Paul Schimmel on the ‘strange magic’ of Jason Rhoades

Written by

His works are massive installations that take up entire rooms. They mix highbrow and lowbrow, art culture and pop culture. There are cars, and consumer goods and porn.

Rhoades died from a drug overdose when he was 41, just as his career was beginning to peak. He won acclaim in Europe and in New York for his work, but was less known here in his adopted home town.

It’s why the Arts District gallery Hauser & Wirth is mounting a major new exhibition of Rhoades’ work. Before he left the gallery last week, chief curator Paul Schimmel was on hand for a tour.

“Instagram didn’t exist when Jason made these,” Schimmel says. “He seemed to somehow channel the inner Instagram in everyone because it’s kind of, like, perfect.”

Jason Rhoades died almost 11 years ago, way before Instagram. But everywhere you turn in the exhibition there are photo-ready pops of color, touches of irony — and, yes, sex.

Image Not Available
In “Swedish Erotica,” from his first solo show in LA, Rhoades crafts furniture from cardboard, old wood and styrofoam. The piece is a play on an Ikea showroom. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Take, for example, the very first piece, called “Swedish Erotica.”

The room is packed with furniture he made from cardboard, styrofoam and plastic. Almost all of the pieces are papered over with yellow legal pad sheets. It’s a play on a certain ubiquitous Swedish furniture store

“The showroom is the key,” Schimmel says. “The structure here was very clearly an Ikea shop, so each one of these represents a bedroom, living room, dining room.”

Mixed into this showroom layout, though, are some of Rhoades’ own personal items, like a photo of his mother and his own rudimentary high school pottery projects.

Rhoades was born just outside Sacramento in rural Newcastle. He moved to the Bay Area to attend California College of the Arts and later San Francisco Art Institute. He eventually made his way down to Los Angeles to get his master’s at UCLA., where hestudied under Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden, who were major influences.

Despite his formal arts education, Rhoades loved to elevate seemingly throwaway household items. He worked with things like toilet paper, Home Depot electrical cords, folding chairs, and plastic buckets.

“California has an extraordinary tradition of assemblage, and whether you look at Bay Area artists like Bruce Conner, or our own Ed Kienholz and his highly charged, politicized environments, what seems as if it’s made for one purpose can very easily be repurposed,” Schimmel says.

One installation, made in 1995, juxtaposes photos of the studio of famous 20th century sculptor Brancusi with photos of Rhoades’ brother’s suburban bedroom. The middle of the room looks like someone’s cluttered garage full of moving dollies, pieces of old wood and a donut fryer.

Dozens of small donuts are stacked on top of each other like columns. And here, Rhoades is referencing one of Brancusi’s most famous sculptures, “Endless Column.”

“And there’s something really scary about all of this,” Schimmel says. “These are the original donuts.”

Image Not Available
In “My Brother/Brancuzi,” Rhoades juxtaposes photos of the studio of 20th century sculptor Brancusi with photos of Rhoades’ brother’s suburban bedroom. The pillars of donuts in the center are a play on Brancusi’s famous sculpture, “Endless Column.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This play on consumption and consumer culture helped catapult Rhoades to success in the art world.

“That kind of sort of both random and then articulated overlaying of history — personal, social, high, low — it’s the kind of sort of strange magic that he brought together,” Schimmel says.

The mashing of personal and political becomes more pronounced later in one of the exhibition’s most striking pieces, “My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…”

It’s like a prayer room in a Mosque, but with a twist. There are towels of different colors and sizes all over the floor, and hanging from the ceiling are 240 neon signs with slang terms for female genitalia.

Image Not Available
Rhoades’ “My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…,” is styled like a prayer room in a Mosque. Above, 240 neon signs for female genitalia hang from the ceiling. Rhoades created the piece in 2004, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Rhoades created “My Medinah” in 2004, when the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were particularly intense. Schimmel says Rhoades took a real interest in Islamic culture.

I think it was also the time,” Schimmel says. “You’d had 9/11, you had this new war. So, It’s political work. It’s religious. There’s something very personal about this, too. He was married to an Iraqi Jew.”

“The only way you can experience this work is you take your shoes off, like you would going into a mosque, and you sit down and you contemplate. This is his universe, both religious and profane, next to each other.”

But Schimmel also describes the piece as “darkly funny,” a characteristic he also uses to describe Rhoades.

“Jason was a kind of joyous person,” Schimmel says. “Just buoyant in his energy. Enthusiastic beyond a sort of childlike wonder.”

You can see the humor in the name of the last piece, “Tijuanatangierchandelier.”

Image Not Available
One of the dozens of chandeliers that hang from the ceiling in the exhibition’s final piece, “Tijuanatangierchandelier.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It rhymes. It’s filled with souvenir shop tchotchkes Rhoades picked up in both cities like ceramic donkeys and maracas. And, again, hanging above and woven into the chandeliers, those neon signs.

“176 neon Spanish and English slang terms, again, for female genitalia,” Schimmel says.

Rhoades collected thousands of these terms in his later years. His seeming obsession with female reproductive organs, though, is a mystery to Schimmel.

“Is he pushing against the politics of the time, or is he pushing against the art world?”

With “Tijuanatangierchandelier,” Rhoades is also critiquing globalism and consumer culture’s spread worldwide.

“This represents these two border towns, culturally border towns, and trying to make something functional,” Schimmel says. “I mean, these are all chandeliers. They are all independent pieces literally mixing up both the language, the words and the objects from different cultures.”

They’re also for sale. The going price for one of these chandeliers? “Enough,” says Schimmel.

The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth downtown is up until the end of May.