Organised Chaos

Jason Rhoades

Jason Rhoades, Four Roads at ICA Philadelphia will be the artist’s first major exhibition at an American museum, revealing his sprawling environments made from a wide range of materials.

Californian artist Jason Rhoades’ (b. 1965) sudden death from heart failure in 2006 marked the end of a young artist’s critically acclaimed career. Known for his large-scale installations, which included the debris and materials of American popular culture, his output was diverse and multifarious, referencing his own youth and history as well as that of America itself. Rhoades, who first came to widespread fame with his 1993 show at David Zwirner in New York, is the subject of a solo exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Philadelphia, opening this September. Curated by Ingrid Schaffner, the show takes as its basis four key installations encapsulating the complexities and depth of his oeuvre: Garage Renovation New York (Cherry Makita)  (1993); The Creation Myth (1998); Sutter’s Mill  (2000), and Untitled (My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage…)  (2004/2013). These four pieces are supplemented by four “roads” (interpretative paths): Jason Rhoades, American Artist; Jason the Mason; systems, and taboo. Schaffner says that because his work is so complex, and engaging on many levels, it requires a certain interpretation on the part of the viewer in order to appreciate how systematic and organised the seeming chaos actually is. The “roads”, one of which references Richard Scarry’s children’s book series Busytown and a certain industrious little pig named Jason the Mason, are all based on or related to Rhoades’ personal history and career.

Rhoades, who received his MFA from UCLA in 1993, studied with seminal artists Richard Jackson and Paul McCarthy, and cites Dieter Roth as a major influence, but, unlike these artists, never achieved in his own lifetime the far-reaching commercial notoriety and success that they did on an international scale. Ken Johnson of the New York Times  described his work (in an article dated October 2000) as “absurdly excessive installations of machinery, food, furniture, tools, automotive equipment and electronics illustrating sophomorically grandiose ideas.” Johnson hints at a certain animosity within the United States towards Rhoades’ handmade aesthetic; a mistrust of his eclectic mix of tools, structures, furniture and lighting that was so celebrated and embraced by European collectors, galleries, critics and institutions at the time. This could be because the rhetoric of exhibition display was historically more actively engaged within Europe, although the 1969 Whitney Museum exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedures / Materials  did much to further institutional critique in North America. Organised by Marcia Tucker and James Monte, the list of exhibiting artists included Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis and Michael Asher, and the show marked a decisive shift in the way in which artists produced and presented their own work (9 at Leo Castelli , an exhibition curated by Robert Morris a few months earlier, had done the same but on a smaller scale). Rhoades, like many of the artists working in the 1990s, was up against a backlash and outward judgement against the excessive and glamorously conceived artistic lifestyle furthered by notorious artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

Though rebellious, mischievous and somewhat raunchy, there is a handmade, craft-based element prominent in Rhoades’ work which derives from his early education at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied ceramics. This interest in the creation of objects is elaborated upon by the complexity and intensity of his installations, in which each item is carefully chosen and placed within the greater whole. Rhoades was very much influenced by his environment and the gallery space, and his work, though site-responsive, is wholly adaptable and based on the availability of the materials to hand. Schaffner says: “Jason always said that the Home Depot and Ikea were his art supply stores, and there is a Duchampian idea there, along with a notion of accessibility about how readily we can see ourselves in those materials. He wanted people to feel that the work was accessible.” With Garage Renovation (Cherry Makita) , the work feels personal and intimate, alluding to youth and a carefree era of America during which young boys would spend Sunday afternoons in the garage with their father, tinkering with the car. The shed (garage) is slightly transitory looking, with the sliding door constructed out of taped-together cardboard, and the haphazard collection of tools, wood and bags of material colluding together outside the structure’s walls, begging to be put away. There is a sinister element to the installation, a post-apocalyptic aspect, as though one day father and son just put down their tools and walked away without a second thought. Rhoades identifies a very important piece of our own personal histories, highlighting wider insecurities about loss, whether tied to our families or personal environment. This is especially relevant today, with the darker side of American culture coming to light in terms of xenophobia and the economic cessation of the middle class: America is no longer just about cars, sex, cowboys and guns – there is something else going on.

The use of common objects in his work as seen in Garage Renovation (Cherry Makita) , whether they be fire extinguishers, pieces of cardboard or sheets of kitchen foil, comes out of the Duchampian lineage of the readymade. Martha Buskirk argues, in The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (2005) , that “the possibility that a work’s physical manifestation might be of limited duration, or that it might come and go as needed, has also helped facilitate the multitude of highly particular materials now commonly found in the context of the work of art.” The Creation Myth , Rhoades’ work which was exhibited in London in the 2009 Hayward Gallery exhibition Walking in My Mind , is emblematic of this idea of the use of “highly particular materials.” He explores the various myths and narratives about our creation and how we came to inhabit the earth through the use of the readymade and manmade products placed to mimic the digestive process; the work exists as a continuum with the different objects and materials interacting, forming a narrative. These elements – wooden trestle tables balanced precariously upon one another, laden down with paper, scraps of wood, television monitors and glowing neon lights – force the viewer to question their own existence, for what are we if not the product of our culture? The myth, or narrative, is again referenced in the title of the work and the perfectly placed installation manual, The Big Book of the Creation Myth.

