Fast cars and lumber shacks: how Jason Rhoades became the all-American bad boy of art
Source:Art and design Author:Adrian Searle Date: 2015-03-12 Size:
Throbbing power tools, girly calendars, logs covered in porn and a slimy substance called PeaRoeFoam ...

 

 Jason Rhoades’s 1993 Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita). All photographs: Colin Davison

Slung from a hoist, a partly disassembled and re-jigged V8 engine is hooked up to a power drill. There’s mess everywhere, the usual garage mechanics’ slew of discarded tools, coiled cables, abandoned lunches and girly calendars.

This plasterboard and timber shack, with a wonky basketball hoop over the door, can be taken as an artist’s studio. The things inside don’t go anywhere, but they take you places. Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, which fills two floors of the Baltic and has travelled from the ICA in Philadelphia, is a condensed survey of the late Californian artist’s sprawling oeuvre, and the most manageable exhibition of his art that I have seen. Even so, it is a complicated and sometimes X-rated road trip. Wandering between the garage and the karaoke bar, to the sawmill and the storage racks, via a three-dimensional creation myth, it is hard not to lose one’s bearings.

A former student of Paul McCarthy (and it shows) at UCLA, Rhoades burst on to the LA art scene even before he graduated in 1993, and for much of his career was lauded more in Europe than in his native US. Rhoades died in 2006 aged 41; his heart failure was probably drug-induced. Encounters with the artist himself – who I first saw in a bizarre group show in Ghent in 1994, when he wandered the galleries with a homemade potato-gun, blasting holes in the gallery walls – did not make things clearer.

Jason Rhoades Four Roads
A fixation with cars ... Rhoades’s Fucking Picabia/Picabia Car with Ejection Seat.

Comprehension can be overrated. Rhoades’s all-American, sex-obsessed, psycho-babbling, LA bad boy art had a lot going for it. His sprawling sculptures had a riotous energy. His last big London show before his death conflated imagery relating to pagan idols and gods once housed the Ka’bah in Mecca, with an inventory of slang words for the vagina.

Back to the garage. The tools are made from kitchen foil, the pizzas are plaster. There are lots of little jokes, plays between the real and the false, the practical and the metaphorical. The V8, surely, is an engine of desire. Hold a power tool in your hand and the thing throbs and makes a whining noise. I think I get it. It’s guy stuff.

There is a back-story to Rhoades’s 1993 Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita), which spans both the artist’s autobiography and a story about a failed Formula One driver who became a cocaine dealer. It’s all laid out in a big diagram on a nearby wall, but by the time I’ve got to the bottom of it I want to move on.  

Jason Rhoades

Model of the artist’s mind ... Rhoades’s The Creation Myth.

Another later work also involves a car, though the big plywood structure looks more like a speedboat. Glued here and there on its surface are copies of photographs of the artist Francis Picabia driving fast automobiles. Picabia was a millionaire. He could afford to indulge his passions. There’s also a reproduction of one of Picabia’s paintings, depicting buxom naked young women, and on one of the vehicle’s upper surfaces a laptop runs through a DVD of “100% nude” soft-porn shots of young women. Meanwhile, George Jones sings and there’s the sound of an engine revving. It’s called Fucking Picabia/Picabia Car with Ejection Seat. Eject me now.

As in Matthew Barney’s art, cars were a fixation for Rhoades. He lived in LA, after all. To him, the car was both protective bubble and mobile studio, though nothing he ever made would actually fit in one. His studio was really the world about him.

Rhoades’s 1998 The Creation Myth fills the whole back half of one gallery. A huge red fabric tube, big enough to crawl through, runs over and between banqueting tables, trestles, mounds of shredded paper, coloured plastic buckets, office materials, piles of handyman catalogues, dictionaries, mirrors and a great many porn shots, both littering the tables and papered over numerous logs leant on the walls, which somehow invoke the pioneering spirit.

  Man-drool ... Rhoades’s art is covered in a sludge known as PeaRoeFoam.

The porn gave the hardy backwoodsmen something to look at when they were snowed-in. An inventory of all this stuff could consume an entire article. The whole thing is a model of the artist’s mind, his private myth of self-creation. The coloured buckets are labelled as parts of the artist’s psyche. “The Sprit, Spirt or Spirit”; “Moral Wedge (Right & Wrong)“; “The Asshole”; “Vital Organs”. Thumping hip-hop beats rend the air, and a machine throws wobbling clouds and giant smoke rings over our heads. A great deal goes over my head, including jokes about Darwin and a dog called Burt.

It’s all a shaggy dog story. By now I’ve had my fill of sprawly, junk-filled installations, whoever they are by. By the time you’ve clocked the details, searched for the underlying theme and sifted the layers, the magic has somehow gone. A big novel can sustain any amount of detail, and does so because of its narrative drive. Plus, you can read sitting down. In art like this, there’s just too much leg-work, too much forensics and clue-hunting.

Concision was never really Rhoades’s thing, though his 2000 version of an American monument, Sutter’s Mill (the real sawmill stands near where Rhoades grew up. Gold was discovered there in 1848, starting the Californian gold rush), is a miraculous thing. Rhoades has constructed his version in gleaming aluminium tubing, re-used from a previous installation.

The end wall of the upper floor of Rhoades’s show is taken up by a floor-to-ceiling industrial storage rack, stuffed with objects, and plastic bins overflowing with his signature material, a mix of dried peas, salmon eggs and PVA glue called – with something less than ingenuity – PeaRoeFoam.

This unpleasant substance lubricates many of Rhoades’s sculptural installations. Maybe this sludge-like substance is also a metaphor for what happens to the world when entropy has done its work. It is man-drool, the psychic bile of the American male, the end that all things come to.

[Editor] 万兰

    Artintern