Jason Rhoades, My Brother/Brancuzi, 1995, carpet, wood, steel, small gasoline engines, tools, plastic, doughnut machine, mixed media. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Laura Wilson. © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.

Jason Rhoades, My Brother/Brancuzi, 1995, carpet, wood, steel, small gasoline engines, tools, plastic, doughnut machine, mixed media. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Laura Wilson. © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.

Jason Rhoades

Jason Rhoades, My Brother/Brancuzi, 1995, carpet, wood, steel, small gasoline engines, tools, plastic, doughnut machine, mixed media. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Laura Wilson. © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.

HOW WOULD JASON RHOADES’S desire to offend go down now, in this era of call-outs and open letters? Many of the late artist’s raucous installations are like elaborate exercises in trolling: They appear orchestrated to provoke, conjuring the specter of an overactive macho id, preoccupied by cars, power tools, guns, pornography, dick jokes, cum jokes, pussy jokes, religious jokes, junk food, and celebrity.

The Brant Foundation—which has mounted a focused presentation of Rhoades’s work, including three major installations—has an obvious fondness for those who have at one time or another taken up the mantle of bad boy. Most of the Foundation’s solo exhibitions have showcased men, among them Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Rob Pruitt, Josh Smith, and Dash Snow. And yet the very exclusive environment of the foundation—a converted historic barn in Greenwich, Connecticut, amid polo fields and mansions—has the effect of taming such work, making this ostensibly transgressive male energy seem consequence-free, like little more than titillation for the ultrarich. Rhoades’s premature death in 2006 additionally gives his antics a subtle pallor of loss, and serves to contain the work of an artist who strove to never be contained, and who often made himself present in his own installations. Despite this absence, and beyond the macho role-play, however, Rhoades’s work addresses a timely subject—the confused, postindustrial landscape of California, which has, in the intervening years, come to define American cultural life. Rather than demonstrating a return of the repressed—a strategy more readily identified with Rhoades’s influential teacher at UCLA, Paul McCarthy—the younger artist sought to capture the aftermath of desublimation, tracing the psychodrama of products already in circulation.

Jason Rhoades, The Grand Machine/THEAREOLA, 2002, mixed media. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Laura Wilson. © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.

In 1995’s My Brother/Brancuzi, first shown at that year’s Whitney Biennial, Rhoades squared the figure of the suburban DIY tinkerer with that of the canonical modernist artist. It’s still exhilarating to see the joy that he took in carefully positioning workaday objects taken from his brother’s wood-paneled bedroom in arrangements that recall famous photographs of Constantin Brancusi’s Paris studio. In place of elegant wooden and stone sculptures and plinths, Rhoades presents a calculated mess of gasoline engines, foam-carpet padding, extension cords, tinfoil, cheap veneer furniture, and endless doughnuts. (The baked goods commemorate a childhood doughnut-business scheme dreamed up by Rhoades’s brother; here they even form a Brancusian “endless column” that reaches into the air.) On the gallery walls, Rhoades placed photographic diptychs juxtaposing images of the two “studios”: In one pairing, his brother stands before a huge fish tank, looking as proud and authoritative as Brancusi amid his sculptures. Piles of Legos in the installation suggest the early joys of the child builder, and the installation as a whole summons the raw, near-universal thrill of fabrication and construction. As in many of Rhoades’s works, he controls the act of looking, in this case forcing viewers to circle an inaccessible center, encouraging them to lose themselves in the detailed drama at the periphery.

Rhoades sought to capture the aftermath of desublimation.

My Brother/Brancuzi also includes a document that makes clear how fastidious this gargantuan mess is. Illustrated with photographs and handwritten on a cardboard sheet, the document is an instruction manual for the unruly installation’s care, featuring the artist’s idiosyncratic spelling and tone. One of many notes reads: “Yes someone will probably try to eat THE DONUTS there is NOT A LOT I can Do ABOUT THAT . . . If ROADents eat them this is ok Because They are sclptors But if They Drag it into the ROADway (the space Between the Framed works and the Floor works) this I feal shoud Be cLean.” Rhoades’s predilection for homonyms—here of motoring-related subject matter and his own name—is on display, but it’s worth noting that, for all the crackpot tone, the instructions are extensive and exacting, presumably providing crucial information to curators posthumously displaying such a complicated work.

Jason Rhoades, Untitled (from the body of work: My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage . . .), 2004, neon, colored Plexiglas panels, transformers, metal hooks, brass wire, extension cords, silicon endcaps, power strips, towels, mixed media. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Laura Wilson. © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.

