Los Angeles artist Jason Rhoades passed away early last month in what is said to be a possible heart failure. Rhoades was often described as a very enigmatic person, which could easily be discerned from his “all out” installations of pipes, legos, legal pads, neon and many other materials. Los Angeles art viewers may remember Rhoades most recently when he designed a series of interactive art exhibitions called “soirees.” Among them, the “Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé”, was perhaps most provocative where violent neon signs with African, Caribbean, Creole and hip-hop slang for female genitalia sprawled across a warehouse. This allover smut was reproduced in part at the David Zwirner Gallery in NYC in 2003 along with “Lego Mecca Ka’ba," which included a million legos that were to build a 1/3 scale model of the Kaaba, though its completion was to be done during the exhibition making the task impossible.
While many were offended by Rhoades’ blatant sexism, his outright aggressive installations were always calmed by their magnificent formalism. If it is possible to possess an ultra magnetic machismo, all the while retaining a formal character that is as decadent as anything there is modern, Rhoades pulled it off. Which is not to say that his assertiveness did not have a point. What this point is however, wasn’t always clear, as his installations did not have a clear beginning or end. Endlessly recycling parts of old installations with new materials and forms, his work always had a narrative, or drive, that ate at most viewers.
Rhoades is often cited as having more success and audience in Europe than in America. Perhaps this was because the drive his work purported to have was strangely closer to home than many would want to admit. His work typified an obsession with excess, lust, decadence and filth, topics his work both enacted and transgressed.
At the time of his death, Rhoades was preparing a live event in Portland, Ore. It was to feature a wrestling match involving homeless teenagers wallowing in a plastic pool filled with bath soaps, lotions and sexual lubricants. With so much emphasis on art’s social responsibility and involvement with the community, Rhoades work strikes me as a scary antidote to the question of what art really can do. Which is to say that art’s function is perhaps best left to reflect its culture and not to change it. For his brashness, his guts, his decadence, his bewilderment and absolute refusal of anything easy, I respect the work and legacy of Jason Rhoades. He will be missed.
images courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery