Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
6 March – 31 May 2015
by HARRY THORNE
Here are some facts about Jason Rhoades. In 1999, he constructed Perfect World, claiming it to be the largest indoor sculpture ever made at 15,000sq feet (1,393 sq metres). Four years later, his work Meccatuna (2003) was conceived following Rhoades’s contemplation of whether he could carry a live tuna around the Kaaba in Mecca (the holiest site in Islam). In 2004, he published a book containing 1,724 euphemisms for the vagina, or “pussy words”, each delicately rendered in braille. In 2006, he died at the age of 41 following an accidental drug overdose. On 6 March the first retrospective of his work, Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, arrived at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, the third and final leg of a tour that has already graced the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany. Bringing both a reinvestment in the truly bizarre, and an 18+ age restriction, this is work that novelist and critic Chris Kraus defined as “intensely physical, gleefully vulgar, ‘offensive’, but at the same time as affectless as the demeanour of an idiot savant or made-for-TV serial killer.”1
The eponymous four roads refer to the quartet of categories into which the works are organised: Jason Rhoades, American Artist; Systems; Jason the Mason (the artist’s childhood nickname); and PeaRoeFoam (an art material of Rhoades’s own creation). These roads are well selected and, due to the numerous stylistic guises that the artist adopted over the years, probably necessary. However, at a very early point in the exhibition, the roads merge, leaving nothing but a smouldering multistorey pileup. This is in no way the fault of the Baltic Centre, but rather the product of the multifaceted nature of the works themselves. Rhoades does not operate in navigable terrain, but rather the dark zone where the satnav becomes useless.
Perfectly illustrating this, the show opens with Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita) (1993), a work that appeared in Rhoades’s first solo show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York in 1993, one he described as his “most elaborate mess to date”.2 Built out of raw lumber and drywall, the garage stands in disarray. With its cardboard door half lowered, the cornucopia of tools that lay within are visible: coils of orange cable, a fire extinguisher, bottles of Quaker State motor oil and a vast V8 engine connected to the hand-held Makita drill that lends the work its name. With a lasso hung on the cardboard toolbox, a rifle concealed under a pile of brown paper and several used plastic cups resting on the supports of the garage, the work introduces the viewer to the themes of convolution, fragmentation and disarray that will become all too familiar. As is demonstrated by several of the smaller works on this level, such as The Future is Filled with Possibilities (1995), a children’s scooter modified to look like a bull; Right-Handed Koons Bunny (2005), an aluminium evil twin of its namesake; and Sheetrock Chair, Small Table and Tool Box (1994), a unopened box of original flat-pack furniture, this is not the work of a coherent mind. As it darts between medium, scale and subject, it is closer to that of a hyperactive child who is too fast to catch.
Moving back to Garage Renovation, however, this can be challenged. Preoccupied by the confusion in plain sight, one would be forgiven for neglecting the various delicacies and autobiographical references that lurk in the periphery. Tiny wooden sticks are subtly stacked and arranged around the garage’s foundations, fragile pockets of plant life disrupting the heavy-handed masculinity of the garage. Long stripped of their owner, a neat pile of blue shirts sits to the right of the door, echoes of Rhoades’s previous life. A thin, red basketball hoop hangs destitute above the door, deployed not for its original purpose, but as a halo to what lies below. Garage Renovation is not, then, simply a mess or a site of incoherence. It is a time capsule, a museum, a tomb, one in which the chaos is carefully curated and the madness commanded. In an interview with Michele Robecchi for Contemporary Magazine, Rhoades Stated: “I can’t piss on the floor here. I have to have some kind of control to weave my way through it.”3
Nowhere is this firm hand of control clearer than in The Creation Myth (1998), a large, highly constructed gesamtkunstwerk, or “universal artwork”, echoing that of Matthew Barney or Karen Kilimnik, which is concurrently a diagrammatic of the artist’s own brain and a working replica of the creation myth, “from the point of Michelangelo to the point of Darwinist evolution”.4 The installation is composed of three sections, the first of which is the mind. Standing at the epicentre of the room, the chamber is a stronghold of 38 stacked trestle tables containing the inner child (a Nintendo 64 console), the memory (multicoloured floppy disks) and the consciousness (a monitor displaying photos originally emailed by the artist during the course of the exhibition). To the left of this is constructed reality, a series of wooden poles covered with photocopied images of the artist’s preoccupations – the vast majority of these are pornographic to the highest degree – and to the right, the vital organs. The digestion process of this “psychobiological” area unfolds as follows: a giant red fabric oesophagus leads towards the stomach, a large bag that inflates every five minutes only to slowly collapse, which subsequently feeds to a replica of the artist’s arse, a large smoke machine that shoots ghostly rings across the room every two-and-a-half minutes. A diagram that sits under this machine reads: “Yes, I can blow smoke rings out my asshole.”
To walk around this installation is to be lost in a somatic and psychological toyshop of pop-sculpture. It is to repeatedly locate something new in a playground for the id, whether humorous or indicative of the artist’s meticulous nature, and to become further incorporated into the work as a whole. This audience induction, conscious or otherwise, is what Rhoades drives towards, for it is via this process that the installation becomes somewhat self-sufficient, self-serving. As Ingrid Schaffner, chief curator of ICA Philadelphia, writes: “[It is] intended as it is to operate like ‘a system to accumulate a snowball effect’ of knowledge, language, and interpretation.”5 You enter the room, your exploration nourishes, and as a result the work grows.
