Los Angeles

Stephen G. Rhodes

In his Los Angeles solo gallery debut, Stephen G. Rhodes took the linguistic slippage between the homophones dual and duel as a point of departure for a highly ambitious, slyly humorous, and slightly maddening installation that managed to weave together personal, historical, and formal concerns. The show, titled “Ruined Dualisms,” was overtly theatrical: A few dim electric candles took the place of standard track lighting, and a densely loaded accumulation of paintings, collages, sculptures, photographs, and sculptural video works filled the gallery and sprawled into the office. The conjoined, looping sound tracks of the videos Dualism 2, 2006, and Dualism 3, 2007—heard together as a herky-jerky assemblage of trombone, harmonica, accordion, and a piano fragment from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)—added to the overall sense of delirium.

Rhodes’s videos recall—and double—the form of Michael Snow’s synchronized and looping two-projector fi lm installation Two Sides to Every Story, 1974, in order to present two pistol duels that owe much to Kubrick’s fi lm. As with Snow’s work, viewers must encounter the work on both sides of the two screens while essentially taking the place of the duels’ participants. One exchange features a man and a woman in a wooded setting; the other, two middle-aged men (played by Rhodes’s father and uncle) on a pier, with the artist serving as a “referee” in both. The characters are outfitted in loose interpretations of “period” costume and wield pop guns; willful anachronism runs throughout the videos, particularly when waterskiers pulled by a speedboat cruise by the pier and wave. Because the videos are looped, both skirmishes are ambiguous in outcome, time breaking down without clear ending or beginning: In this sense, it’s not such a stretch to see Dualism 2 and 3 as allegorical, given our nation’s present morass in the Middle East, with two separate wars persisting more than four years after a declaration of “mission accomplished”—especially given the artist’s recurring interest in the follies of historical reenactment.

Adding to the allegorical tone were two vaguely anthropomorphic piles of bricks, Ruined 1 and Ruined 2 (both 2007), constructed from surfboard foam, latex, and bloodred paint, which were symmetrically aligned with the video installation. Top-heavy and seemingly on the verge of collapse, the ruinous piles were variously embedded with clothbound books, clumps of hair, Mardi Gras beads, pieces of peach-colored latex, a fake hand, a full-size C-3PO head, and several stuffed birds accompanied by white splatters of simulated birdshit. Inspired by ruins found in the artist’s native state of Louisiana, the rather cartoonish sculptures blended the personal and the allegorical—ruins, according to Walter Benjamin, are an emblem of allegory—as did several of the aggregated photographs in which family snapshots (including one of the artist’s mother in a Minnie Mouse costume, middle finger extended toward the camera) mingled with images of a devastated post-Katrina New Orleans. Each of these was spray-painted with an ominous, ghostly X, recalling the symbols with which rescue workers tagged abandoned homes following the hurricane.

Less affecting, and somewhat overwhelmed by the show’s general cacophony, were Vacant Portraits 14-16 and 17-19 (both 2007)—dueling triptychs of vertical canvases in archly gilded frames, each panel depicting an amorphous, glowing green “figure,” with each accompanied by a collaged image of a pistol. More successful was a tantalizing series of mixed-media palimpsests (interspersed with the triptychs) titled Post-Dualistic Bresson Notes… (all 2007), with each work piling quotes from Robert Bresson atop others from Maurice Blanchot (the latter upside down and on the verso side of the paper), alongside personal fragments—each taking the form of an envelope, representing the formal invitation to a duel. “Ruined Dualisms” relentlessly exhausted its structural format, but not before unearthing charged allegorical and autobiographical matter from a personal archaeology more than worthy of continued excavation.

Michael Ned Holte