Rhoades used space as inspiration not just in terms of the architectural framework for the work, but also for the impetus behind it. PIG (Piece in Ghent), created for his participation in a group show in Ghent in 1994, was directly inspired by the altarpiece The Lamb of God  (1432) by the van Eyck brothers in St. Bavo’s Chapel, Ghent Cathedral. One of the first painted altarpieces in North and Western Europe, it also marks a more populist approach to Christianity, with realist figures depicted next to more sacred elements. Rhoades took the various iconographies and key themes and adapted them to a modern day aesthetic in his theatrical installation, with the baptismal font of the painting becoming a Jacuzzi and the medium (oil paint) reconfigured through the use of motor oil in the work. The end product arises out of a sculptural tradition based on the creation of works of art influenced by religion and literature, but simultaneously reduced to a secret level of identification – an art historical lingua franca . Even the title of PIG (Piece in Ghent)  is anonymous; Rhoades liked to play with words – with semantics – and Schaffner comments: “Jason used spelling as a way of also building up the work on an associative level.”

Rhoades counted among his various inspirations not just Marcel Duchamp but minimalist artist Donald Judd. It is difficult to look at his work and see this influence right away, but the way in which he develops space and the interacting volumes within it grows out of the minimalist desire to activate the viewer’s environment and create a visual experience. The arrangement of the composite elements of a piece of work is as much the medium as the physical components: the precise juxtapositions form the overall narrative. In Sutter’s Mill , the title references a sawmill in Coloma, California, where gold flakes were discovered in 1848, marking the beginning of the California Gold Rush. Rhoades’ rendition of this old wooden structure is a modernised version constructed out of minimalist gleaming aluminium pipes anchored by two blue plastic drums. It was described at the David Zwirner exhibition by New York Times  critic Ken Johnson as: “A giant Tinkertoy-like model of a sawmill made of the fat, shiny pipes stands in one room; it has a peaked roof, a water wheel and a cartoonish, sheet metal saw. Another room holds an identical but incomplete version of the mill. During the exhibition, an assistant will always be building up or taking down one or the other mill, acting out an endless Sisyphean loop of construction and deconstruction, mirroring the constant state of flux that is modernity.” Johnson hones in on a key feature of Rhoades’ oeuvre, flux : his work transforms as you view it – the more the viewer looks, the more is revealed. The complexity of his work requires an element of submission from the viewer, and Rhoades stated (in an interview with Michele Robecchi): “I think people should be overwhelmed. I think it should shut you down; it should make you give up something. I think you should come to a work of art and be able to offer it something and be able to stand there with it and just say ‘yeah, I’m prostrating myself, I’m giving in to you.’ ”

The state of flux carries throughout his short but interminable career; Rhoades’ work evolved from being about the exterior – the structure which the viewer faced, watched and contemplated – to being about the interior. He wanted the viewer to enter his world and actively engage with it. Schaffner describes this shift in reference to the fourth installation, Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage…) : “A real emptying out occurs – you go from a structure to a space. So physically the work changes from something that you are standing outside of as a viewer, looking at, and evolves into a space that you are surrounded in; you are inside Jason’s world.” This idea, of entering a parallel universe, of completely submerging into a different environment, is expressed in his last project, Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret  Macramé (2006) a complex piece that had two major parts (the Black Pussy  cabaret installation in his studio in Los Angeles, and then a facsimile copy shown at Hauser & Wirth in London). The nights at his studio involved a curated guestlist, the Johnny Cash bar, and, of course, an evening of performances. It is sad to think where, if not for his untimely death, his work would have progressed as there is every indication that Rhoades was bubbling with creativity and energy.

The first posthumous solo European exhibition of his work was the 2010 Hauser & Wirth exhibition, which featured 1:12 Perfect World , Rhoades’ scale model of his 1999 exhibition, Perfect World, at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. The original work as installed at the Deichtorhallen occupied a 15,000 square foot space; to have it reduced to occupy the Piccadilly gallery space of Hauser & Wirth was a feat in itself but was criticised by some critics who saw the scaled down version as merely that – a scaled down reproduction. Rhoades’ models were as important to his working process as they were to the final product, and Schaffner describes these models as “ancillary exhibitions”, being as crucial to the work as the large-scale, labyrinthine installations themselves. The use of models dates back to the beginning of Rhoades’ career, with Garage Renovation (Cherry Makita)  having two small models, which helped Rhoades envision the work as a whole, complete unit and think about the way it would operate on different scales.

Schaffner has tackled an artist’s oeuvre that is staggeringly complex not just for the fact that Rhoades considered his entire output as one work, but for its enormous size and intricate nature. By selecting four major installations, all made at key moments in his career, and placing them within close visual and aural proximity, she articulates this artistic intent. The institution or gallery that has the foresight, and space, to take this to the next level and create a comprehensive retrospective will be building upon the ICA’s own discernment and capabilities.

Jason Rhoades, Four Roads  is at ICA Philadelphia from 18 September – 29 December. Please visit for further information.

Niamh Coghlan