PRINT October 2010


Stephen G. Rhodes, Dar Allers War Ne’er Eny Bear Bear, 2009, mixed media. Installation view, Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin. Photo: Nick Ash.

STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING (1980) has no shortage of famously chilling moments. Yet the most haunting of these might be a brief shot, from the POV of beleaguered wife Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall), of two ghosts in flagrante delicto, one dressed in a bear costume, on “his” knees and apparently servicing a tuxedoed man seated on the edge of a bed. The camera rapidly zooms in; the ghosts appear to glower back. It’s over in a flash, and does little or nothing to advance the film’s narrative, but on repeat viewings the ambiguous plushie blow job image implies significant trauma: a primal scene.

For his ambitious 2009 exhibition at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie in Berlin, Stephen G. Rhodes situated the bear, along with other elements of Kubrick’s horror film, at the center of an equally disturbing narrative that drew on another classic of repressed trauma: Walt Disney’s 1946 Song of the South, a film set during Reconstruction that has never been released on home video in the US owing to concerns about its racial message. Titled Dar Allers War Ne’er Eny Bear Bear, 2009, Rhodes’s installation featured four unsettling videos projected throughout a sprawling set of rooms largely based on the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Here the figure of the bear—like The Shining’s apparition, but surely conjuring Disney’s Br’er Bear as well—was performed by Rhodes in costume and described by the artist as an “impossible embodiment”—albeit one with a flap exposing its bare ass.

In the video segment There Is No Bear Bear: Ladder, the artist dons the bear costume and attacks the video’s background—red-tinted footage from Song of the South—with a large yellow ladder. Amid this bungling, he reenacts the scene from Kubrick’s film. Part of what accounts for the impossibility of this embodiment is Rhodes’s signature use of green-screen technology. Essential to nearly all the artist’s installations, it is the plane on which Rhodes brings together fragmented narratives found (Song of the South, The Exorcist [1973]) or claimed (surreptitious footage taken at Disney World’s Hall of Presidents and repurposed for Interregnum: Who Farted?!!?!?!, 2008, at the Prospect.1 New Orleans biennial), oftentimes along with the artist’s own Buster Keaton–Bruce Nauman slapstick gestures.

The mix of animated and live-action sequences in Song of the South was achieved with an early version of the green screen: chroma-key color separation, developed in the 1940s as a mode of compositing images. (That a technology for “color separation” was used in the production of a Reconstruction story is a coincidence surely not lost on the artist.) Though chroma-key technology was designed to disappear, seamlessly bringing together separately filmed background and foreground images, Rhodes tends to exploit the ectoplasmic eruptions or spills that occur in the violent collision of fragmented footage, summoning the usually unseen presence of an entity that recalls the extradimensional “slime” from Ghostbusters. (This is sometimes achieved by the artist’s agitation of props painted in chroma-key green to capture fleeting glimpses of video content; in the video segment There Is No Bear Bear: Corner, traces of toxic green spill out as the artist-as-bear dry humps the images from the Disney film that provide the backdrop.) Likewise, Rhodes eschews the immersive illusionism of Hollywood Imagineering in favor of complex juxtapositions of incompatible spatial orders. He projects his videos on movie set–like plywood sheets painted chroma-key green, though these backdrops are typically dingy by the time they are installed, sometimes punctured or otherwise roughed up.

What’s more, these videos are never exhibited in isolation: Pushing together the looping, projected video with sculptures both found and fabricated, ghostly “portrait” paintings, drawings, and collages, Rhodes creates disorienting installations that are deliberately overloaded to the semiotic and material breaking point—what the artist refers to as the “delirious movement of empty signifiers.” Such excess spills into the repeating, hallucinatory sound constructions of the videos, which mix fragments of music and voices from the same films, the latter generally divorced from the corresponding images—a kind of sound event, where the voice precedes the eventual physical appearance of the person speaking, that theorist Michel Chion has named the acousmêtre—pointing again to an “impossible embodiment.”