In comparison to these rooms, the upper gallery of the Baltic is vast, more industrial warehouse than artistic space. Considering Rhoades’s prior interest in scale – parts of Perfect World were only visible from two separate lifts – one could safely presume this to be the zenith of the exhibition. Among smaller works, this floor is occupied by four main installations. The first is Sutter’s Mill (2000), an ode to the nucleus of the California Gold Rush that lay close to Rhoades’s childhood home and something of an aluminium echo of Garage Renovation. Testament to the artist’s belief in recycling and continuity, the tubes that form the body of this work are the same that were used in Perfect World, and throughout the exhibition they will be removed, polished and reset, as per Rhoades’s instructions. Alongside this stand are several works presented on butchered laptops, one of several large-scale, tribute-to-Marinetti car sculptures titled Fucking Picabia Cars/Picabia Car with Ejection Seat (1997/2000), and The Grand Machine/THEAREOLA (2002). This final work acts as a karaoke studio – while no longer in use, several screens loop recordings of previous participants, one of which is the artist himself – and an assembly line for PeaRoeFoam, Rhoades’s building material that lends this final category its name. A somewhat offputting combination of Styrofoam balls, salmon roe, peas and a copious amount of glue, PeaRoeFoam was not only the product of the artist’s persistent desire to experiment, but also a response to certain galleries that repeatedly refused his requests to construct temporary walls – further evidence of the method that stood behind Rhoades’s persistent renderings of madness.
I realise now that I am dedicating less time to these works than to their counterparts downstairs. This is surprising for two reasons. First, because The Grand Machine and Sutter’s Mill are arguably two of the most recognisable works on show, and second because, as mentioned previously, one would presume that Rhoades’s substantial works would be best suited to larger spaces. Having spent time in the upper gallery, however, repeatedly walking metre upon metre of dead space separating the works, one begins to long for the more incommodious, intimate atmosphere of the floor below. Upstairs it is comfortable. Each piece is allowed its own space to breathe, the power to exist as an entity completely separate from those surrounding it. But if The Creation Myth has taught us anything, it is that it is not about single, isolated works any more, and it is definitely not about being comfortable. Discussing the capabilities of contemporary art, Rhoades stated: “I think people should be overwhelmed. I think it should shut you down; it should make you give up something.”6 As you pick through the remains of Garage Renovation or The Creation Myth, this sense of shutting down is more distinguishable. You unwittingly enter into the work and leave the persona of observer on standby. Upstairs, however, this persona is reanimated and, subsequently, the ability of the work to absorb is diminished.
If, however, we are to use the previous quotation as the gold standard by which to assess the exhibited works, then we, too, must subject those downstairs to a little further scrutiny. For even as you walk through the smaller works such as Descriptive Schematic for Cherry Makita (1993) and Model for Cherry Makita (Honest Engine Work) (1993) towards The Creation Myth; even as each sculpture recognises and melds into the next as the kindred titles suggest; even as the rooms gradually monopolise your attention, there is a palpable atmosphere of unease that holds you back from complete immersion. The best way to describe it is cold. Not the cold that makes you shiver, but the cold that you feel in a chapel or a tomb. This ambience is the byproduct of a tangible dual temporality and a common understanding that this exhibition is extracted from a time and space that is no longer accessible, something that is rare at retrospectives of late artists.
Here, it is the result of two specific omissions. First, the performative element, something that was salient in Rhoades’s work, the consequence of time spent under artist Paul McCarthy at the University of California, Los Angeles. Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé (2006), for example, one of Rhoades’s most celebrated works, was a disorderly environmental installation within which 10 performance events were staged, each structured around a routine of activities and entertainments and each attended by invitation only. Orchestrated by Rhoades himself, these varied performances introduced an unadulterated human energy to the works, an energy that allowed them to grow and develop over time. The second element lacking here (and forgive either blatancy or cliche) is Rhoades himself. The genetic makeup of this work, the dynamism, the attitude, the utter incomprehensibility, stems from the mind of one man. Without him sitting at the helm or the heart of the works, directing artists and viewers alike while maintaining either a complete or non-existent understanding of what he was doing, something lacks. What we are given at the Baltic Centre is not the work of Rhoades, but rather an ode to that work – not overtly hagiographic by any stretch, but undeniably nostalgic.
To put it simply and, considering the work in question, rather aptly, this is a circus. Rhoades is a ringmaster. When a ringmaster falls into the jaws of a lion, then the circus will still look the same. It will still contain the same wonderful things and children will still write long letters about the antics of elephants and gymnasts and magicians, for routine will instruct the performers how to behave. But when the curtains close, everyone will know that the ringmaster is not there. Everyone will know that something is not right. Everyone will know that never again will they be able to fully appreciate the madness that has unfurled in front of them. Undeniably, Jason Rhoades, Four Roads is a spectacle, but it is not the spectacle. Undeniably, it is a circus, but it is not the circus. I fear that without Rhoades we may never be able to capture the true chaotic majesty of the big top, but as this is the hand we have been dealt, we must make do.
Long live the ringmaster. Long live the circus.
1. Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, edited by Ingrid Schaffner, published by DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2014, page 93.
2. Ibid, page 39.
3. Interview with Jason Rhoades, by Michele Robecchi, Contemporary Magazine, contemporary-magazines.com/interview81.htm
4. Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, op cit, page 57.
5. Ibid, page 58.
6. Interview with Jason Rhoades, by Michele Robecchi, op cit.