Art

Jason Rhoades’s Outdated and Unchecked Art

Jason Rhoades’s work can feel besides the point in today’s context — what might have seemed provocative 10 or 20 years ago now comes off as just loud and obnoxious.

Jason Rhoades, “My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…” (2004), mixed media, dimensions variable, installation view, Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994 –2006, Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (image © The Estate of Jason Rhoades, courtesy the estate, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner, photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

LOS ANGELES — The word “pussy” has come a long way since Jason Rhoades’s death, just over a decade ago. The maximalist installation artist often employed signifiers or literal imagery of female genitalia in his pieces, and Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994–2006 at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles (formerly Hauser Wirth & Schimmel) is replete with pussies.

Female genitalia are in no way the sole focus of Rhoades’s installations — even when it’s in the piece’s title — but their presence sticks out as a clear sign of how drastically gender politics have shifted in the new millennium, and the edging out of an artist like Rhoades, as a white American male, from having anything useful to add today. The work can feel besides the point in today’s context — what might have seemed provocative 10 or 20 years ago now comes off as just loud and obnoxious. But what redeems the exhibition is precisely what some might exclude it for: how personal the work is. It is an unapologetic tour of Rhoades’s messy, confused, and explosive id — a hoarder’s den suffused with pornography. The work offers zero didacticism to challenge or promote, and therefore seems to lack a constructive discourse. Your mileage will vary depending on how much you think Rhoades is worth caring about.

The six installations on display, each occupying a full room in the gallery and covering over 28,000 square feet together, are dense and complex: generally speaking, their construction is like an open-air tourist market, or the at-home workspace. On a purely logistical level, pulling off these installations is impressive: they are so rife with stuff that figuring out what goes where, and distinguishing art object from packing material, isn’t always so easy.

Jason Rhoades, “Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts” (1994), mixed media, dimensions variable, installation view, Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994 –2006, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles (image © The Estate of Jason Rhoades, courtesy the estate, Hauser & Wirth, Private Collection, Switzerland and lenders, photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

Curator Paul Schimmel (a former partner at the gallery, who left about a week into Jason Rhoades) opened the exhibition with a memorial reference to Rhoades’s “strange personal magic.” Over e-mail, Rick Baker, the manager of Rhoades’s estate and a former studio assistant, told me the collected documentation Rhoades and his team gathered to guide re-installations includes “tens of thousands of still images, drawings and maps, in addition to hundreds of hours of video.” The documentation grows with every new installation.

Given the scale of each piece, going through the entire exhibition at once is exhausting. “Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts” (1994) collects a winding set of stacked objects familiar to the shelves of Home Depot and Ikea, joined together based on their shared yellow color. For Rhoades, the objects (according to accompanying texts issued by Hauser Wirth & Schimmel) are associated with Ikea, sex, and consumption, leading to the title’s reference to porn production company Swedish Erotica. Certainly sex and consumerism are no strange bedfellows, but in Rhoades’s work, the relationship is rendered in an ad hoc, haphazard, illogical form. It’s not sexy, it’s seedy.

Jason Rhoades, “My Brother / Brancuzi” (1995), mixed media, dimensions variable, installation view, Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994 –2006, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles (image © The Estate of Jason Rhoades Courtesy Private Collection, Switzerland, photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

“My Brother / Brancuzi” (1995) brings up similar DIY vibes, through a conflation of domestic and studio space — particularly, Rhoades’s brother’s bedroom and the studio of Constantin Brâncusi. A stack of stale donuts nods to Brancusi’s column, amidst the scene of an overstuffed rec room. Conflating Rhoades’s brother’s bedroom and the studio of Brancusi is both a middle finger to exalting the artist’s workspace and an unapologetic show of what that may foolishly require: littering a gallery with stale donuts.

Jason Rhoades, “The Black Pussy… and the Pagan Idol Workshop” (2005), mixed media, dimensions variable, installation view, Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994–2006, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles (image © The Estate of Jason Rhoades Courtesy the estate, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and lender, photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

The sexual imagery ramps up in “The Creation Myth” (1998) and “The Black Pussy… and the Pagan Idol Workshop” (2005). The former is like stepping into the garage workshop of a perverted hobbyist, hoarding construction and office supplies, and a decent amount of pornography. This is the most architectural of the installations so far, putting the viewer directly into the scale of the at-home workshop. It follows then, that you start to see everything as both worthless and indispensable, at the same time. This trend continues into “The Black Pussy,” setting the viewer loose in a bazaar that specializes in, you guessed it, pussies. Stacked shelves of touristic tchotchke objects, often with phallic or yonic associations (the ‘idols’), are tethered to lit neon tubing spelling out euphemisms for female genitalia — poke hole, spare tongue, yoni, alcachofa, among dozens of others — culled from “African, Creole, Cajun, Ebonics, and hip-hop dialects,” according to the gallery’s text. It’s an intended provocation with a juvenile twinge, an attempt to harness the racist underpinnings of his appropriations for shock value.

It seems as if Rhoades most certainly doesn’t, and didn’t, care about coming off as juvenile. But after getting beaten over the head with neon pussy words in this exhibition, I couldn’t shake off the question: Why stage this retrospective now? Too often, “being provocative” is used as a catch-all defense to be able to spread a racist or sexist trope under the mishandled banner of free speech. Rhoades’s treatment of these concepts seems entirely self-serving: they are there just because he’s obsessed with them. The umpteenth neon pussy word inspires the same eye-roll as reading “PEN15 CLUB” scratched into a desk.

Jason Rhoades, “My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…” (2004), mixed media, dimensions variable, installation view, Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994 –2006, Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (image © The Estate of Jason Rhoades, courtesy the estate, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner, photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

Ending with “My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…” (2004) is initially a relief, and represents a sanctuary-like worship space for Rhoades. The piece emulates the open-plan of a mosque, with still more neon pussy words hanging from the ceiling, and mats overlapping on the floor, peppered with small objects. The evocation of the religious space seems just as gratuitous as the pussy words — a hodgepodge of appropriation without interrogation. The indifferent neon light of the hanging pussy words adds a kind of Las Vegas glitz to the installation, reminding the viewer, again, that Rhoades isn’t taking this all too seriously. You can take off your shoes and walk over the entire thing — but any hints at introspection don’t last long. At the center of the installation sit three books, entitled 1724: Birth of the Cunt, by none other than the artist himself. It seems like a practical joke, where no one is laughing but Rhoades.

Jason Rhoades: Installations, 1994–2006 continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles) through May 21. 

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