE PRIZE PHOTO. / “ME AND MY SONY” / 49.95 RETAIL / LIMITED EDITION / SIGNED AND NUMBERED, referring to a cheap, crappy, made-in-China model of a clipper ship placed in a cardboard box. Reviews took place over two days, Friday and Saturday, with each student presenting work on one or the other. On the second day, most students who had shown on the first (as Jason had) were relieved. But Jason showed up again, still dressed as he had been the day before—looking like a sleazy salesman, unshaved, in a cheap suit. He had boxes full of ships strapped on a handcart, and he was trying to sell them all over campus. Paul McCarthy and I each bought one, thinking we could get others to follow suit. Jason ended up with the rest of the ships under his bed.

During our first studio visit at UCLA, I had told Jason that he didn’t need to go to school, that he should quit. (He didn’t; he was smarter than that.) And then I told everyone—gallery people, museum people—that he would be the next important artist of his generation to come out of America. (No one believed me.) It was clear to me that Jason was an alchemist, ahead of his time. He always presented ordinary objects in a larger setting and could convince you of their importance and value. His failed venture with the clipper ships notwithstanding, this also made him the greatest artist-entrepreneur in a time when the art world seemed to spawn more entrepreneurs than artists. He presented big, circuslike extravaganzas that were inventive, extreme, and excessive, and he kept pushing the art world with his unusual behavior. He wanted to be included, but only on his own terms. It was like a big bubble: He was pushing to get in, but when he found himself on the inside, he was pushing to get out. He worked hard to keep the art world imperfect. In his work, you could make connections, but you couldn’t make conclusions. You had to keep in mind that he was a prankster and that it was up to you to sort out the truth from the bullshit. As soon as you thought you understood him, he raised the stakes and never hit the brakes. He was a snake-oil salesman, a child in a man’s body with the brain of a genius. I love him and miss him very much.

Richard Jackson is an artist based in Los Angeles.

PAUL MCCARTHY

Unique conformity
Activity
Intuitive perception
Nonconformity as future perception
Intentional shopping for unintentional use
Shopping and collecting to construct language
Particular selections for fabrication as demonstration
From the outside the appearance was unpredictable
The intentional direction for the purpose of continuing
I imagine that he went to sleep sitting up
Keep them out, keep them hopping
You can’t come in
Only specific and particular guests invited
Participants as material
Lifestyle as material
A perpetual game
Some type of sleigh ride, injured knee
Action activity without brakes
Cars without brakes
Barnyard self-fabricated thrill ride
Multiple directions
Situational wandering
Specific city
Sight plan for specific cities
Encyclopedic knowledge of commerce
The use of purchased items as language, demonstration
Conversation as demonstration
Storytelling as performance, entertainment,
and manipulation
Riddle talk as poignant explanation
Rooms more expansive than convention
In flux installations merging into each other
Never completion, always continuation

NIGHT VISION, OPAQUE. The critic sits on his throne and says not a word. A waste of time, he tells me. It’s outside the beauty ring and consequently questionable as art. A definition so eloquently defined by others. The stand-in critic perpetuates and creates a false reality for her readers. Pulp sensationalism. Staying true to her craft. Language manipulation disguised as investigative reporting. Getting to the truth, she claims. During the interview she covered up her true identity and true intentions. She claims to be interested in the work, stuff that movies are made of, she says. Through a conversation with the real deal we realize that she cannot perceive JR’s endeavors. JR contributes an aesthetic break with our cultivated habits, an alteration in practice and perception. It appears she has no real interest or involvement in art.

The national institutions and commercial cubicles will precisely and strategically restage the work. A worthwhile endeavor. On the other hand, for those who experienced the process with JR, the influence is monumental and embedded. On the other hand, the pieces are physical manifestations of brain intoxication, a type of hoedown reminiscent of Hee Haw.

His process is an inspiration in doorbell thinking and a material practice of choosing and not choosing, precise and random, c’est la vie. The man in the suit said, We don’t need another moralist. Freedom from moralism. Moral judgments. Freedom from moral judgments. Island-hopping. To be decadent as material, in the sculpture, in the installation.

The barnyard nestled in the rolling hills as sculpture, the “Perfect World.” Pigpens made of polished metal tubes, a tribute to Brancusi. A barn dance, karaoke performance, Waterboy a movie experience—lowbrow experience, as high art. What you expect of the abject is a goo compound. A computer hard drive and the projector projecting Marilyn Chambers as the sexual release agent. Adolescent pulsing, wiggle, waggle.

Kevin Costner, Waterworld, movie extravaganza. Guy Debord as fanatical, straight-edge personality. Kevin Costner as JR. JR as Kevin Costner. The lookalike of JR is Kevin Costner. An attempt by JR to perform a transplant. Kevin Costner’s brain is bottled. The body is boxed in a white marble coffin with a red ribbon. The coffin was dressed in a black fiberglass rectangular vessel with rounded corners. The assemblage was lowered into the ground. A perfectly straight rectangular hole with perfect square corners dug cleanly into the lawn. How did they form such perfection? What type of machinery made such a hole in the ground? I have imagined a similar hole. I even went so far as to illustrate such a hole. The hole is reminiscent of a type of doorway to a dead end. Not as deep as you would expect. Nothing new here. The machinery was well used. A new aesthetic for all of us. After all, everything was now possible. A move from one aesthetic to another. A type of futurism.

