Stephen G. Rhodes

Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi

With his exhibition “Dar Allers War Ne’er Eny Bear Bear” (There Was Always Never Any Bear Bear), Stephen G. Rhodes imported popular myths from the United States to Germany. The show had two central points of reference: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), based on the novel by Stephen King, and the Disney adaptation of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, which opened in 1946 as Song of the South, a film musical containing both live-action and animated sequences. Rhodes juxtaposed quotes from both films and carefully staged references in a wild and unwieldy multimedia installation that sprawled throughout the entire gallery, a drastic hodgepodge that was part curiosity show, part house of horrors. The hypnotic effect of this pandemonium didn’t exactly encourage the viewer to calmly start untangling the various strands of references. One walked through the exhibition in a state of amusement and fascination, taking in the various punch lines long before making sense of all the chains of association.

Rhodes made ingenious use of this particular setting: With narrow hallways, small rooms, and dark brown wooden paneling, the gallery exudes a claustrophobic gentility that has already been used to effect in other shows. Rhodes darkened the rooms, illuminating them only by the light of the mainly green and red flickering video screens and a couple of accent lamps. The main hall was narrowed using a corridor of plywood painted green—simultaneously evoking Bruce Nauman and the hotel foyer in The Shining—with a few rough holes bashed into the wood with a hammer to provide voyeuristic glimpses at the video installations behind the wall. The videos Rhodes showed are short, manically abstruse loops containing several levels of images sampled via green screen—Song of the South was the first production to use this particular chromatic animation technique to incorporate live actors into an animated world—and he arranged the viewing space as a lovingly tended chaos of scattered paper, boards, window frames, kitschy glimmering gothic candelabra, and pictographs crudely and mechanically painted in green and framed with plastic ivy, not to mention the film props like stepladder and mattress. All the videos show Rhodes acting like a madman dressed in a bear costume. Although he is making reference to a nightmarish scene from The Shining, his character fumbles his way through the picture to slapstick effect with the butt flap of his costume hanging open, clumsily lumbering his way, for instance, through cut-and-pasted background images from Song of the South. Rhodes constructs complex bridges between “reality” and “pictorial reality”: Assimilating preexisting narratives, with their traditional lineage and formal techniques, he overwrites them with material of his own.

The title “Dar Allers War Ne’er Eny Bear Bear” is a corruption of the Southern slang of Uncle Remus, an echo of Gertrude Stein’s aphorism “There is no there there,” but also an incantation: In view of the omnipresence of the bear in these images, the negative title is touchingly ludicrous. Or helpless, like the female protagonist in The Shining who runs away from the bear figure, refusing to recognize it, like a nightmare the dreamer tries to shake off. Rhodes has transformed himself into the bear as if in an ironic counterspell and uses this figure to smash open the world of Disney’s images. In a small side room, the detritus of a party lay scattered: balloons on the floor, half-empty whiskey bottles, glasses, a CD player playing ballroom music, in one corner a mattress sawed in two diagonally. The bear costume was unobtrusively tucked inside—a good joke, and a cunning one at that.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.