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To Live and Die (But Not Show) in L.A.

( Black Pussy)

I went to grad school with Jason Rhoades at UCLA in the early ’90s. He was a ferociously ambitious and competitive artist — in both his art making and his careerism — and he enjoyed pissing people off. For one quarterly review, he offered to jackhammer anyone’s initials into the floor of the Warner grad studios for $5 a letter — the resulting cacophony virtually nullified the possibility of civil critical discourse anywhere in the building. Perhaps anticipating the complaints, Jason also provided an endless flow of delicious, freshly pulped carrot juice from a blow-up sex doll equipped with a spigot. For his thesis show — scheduled to open on the same day the Indy 500 was running — he staged the “Young Wight Grand Prix,” in which he drove a miniature race car 200 times around the UCLA Wight Gallery courtyard before jubilantly declaring he had beaten the time of anyone driving in the higher-profile contest. The boy had drive.

I was as stunned as anyone to learn of Rhoades’ sudden death in his sleep from unknown causes on August 1. He had just turned 41, and had recently completed a major work titled “Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé,” consisting of a series of extravagant private social events held in an enormous sculptural environment in Silver Lake. The work was doubly remarkable for the fact that it was unpublicized — virtually a secret — and that it was the first large-scale work produced for the artist’s hometown in more than a decade.

Rhoades’ underground happening was an expansion of last fall’s sister installation, “The Black Pussy . . . and the Pagan Idol Workshop” (at Hauser & Wirth London), into an explicitly social dimension. Of the Silver Lake event, recalls art-world photographer and longtime Rhoades accomplice Josh White, “There were all kinds of people coming through there. It was basically a 7,000-square-foot dream catcher that was supposed to capture the vibes of all the people that passed through. It was packed with these towering industrial-shelving units with thousands of actual dream catchers, and camel saddles, and something like 1,800 black-light neon signs spelling out different words for ‘pussy.’ There was a bar in the front called the Johnny Cash Gallery, and food and a wall of macramé that everyone added to, and bands like the Chapin Sisters and Ariel Pink would play. Then he’d make you eat yogurt out of your shoe. He was at the top of his game. Where it would have gone from here we can only imagine.”

Rhoades was seen as the quintessential bad-boy artist of ’90s L.A., rocketing to international art stardom with a series of sardonic, often-confrontational installations within a year of graduating from UCLA in 1993, and setting the precedent for the following decade’s art-school feeding frenzy. I was one of his fans at school and tried to follow his work more closely. But after the flabbergasting, site-specific “Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts” — a furious agglomeration of Styrofoam, tinfoil, staples and yellow legal pads in a slippery, smart-ass approximation of an IKEA showroom (and designed to occupy the identically yellow Santa Monica Boulevard building that was then home to his gallery, Rosamund Felsen) — Rhoades exhibited his work almost exclusively throughout Europe and in New York, where he was represented by David Zwirner.

“He wasn’t happy about my move to Bergamot Station,” admits Felsen, who brought Rhoades to the art world’s attention and was his last L.A. dealer. “The architectural space and historical significance of the building was very important to him. But he also felt that his work would have a greater audience in Europe, just like Kienholz or Paul McCarthy.”

“A lot of his enormous, really important pieces were never shown here,” observes McCarthy, who, along with cranky and underrated painter/rocket scientist Richard Jackson, mentored Rhoades at UCLA. “You’re making work in L.A., you live in L.A., you consider your fellow artists in L.A. as important, and yet you’re not showing here and there’s this vacant part. People would tell me what Jason’s work was and it would be all based on some photograph or an impression they had without ever seeing these installations that were done usually in Europe. I think the way he made work was misunderstood and not easy to get at. Did Europe understand it better? I don’t know — they were more willing to show it.”

Like McCarthy and others, Rhoades had a tremendous phantom influence on the L.A. art scene, his manic consumer taxonomies mirroring a distinctly Angeleno understanding of space from afar. The fantastical lists of ingredients for his installations — 600 donkey-cart ceramic copies; 180 beaver-felt cowboy hats; 27 eight-count Ivory Snow PeaRoeFoam boxes, palletized; 48 cans of Geisha Tuna — sound like the contents of a Long Beach shipping container spilled along the Alameda Corridor. Through a series of ever more ambitious projects like “The Purple Penis and the Venus (and Sutter’s Mill) for Eindhoven: a spiral with flaps and two useless appendages after the seven stomachs of Nuremberg as part of the creation myth” or “PeaRoeFoam. The Impetuous Process & From the Costner Complex,” Rhoades’ international profile burgeoned, while at home he remained something of a cipher.

The Los Angeles version of “Black Pussy” was the culmination of a series of controversial Islam-flavored works that included an attempt to take a live tuna on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and a scale model of the Kaaba made from LEGOs. Rhoades’ irreverent humor often blinded viewers to the complexity and formal intelligence of his work. If there’s any justice in the world, some attempt will be made to retain his controversial final work — at least for long enough to allow greater public access — in the city where it was made.

“I think more recently he became interested in his work being here in L.A.,” says McCarthy. “And over the last year he was trying to do it. We talked a few times about opening our own gallery. It’s always this thing — how do you show in L.A.?” But art-world logistics aside, Rhoades’ untimely passing cheats L.A. and the world at large of a tremendous, insurrectionist talent who improbably had just begun to gather a full head of steam. He pissed a lot of people off, but it was always exciting and rewarding to see what exponentially extravagant creative vision he was going to use to do it next. As Josh White puts it: “I loved Jason, and what he was doing was such a fucking cool thing, and it’s just such a monumental bummer that it got cut short.”