The sprawling, imaginative, and sometimes hilarious installations of Jason Rhoades have arrived at the ICA Philadelphia, filling the whole museum for the first major exhibition of the late artist's work in the United States. Having died in 2006 at the age of 41—his latter years were marked by self-destructive excess—Rhoades left behind an artistic legacy that expanded the definition of what installation art can be: literary, kinetic, process-oriented, sexually provocative, hermetically self-referential, sprawling, audaciously messy are a few descriptors that apply to his exuberant odes to Americana. The ICA's exhibition provides four avenues into this complex and sometimes intimidating work by dividing along a quartet of themes: "Jason Rhoades, American Artist," "Systems," "Jason the Mason," and "Taboo." Drawn largely from the installations he created for David Zwirner Gallery and Hauser & Wirth between 1993 and 2004, the result is a multi-layered survey of his career that makes unorthodox use of the museum's space.
One of the reasons a Rhoades retrospective has been so long in coming in this country is that his installations gobble up enormous amount of space and visual oxygen, permitting no other art to thrive in its proximity. For this show, ICA chief curator Ingrid Schaffner solved the problem decisively: she surrendered to the art, giving Rhoades's complicated installations free reign throughout an entire American museum for the first time. It makes for an especially significant show for the artist, who has been far more widely collected in Europe despite being deeply connected to American culture.
Schaffner first encountered the artist's work in New York in 1993, when he first showed Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita), the centerpiece of which is a power drill that has been hooked up to a Chevy engine in a chaotic wooden garage. "To say this work was aggressively macho only begins to suggest what a rude assault it was to the cultural sensibilities of the early 1990s," Schaffner says of her first experience with the piece. The shocking impact of the installation is no less deeply felt today. Walking inside, one is bombarded with the artist's personal mythology and all-American obsessions, from power-tools to the soft-porn pinups that litter the interior space.
Elsewhere, The Creation Myth (1998), a colorful and expansive installation that takes up an entire gallery, combines gas machines, video, toy trains, and glowing buckets in a madcap display of energy that puts us fully inside the artist's wired brain. The viewer can move in and around emissions of sound and smoke, weaving through mounds of objects—there are literally hundreds of ways to approach the work. In Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita) (1993) we can see inside a workshop of sorts that evokes both the artist's personal mythology and his interest in Americana, from power-tools to soft-porn pinups littering the interior space.
Upstairs, Sutter's Mill (2000) re-imagines the famed Coloma, California, sawmill (near Rhoades's childhood home) where the discovery of glittering ore in 1848 sparked the Gold Rush—only building the historic wooden site with identical polished aluminum poles, which art handlers de-install and then re-install three times per week. The gleaming installation, one of the more orderly in the show, is a meditation on Rhoades's obsession with work and class. It is backdropped by Untitled (From My Madinah: In Pursuit of My Ermitage...)from 2004, in which words for female genitalia—mostly slang, every term the artist could think of—dangle from the ceiling in neon lettering rain in a presentation that the the artist equates to the Islamic pilgrimage site. Mixing religion and smut, this piece conveys the show's "taboo" section most vividly. (And you can walk on the installation itself, too, another nod to transgression.)
The ambitious show—which comes as Philadelphia's museums are making a bigger push to rival New York as an art center—will generate new, more updated archival images of the works, making Philadelphia a critical locus in the artist's interpretations to come. It's a welcome, and overdue, tribute to a major artist.