Jason Rhoades, The Creation Myth
It’s possible to enjoy the work of artist Jason Rhoades for the experiential nature of it — shut down your brain and enjoy a chaotic-looking, well-constructed mess without trying to puzzle out what it means. It can be purely entertaining to look, listen and interact without wondering about the “why” behind it all.
But the Institute of Contemporary Art’s “Jason Rhoades, Four Roads” — the first major U.S. survey of Rhoades’ work — steers you toward “why.” And once you’ve headed down that road, there are barriers that make his work a little harder to enjoy — but all the more memorable for it.
Two installations stand out as purely enjoyable for aesthetic mess or just plain beauty of experience. The first is The Creation Myth (above), a huge Rube Goldberg-machine metaphor for the creative process. Images in the guise of trees go in one end, then are hacked apart, digested and dispersed by the “brain.” The room-filling installation spews lo-fi ’90s music from a tape deck and occasional smoke rings and loud booms from an “asshole”; some rings travel half the gallery before dissipating.
The other purely enjoyable installation, Untitled (from My Madinah, In pursuit of my ermitage …), has a ceiling of neon signs radiating different slang words for vagina (like the headline of this piece), their numerous extension cords forming a labyrinthine canopy. Underneath is a bath-towel-laden floor, where you can walk if you remove your footwear. The interactions between pretty lights, soft footing and “pussy words” is really something.
It’s to the ICA’s minor discredit that it couldn’t pack more of these immersive experiences into Rhoades’ first major American exhibition. With several didactic displays, a reading and video room, a road-map brochure and four suggested thematic “roads” through the rooms, the ICA seems more concerned with a viewer’s understanding of the thought processes informing the work — the “why.”
They were right to be apprehensive. Rhoades died at 41 in 2006 of a heart attack brought on by an overdose, so he can’t explain himself. For this retrospective, his work was painstakingly recreated with help from “experts” who knew the artist, the manager of his estate and elaborate manuals he left behind.
Cynics might dismiss the work as spectacle demanding that valuable brain time be spent unraveling the intentionally puzzling creations of another white male art-school-world darling. In a dark mood, they might recall Vito Acconci masturbating beneath the floorboards of a gallery in 1972 and wonder if Rhoades could have saved himself some time by recreating it. Yet the videos of Rhoades explaining his installations reveal an artist who earnestly loved the work of creation, as he sincerely discusses the purpose of each part of his massive works.
Among the reading materials is the coffee-table book documenting Rhoades’ last completed work, 2006’s Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé; in very loose terms, this was a party inside an installation in which everyone wore white and sometimes created macramé until the early hours of the next day. Also available is Richard Scarry’s children’s book What Do People Do All Day?, included because Rhoades’ childhood nickname, “Jason the Mason,” came from the book’s illustration of a pig wearing overalls. The pictures of animals going about their jobs in a hum of activity seem very similar to the mad-looking machinations in the exhibition. It is hard not to wonder if Jason Rhoades had any idea what most people spent their time doing, or if the entire workings of the world were an esoteric research project to him.
“Jason Rhoades, Four Roads,” through Dec. 29, free, Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St., 215-898-7108, icaphila.org.
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