After nearly a month of careful installation, Jason Rhoades, Four Roads will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia on September 18. The exhibition consists of four works, each from a different moment in Rhoades’ career, and is the culmination of a three-year effort by Chief Curator Ingrid Schaffner. After all that planning (a remarkable amount for an institution the size of ICA) it is not surprising that Schaffner is especially effervescent in describing each detail of the show, an enthusiastic smile rarely leaving her face as we walk through the ongoing assembly taking place in ICA’s gallery space. When she speaks of him—raising her voice over the sound of construction, weaving through the sprawling works—she refers to him with familiarity. He isn’t Jason Rhoades or Rhoades, but “Jason”, as if he is an old friend.
The four works, Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita), 1993; The Creation Myth, 1998; Sutter's Mill, 2000; and Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage...), 2004/2013 are accompanied by four themes to guide the viewer: Rhoades, American Artist; Jason the Mason, (a biographical thread named after a character from a children’s book from Jason’s youth); systems; and taboo. She is quick to point out that each theme doesn’t correspond to just one work, but rather the “four themes are the tools you need to open up the work.”
Tools is an apt word. Rhoades, who died in 2006, was a builder of things. His works are sprawling constructions of found materials and built objects. They fill the gallery space quite literally to the rafters. The Creation Myth is “a self-portrait object” made of tables, wood, print outs, lights, a moving train, a giant smoke machine, and other such objects, all of it manifesting the artist’s body and mind. Rhoades, whose work is always coated in autobiography, frequently referenced his own life but managed to do so without the self-involved machismo of Abstract Expressionism. Part of this, and what makes the work so engaging, is the familiarity of materials that Rhoades used to make The Creation Myth. A Nintendo 64 in the center of the work represents his inner child. An inflated, cloth pod is his stomach. A giant smoke machine will “fart” once every two minutes. “We all recognize the materials, they’re all stuff from our everyday lives.” Schaffner notes. This familiarity, mixed with Rhoades’ sense of humor, “brings you in. You go from something accessible to something very personal.” Although it may look cluttered and random, Rhoades had a very precise way he wanted the work assembled. The ICA has enlisted four technicians who worked closely with Rhoades to aid accuracy.
Most of the works will be assembled away from the public eye before the show opens. The exception to this is Sutter’s Mill, a metallic architectural skeleton named after the place where gold was discovered in California, which will be taken apart and reassembled every other day. Everything in the show asks to be broken down, built up, assembled and sometimes entered. When I visited, hundreds of pieces from Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita), one of his earlier works and the first visitors will see upon entering the gallery, were laid out on the floor like artifacts from an excavation waiting to be placed into their context. It’s a “fragile, ephemeral construction,” Schaffner says of this work.The exhibition's final interpretive road is "taboo," which is most obviously relevant to Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage…). This work is a glow of 144 neon words hanging from the ceiling by extension cords, each sign displaying a different word for vagina. The resulting experience is both cathartic and meditative. You giggle at all the funny words, then stop, maybe even lie on the floor looking up, covered in their soft, glowing hues. This was my road: the journey from the early works, which I walked around, to the final work—one I entered.
As the host of Rhoades’s first major American museum exhibition, ICA offers us the unique opportunity to engage with an artist who rarely exhibited outside Europe. It is impossible to talk about Rhoades’ work without invoking the vocabulary of its operation—one of movement and building. This survey isn’t simply taking what’s already there and displaying it; beyond the construction of the work itself are the nuts and bolts of a legacy that is still fresh. Schaffner believes “it’s time for this [survey] to happen, we can see the work for what it is.” Rhoades died only seven years ago. Four Roads is therefore a crossroads: the fleeting point where contemporary art meets art history, before ossification sets in. While Rhoades has inspired a prolific amount of writing on his art, there has been very little in terms of qualitative engagement with it. “There’s so many questions and problems and mysteries to solve when you’re putting this show together,” Schaffner says as we stand on the second floor of the ICA, looking down one flight at The Creation Myth, at Jason’s moving, flashing, breathing consciousness. “This work is very alive.”