‘Jason Rhoades, Four Roads’ at the ICA

Clean up this mess and go to your room

One man's garage: A significant artist, or a case of excessive parental tolerance?

“Jason Rhoades, Four Roads” is the premier exhibition of an avant garde California artist who died in 2006 from an OD and heart problems at age 41. It might well epitomize 21st-Century art. But after two visits, I just wanted to clean up the mess, especially in the artist’s garage.

Rhoades comes across here as a very young man— the creative type who takes over his family’s garage and basement with various projects, then goes off to college, leaving behind all his unfinished explorations into the meaning of life for his parents to clean up.

David Zwirner, who operates galleries in New York and London, considers Rhoades a significant artist, and he isn’t usually wrong. Still, I admit to being just a little in the dark about this show’s significance. Was it worth shipping all this debris from California?

Passing gas

This solo exhibition, organized by Ingrid Schaffner, fills the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ galleries with four separate installations, beginning with Garage Renovation, New York (1993), which includes a V-8 engine, various tubing and machines and a rifle stored in the crawl space, plus lots of other stuff— even dust to simulate drug powders.

Then you enter the larger gallery space filled with The Creation Myth (1998), an overwhelming experience that, in retrospect, reformulates the human body and its functions.

Here we find a stomach that, presumably after feeding, becomes very inflated; then the bowels begin to function, passing gas at regular periods. Painted wooden poles are chopped into edible bite sizes for such a gigantic machine. Porn magazines and images, as well as a sign that reads, “A Date with Darwin,” point us in the artist’s train of thought.

Useless labor

Ascending the ramp to the second-floor installations, we find some of the artist’s attempts at commercialism: ready-mades that could be sold as magnets, etc. Then you’re confronted by Sutter’s Mill (2000), a large Erector Set-type of structure named after the site where, in 1848, gold was discovered near the Rhoades family’s house.

This structure must be dismantled, reassembled and polished every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday throughout the exhibition, the soiled cloths forming a stream beneath it— a prime exercise of futility, in my estimation. Couldn’t that intensive labor be more usefully employed in something more useful, like counting angels on the head of a pin?

Adolescent’s delight

The show’s high point, literally as well as figuratively, is My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage”¦ (2004). Its area is filled with colored neon signs of words that are considered taboo because of their strong sexual connotations. The floor beneath these signs is covered with towels held down by loopy glue. If you don’t mind removing your shoes, you, too, can stroll under the lights, reading every word.

Is this an adolescent’s paradise? Or a middle-aged man’s reverie of higher testosterone levels?

Jason Rhoades considered all his created objects as one epic work of art. This is his first major museum exhibition, unfortunately posthumous. It is on view until December 29 so take the plunge and decide for yourself: Is it art? Or just the detritus left behind by a born tinkerer? See it and decide for yourself— and please, let me know.

Our readers respond

Roy Wilson

of Plymouth Meeting, PA on October 24, 2013

I took a shortcut and instead of going to see the exhibition I clicked on the ICA website. After reading your review, I think I saw enough.
This show looks like a perfect example of why writers need editors. In the arts, the gallery directors or curators are supposed to serve the same function, to wit: culling out the weak stuff to present some cohesion. This show (from what is shown in the ICA series of seven-plus photos) looks like a potpourri with some very interesting ideas mixed in with a lot of undeveloped confusion.
I'm not sure how this show was curated, but I certainly wonder if it's appropriate to display so much collage material without the artist being able to approve/disapprove that it was arranged correctly. Did Rhoades leave some sort of posthumous Bible that would detail exactly how all these disparate elements were supposed to be displayed?
Take it apart and clean it every day or so? That's pretty anal.
At any rate, all this talk of garages in your review reminded me of James Hampton. His tin foil-covered devotional display was created in a garage through solitary work over many years, and after his death was installed in a Washington, D.C. gallery, where I saw it decades ago. Although I'm not religious, I was impressed by his tenacity. Parts of it are now in the Smithsonian.

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