Barnyard as universe, perfect universe. Material consumption as fog. Fog as veil. Unable to see because of the consumption fog. Glue sputter as male sex organ spewer, interesting said I. Here give it a whirl, said JR. Spew, spurt, sperm, glue, art fabrication, assemblage if you like.

Never enough. Never enough of the specific objects. Western fat as demonstration. A type of intuitive process. Elbows against the rib cage, arms at chest height, head bent forward, play mode. Eyes focused on handheld object. Investigating its failures. Tongue twitching on the outside to one side. Oral fixation. Childhood activity. Curiosity.

From one social club to another, each group a phase. Each group finding and accepting failed humans both as comedians and as contributors in backyard behavior. He arranged the situation. Paper towel, chewed concentration. Do you think about death? The subject of death is a cultivated convention and nasty irritant. Videotaping is a waste of time. Video projections are Los Angeles decorations. What about drawing? Only a means to an end. Art is not a medium. Dumb donut talk. Purchase all the donuts from the rat-infested donut shop, an attempt to help save the failing business. Purchase the contents of the convenience store. Send the owner and his artist daughter on vacation. Remnants of Duchamp’s influence as signage. Stand under the sign when explaining our intentions to Falckenberg. Ask him to buy the contents of the cube as sculpture. To secure the value of a thought. An intuitive thought during lunch. Ploy play for the masses.

Paul McCarthy is a Los Angeles–based artist.

DANIEL BIRNBAUM

THE FIRST CLASS Jason Rhoades taught at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, in 2001, was devoted entirely to Kevin Costner, and screenings always began around midnight. How priceless his grave face was as he introduced Waterworld, the only film I attended that semester, my first as the school’s dean. Jason had explained to me, in a voice revealing no irony, that he was attempting to “herd [his] flock of young artists toward a better understanding of Marcel Duchamp, the original artist-writer-producer-director, via an intense study of Costner’s complete cinematic works.” Actually, Jason said, he was searching with his students for the “perfect world.” Subsequent months went by fairly uneventfully, yet nobody at the school was very surprised when Jason suddenly declared that this utopian venture would also take his group of students to Puglia, in southern Italy, for some in-depth research on the ancient mysteries of olive oil. They all rented cars—many cars—and bills began appearing in my office. These were hardly mysterious to me: In my very first week at the Städelschule, Jason submitted a request for a popcorn machine—which, of course, he had already purchased and installed in the school’s sculpture department. All I had to do was sign the bill.

Jason loved to introduce me to collectors as “my boss” or “my IKEA philosopher.” In the mid-’90s we had in fact been brought together by a shared interest in the history of IKEA. He took the company as a starting point for several projects. I remember meeting with him once at the Wanås Foundation, in southern Sweden, where he staged his most ambitious installation of IKEA products; and another time in Nuremberg in 1998, in whose kunsthalle he mounted the massive The Purple Penis and the Venus (Installed in the Seven Stomachs of Nürnberg) as Part of the Creation Myth. Treating the institution’s seven rooms as a huge digestive system, he arranged his earlier works in a diorama of cosmic bulimia, saying that these productions were eating and assimilating each other. “It’s hard to imagine anything that wouldn’t be grist for Jason Rhoades’s artistic mill,” I wrote in these pages at the time, introducing a discussion of the project by the artist himself. “At times he seems to want to swallow the world of things in a single gulp, the way you might an oyster on the half shell.”

Matters of digestion and metabolism also dominated the artistic production that evolved from his infamous class on Costner, and which he convinced me had to be displayed at the school’s gallery, Portikus. Together with his most devoted students, and a few who grudgingly agreed after some persuasion (and bribes) from the master, Jason turned the space into a factory for pickling vegetables. Dressed in bizarre uniforms, he and his team sliced garlic, red peppers, pumpkins, and other vegetables and mixed these ingredients with vinegar, olive oil, and herbs. Jugs of this concoction were then put into the “KC centrifuge,” a special machine consisting mainly of video monitors showing all of Kevin Costner’s films simultaneously, thereby instilling the celebrity’s “essence” into the stuff. The event took place during summer and the heat (and the smell) was almost unbearable. Jason, the Machiavellian production manager, had no mercy. The team was a millimeter away from mutiny—as was I, when Jason declared that a massive drill machine he had installed in the space would be used to make a three-hundred-foot-deep hole through the foundation of the building. This was the kind of thing that would send the person officially responsible for the event (me) to prison. Luckily, however, his massive drill machine broke down and all problems seemed to vanish into a wild party.

When I was at the airport the next morning, planning to leave town for the weekend, the happy news reached me that his machine had been fixed and drilling would recommence immediately. Oh, Jason.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule Art Academy in Frankfurt and a contributing editor of Artforum.