New York

Jason Rhoades

Supposedly motivated by a drive to “deconstruct” the nonexistent word “Meccatuna,” Jason Rhoades originally intended to journey to Mecca, circle the ancient, holy cuboid structure at its heart—the Kaaba—in the company of a live bluefin tuna, then bring the fish to New York. This plan frustrated, the Los Angeles–based artist hired a Saudi local to drive to the sacred city, buy a case of Geisha-brand canned tuna, and send evidence of its unprecedented proximity to hallowed ritual back to the gallery. Rhoades takes the documentation in question—a few snapshots of the tins on the back of a truck—as the starting point for his gleefully eccentric assemblage of bought, salvaged, and manufactured objects.

Centered on a one-third scale model of the Kaaba incompletely built from Legos and added to continually during the show, Meccatuna also includes several hundred slang terms for the vagina (“Hair Pie,” “Bermuda Triangle”—the list goes on and on), rendered in multicolored neon tubing tied to Plexiglas panels. These cast a sickly tinted light on a polished aluminum orifice based on the vessel for the Black Stone, a holy relic of Islam, as well as on several life-size fiberglass casts of donkeys, a pile of camel saddles, and a clutch of structures modeled partly in “PeaRoeFoam” (a repellent cocktail of dried peas, fish eggs, and foam beads, into which Rhoades sinks a variety of other objects).

In an article on the artist in these pages, Daniel Birnbaum has claimed Rhoades as “perhaps the most American of contemporary American artists,” agog at his apparently insatiable hunger for ever more indigestible displays of material excess. This maximalist tendency is apparent even in Rhoades’s self-authored press release, which consists of an exhaustive list of the eclectic array of materials (including, in several cases, details of their use in previous installations) poured into the making of the show. While Rhoades’s recycling of his own media and methods might seem more an aimless pileup than a useful part of a “bigger picture,” it has a kind of logic (albeit fuzzy) if considered as a model of the ungovernable process of memory itself. Like unfinished thoughts, ingredients that linger from older works (the Ivory Snow boxes emblazoned with the face of Behind the Green Door star Marilyn Chambers, for example) impose themselves on the argument. And though any “deconstruction” of “Mecca” or “tuna,” of religious tradition or post-Minimalist sculpture, is ultimately secondary to the entertainingly unhinged spectacle at hand, that spectacle, in its uncomfortable juxtaposition of the sacred and profane, is a prodigious (albeit cynical) attempt at a portrait of contemporary American life.

Meccatuna is at once aggressively charismatic (some might say overbearing) and, formally, rather well-balanced. Even the hundreds of trailing power cables play an aesthetic role in linking disparate elements. But though the effect is imposing, in the end it throws the work’s noncommittal muddying of some potentially rewarding themes into harsh relief. Rhoades, in his attempt to illuminate “the whole shebang,” leaves little space for reflection. Compare Meccatuna to another immersive but vastly more disciplined gallery project such as Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2003 Cavemanman, and it becomes plain that Rhoades’s pilgrimage is far from complete.

Michael Wilson