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Jason Rhoades was a quintessentially L.A. artist, whose sprawling, dense, visually cacophonous installations reflected Los Angeles’ hodgepodge urban aesthetics and consumer culture. Despite this, he was always more popular in Europe—exhibiting widely in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—than in the city where he lived and worked. Presented 11 years after his untimely death at the age of 41, Hauser & Wirth’s career spanning survey Installations, 1994-2006 is something of a homecoming; the artist’s first major retrospective in his adopted hometown. It offers an opportunity to re-visit (or introduce) the work of an artist who has more often been talked about—lauded as heir to the lineage of Chris Burden and Mike Kelley—than seen in the United States.
The show opens with the earliest and tamest work on view, which caught the art world’s attention, setting Rhoades on his meteoric rise to art stardom. Produced the year after receiving his MFA from UCLA, Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts (1994) established Rhoades as a master practitioner of what Jerry Saltz termed “clusterfuck aesthetics.” Piles of mundane objects litter the room: styrofoam, cardboard, pieces of wood, legal pads, and a recurring motif—the ubiquitous five gallon plastic bucket, Rhoades’ signature readymade. The unifying element in the work is the color yellow, which, in the original installation at Rosamund Felsen’s gallery, was based on the color of the building’s façade. The installation serves as a celebration of American consumerism, not based on luxury or wealth, but a kind of populist, big box materialism à la Ikea and Home Depot, one attainable to everyone. As with many of Rhoades’ works, Swedish Erotica has no center, no focus. It is up to viewers to find their way through the aisles between stacks of goods, attempting their own connections. You don’t so much look at the artwork as inhabit it, even if inhabiting proves somewhat futile.
My Brother / Brancusi from the following year revels in the kind of high/low dichotomy that was another common theme for Rhoades. A central assemblage combines wooden crates, small motorbikes, toy trucks, and industrial items, with stacks of donuts referencing Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Columns: icons of high modernism re-cast as junk food. The donuts also reference Rhoades’ brother’s desire to become rich from a donut business: Henry Ford by way of Homer Simpson. The walls are lined with photographs pairing Constantin Brancusi’s studio with the bedroom of Rhoades’ brother—one filled with modernist sculptures, the other with weight benches and aquariums, symbols of adolescent masculinity. It is a playful jab at the 20th century archetype of the heroic, male artist, proposing in its place a slacker, man-boy juvenility. Despite Rhoades’ ambition, it is a characterization that fits him, with his sophomoric enthusiasm, as well.
Rhoades ratchets up his freewheeling, omnivorous exuberance with The Creation Myth (1998), a messy, orgiastic panorama of human thought and invention. Subtitled The Mind, the Body and the Spirit, the Shit, Prick and the Rebellious Part, the installation loosely resembles a figure composed of stacked tables, overhead projectors, video monitors, lights and all manner of detritus, generously decorated with pornographic images. On one end, a snake riding a toy train stands in as the figure’s scattered brain. On the opposite end, a large contraption representing an anus blows a smoke-ring every 15 seconds or so, the work’s only true site of production. The once noble act of creation is reduced to a fart joke.
These works confront the notion of the masterpiece, presenting instead an environment of everyday materials for the viewer to wander through—though the question remains whether they dismantle previous hierarchies, or simply shift them around. Is it really any less grandiose to pack a room with ephemeral objects than to craft a monument out of steel or concrete? Saltz’s “clusterfuck aesthetics” could be considered an artistic form of manspreading, and it’s not insignificant that most of its adherents were white male artists, challenging a previous generation’s hallowed works with their own brand of grand gestures.
The final three works included in the exhibition escalate Rhoades’ irreverence and repudiation of good taste, mixing sex, religion, and culture in a cheekily profane fusion that thumbs its nose at convention. In My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage… (2004), he creates a mosque-like setting, with a patchwork of towels on the floor in place of prayer mats, which viewers can only walk on once they have removed their shoes. As they gaze heaven-ward, they are confronted with a web of 240 neon signs overhead, each spelling out a slang word for female genitalia: Crotch Cobbler, Cock Alley, Woo-Woo. It reads like a blown-up, electric version of Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde—the 1866 painting of female genitalia—made by a puerile obsessive. It is indeed dazzling, at least in its execution, the scale of which is revealed by scores of orange power cords cascading down one wall, but it raises the question, as does so much of Rhoades work, of whether or not this smashing of taboos serves to challenge dominant systems or reinforce them. Work that was once perhaps seen as a liberating rebellion against staid mores, now seems retrograde in retrospect, simply enforcing patriarchal norms under a new guise.
The last two works combine Rhoades’ linguistic, yonic obsession with his interest in consumerism, this time expressed on a global scale. Tijuanatanjierchandelier (2006) and The Black Pussy…and the Pagan Idol Workshop (2005) combine knick-knacks and tchotchkes from Mexico and Morocco with his jungle of neon signs. These are not “authentic” forays into other cultures—they’re not trying to be—but they showcase the marketplace crafts, hookahs, and cheap figurines that represent cultural collision in a way that museum artifacts cannot. To some, this smacks of a sort of superficial cultural appropriation, yet it reflects the same wide-eyed appreciation for mass-market material culture seen in all Rhoades’ work, here applied to the vaguely ethnic, off the shelf readymades of the tourist bazaar instead of Wal-Mart.
Despite his juvenile exuberance and sophomoric sense of humor, Jason Rhoades’ maximalist installations are not simple, easy works. At their best, they’re intensely personal and sincere epic constructions, drawing from a range of sources across the visual and material spectrums, dismissive of hierarchical distinctions. When ambition outpaces curiosity, however, they run the risk of simply being new manifestations of the old guard.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 8.