In choreographing the collision of disparate films, Rhodes reveals striking parallels in the source texts: The animated fauna in Song of the South emerge through the storytelling of Uncle Remus; the ghosts in The Shining appear as the protagonist attempts to write a novel, with maddening results. Likewise, one might compare the trauma of slavery that underlies Disney’s film with the implications of American Indian genocide that provide the source of horror in Kubrick’s film. Such parallels and displacements operate along the lines of allegory—always performing two things at once, without resolution.

Stephen G. Rhodes, Receding Mind: Circle of Shit, 2010, mixed media. Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

The artist thus consistently disturbs the narratives of both Hollywood cinema and American history—particularly the cultural and political history of the American South. (The Los Angeles–based artist was born in Houston and raised in New Orleans.) Rhodes is less interested in reenacting history than in what he calls the “politics of throwing time out of whack”: scavenging (or disinterring) the material residue of historical mythologies, summoning ghosts from the past in order to disrupt the relentless unfolding of the present. In a 2009 exhibition at London’s Vilma Gold gallery, Rhodes presented the three-channel video installation Reconstruction or Something, 2009, centered on the opening scene of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, in which an archaeologist’s team uncovers an ancient statue in the mountains of Iraq, unleashing the demon spirit Pazuzu. In Rhodes’s piece, an overscale sculpture partially based on the Pazuzu statue in the film is situated between the US and Iraqi flags. Its hermaphroditic form is rendered as a ruinous Reconstruction-era pile of bricks, oozing acidic green fluid.

Reconstruction or Something takes its title from a diagram found on an MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) currently used by the US military in Iraq: Soldiers are instructed to cook their MRE by leaning it on a “rock or something.” (The diagram appears within the installation, itself loosely inspired by a wrecked church and Alice Aycock’s outdoor constructions, which were built around the time of The Exorcist.) Filming in California’s Joshua Tree National Park (long used in Hollywood productions to represent desert locations elsewhere), Rhodes assumed Max von Sydow’s role as Father Merrin while friends played the archaeologists and Iraqis. The references to the West’s meddling in the Middle East are obvious. But the archaeologists in Rhodes’s videos move green-screen panels across the terrain, or pound on them, “unearthing” a number of fragments of films set in the American South during Reconstruction, including Gone with the Wind (1939) and a forgotten biopic of President Andrew Johnson, Tennessee Johnson (1942). The notion of possession takes a disturbing turn when brought into contact with the racial history of the American South.

View of Stephen G. Rhodes, Whipped Jamboree: Interregnum Repetition Restoration (Whipped Lincoln) and Interregnum Repetition (Whipped Washington), 2008, at Metro Pictures, New York.

Rhodes’s disjunctive collision of unearthed histories reached a literally dizzying climax in his recent solo exhibition at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum. The installation’s vulgar title, Receding Mind: Circle of Shit, 2010, played off the title of Steve Allen’s Meeting of the Minds, a similarly inclined TV talk show aired between 1977 and 1981 that featured roundtable “conversations” with historical figures from Marx to Aristotle to Cleopatra. Prompted by an episode featuring Frederick Douglass and the Marquis de Sade—both notable proponents of liberty, however different their contexts—Rhodes recast the parts in order to push Allen’s convivial structure toward maximal entropy.

The video, with actors shot against the green-screen backdrop of Meeting of the Minds, was filmed with a rotating camera that spun around clockwise on a turntable situated on a dinner table amid a domestic disaster scene—apparently the ruinous aftermath of an orgiastic symposium, with broken furniture, plants, a trashed piano, and even a giant novelty bottle of Budweiser. The artist has pointed to Michael Snow’s mechanically controlled camera in the structuralist masterpieces Back and Forth (1969) and La Région centrale (1971), but employing a spinning projector within the Hammer’s Vault Gallery—where the set, too, was reinstalled—added a considerable degree of difficulty to the peekaboo viewing situation. Rhodes also constructed rudimentary walls within the space—punctured plywood green screens that simultaneously captured and obfuscated the video as it circled, putting the viewer at the threshold of nausea. Whether one stood in place or actively moved to follow the image, the video eluded complete comprehension—revealing a “time out of whack” that suggested not merely delirious pastiche but the visceral thrills and horrors summoned from such perverse historical recombination.

Michael Ned Holte is a critic and curator based in Los Angeles.