The second major installation gathers together elements of a sprawling project that addresses the transformation of a large swath of the American economy from manufacturing work into more flexible forms of employment. Its centerpiece is The Grand Machine/THEAREOLA, 2002, the chaotic control center of a production line for mixing and packaging a substance called PeaRoeFoam—a “brand new product and revolutionary new material” made by combining “virgin” white foam beads, green peas, and salmon roe with glue. As in My Brother/Brancuzi, Rhoades foregrounds his instructions: Numbered sheets of paper detailing the step-by-step process for the creation of this substance hang haphazardly around a workspace of desks, office chairs, and tools for mixing, boxing, and shipping PeaRoeFoam, frog-spawn-like glops of which cling to everything in sight. Hovering over the installation is the dialectic of virgin and whore as seen through commercial products. The official packaging for PeaRoeFoam is the 1972 Ivory Snow detergent box, which displays the image of a clean, smiling blonde woman holding a baby. This model, Marilyn Chambers, appears again in the installation, nude this time, in the poster for Behind the Green Door, a feature-length pornographic film she starred in the same year, causing a succès de scandale that ultimately prompted Ivory Snow to recall all of their products with her image. Through his off-kilter processing plant for combining pure, sterile foam with organic material suggesting reproduction, Rhoades created a hybrid all-purpose composite for the act of generation itself.

The installation is a deranged factory, one that has literally gone to seed; as such, it is a powerful avatar for the state of capitalist production today. (Rhoades made this work in the wake of the steepest decline in manufacturing employment in US history: Between 2000 and 2001, around one and a half million jobs in this sector were lost.) As a final, key element, karaoke CDs are strung around the space, paired with recordings of the thin, unaccompanied voices of individuals singing while wearing headphones. The artist calls these part of his efforts to “milk out the sincerity of each participant and imbue the objects in the room with a pure spirit.” This objective speaks acutely to economic conditions that have evolved in the past decade, to a new “spirit of capitalism” that exhorts us to give over more and more of ourselves to our work, every spark of personality and life force. The ghosts of creative labor hang over the installation, as if haunting an industrial tomb.

Jason Rhoades, Shelf (Love Pocket), 2003, Seville Ultra Durable chrome shelving system, neon, colored Plexiglas panels, ceramic donkey carts, power strips, extension cords, metal hooks. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Laura Wilson. © The Estate of Jason Rhoades.

On the gallery’s upper floor are elements from the artist’s final bodies of work, typified by colorful neon phrases. The largest of these pieces is Untitled (from the body of work: My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage . . . ), 2004, featuring ninety-six neon phrases that are descriptors for female genitalia, referred to as “pussy words.” Originally, this work accompanied an installation of dirty towels laid out on the floor, meant to refer to Islamic prayer mats. At the Brant Foundation, visitors find only a handful of towels, tied in bundles, spattered with a gluey, cum-like substance, and accessorized with zucchini and other phallic vegetables. Made three years after 9/11, the piece now seems to presage the strategies of ironic trolls identified with the “alt-right,” antagonizing the perceived social mores of the left-leaning art world with childish sexual humor and jokes, and revealing a fear of transgression in times of crisis.

As no one needs reminding, the word pussy has menaced the past year and a half. In the notorious Access Hollywood tape, Donald J. Trump gave the world the indelible expression “grab them by the pussy,” a phrase appropriated in anger by the makers of hats with pink “pussy ears” worn by many of the millions of marchers in Washington, DC, and elsewhere on the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Arguably, this focus on assault helped spark the current revolution in sexual politics that is now lashing almost every sphere of culture. There is no underestimating this country’s fear and discomfort, its will to control the sexual organs and lives of women and femininized others.

Saying all this, I don’t find myself in the least bit offended by Rhoades’s pussy words, which run the gamut from extravagant metaphors and cutesy pet names to over-the-top porno slang: Mossy Jaw, Plum Tree, Saltwater Taffy Factory, Cock Alley, and Coochie. They are a panoply of amusing or silly riffs on heat, smell, taste, fuzzy hair, or the odd mechanics of intercourse, raised aloft into a kind of rainbow jamboree. They are flashy, colorful, risqué, and funny. Then again, perhaps I can’t raise a drop of outrage because quotidian life in America today is now so much more offensive than what’s on view here. The misogyny and Islamophobia that really burns today are a harasser in chief, a border wall, and a proposed ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries. Rhoades’s art was a perceptive and consuming Gesamtkunstwerk that chewed through a smorgasbord of contradictions at the heart of the United States and coughed them up like a tangled hairball. The difference now is that he’s no longer around, and we’re living in it.

Jason Rhoades” remains on view through April 1, 2018.

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator at Swiss Institute, New York.