View of Jason Rhoades's Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage . . . ), 2004/2013, fluorescent tubes, Plexiglas and mixed mediums; at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

 

 

Reassembling the tangled installations that Jason Rhoades (1965-2006) left behind is a daunting task; the four works on display at the ICA's Rhoades exhibition are complex and sprawling in composition and theme. To help the viewer make sense of these rambling setups, "Four Roads" offered four curatorial categories—"Jason Rhoades, American Artist," "systems," "Jason the Mason" and "taboo"—identifying common characteristics expressed in some manner in each one of the L.A. artist's works.

The category "taboo" is much in evidence in "Four Roads," as Rhoades built many of his pieces using items that could be found as offensive. A mock-up repair shop in his early installation Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita), 1993, showcases engines, tools, money and pinup girls as lewd objects of male desire. (The work also falls into the "American Artist" category, with its paraphernalia from U.S. car culture, including a basketball hoop of the type seen attached to many American garages.) In addition to its questionable celebration of the hypermasculine, Garage Renovation New York repels the viewer physically as well as morally, featuring as it does tape barriers blocking entry to the garage. With wafer-thin slats in place of two-by-four studs, however, the piece's rickety construction also expresses vulnerability and doubt. Rhoades's mixture of macho standoffishness and fragility feels like teenage angst—American style.

Vulgarity and vulnerability intensify in Creation Myth (1998), which calls an artist's creative potency into question. The piece, roughly 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, filled the ICA's center section with a dizzying quantity of materials. A rough analogue of human organs, Creation Myth is an example of the "systems" category. The viewer first encounters the "head," which consists of a ring of stacked tables circled by a remote-control "train of thought." A camera mounted on the train broadcasts point-of-view video of the surroundings: printers, copiers, a sewing machine and a contraption blowing enormous smoke rings. In front of the head are endless clusters of logs plastered with porn photos, and at the head's inner core, in another gesture of self-gratification, is a massage chair facing a video-game console.

One end of the gigantic red tube that represents Creation Myth's digestive tract hangs loose within the head, poised to swallow its contents. Large "turds" of compacted cardboard at the tube's other end indicate where the artist's idle thoughts are headed. With its arrangement of closed circles and cul-de-sacs, Creation Myth, like Garage Renovation New York, pushes the viewer back, suggesting that human creative endeavor is ultimately an isolating act of masturbatory excretion.

Displayed in the upstairs gallery, Sutter's Mill (2000) most prominently showcased the theme "Jason the Mason"; the category is a nod to the artist's childhood nickname and encompasses Rhoades's personal history. Though it centers on a building of similar dimension to the garage, its structure of thick, polished metal tubes is open and stable, not closed and rickety. Named for the site where gold was first discovered in California and plastered with images of the nearby Newcastle, Calif., farm where the artist grew up, this piece offers a less illicit sense of place and history.

Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage . . . ), 2004/2013, returns to the taboo, though in a stealthy manner. In the 30-by-30-foot installation, participants must remove their shoes to walk on a carpet of towels that resemble prayer rugs. Gazing at an overhead thicket of neon signs, they soon realize that they are looking at hundreds of slang terms for the vagina. I shared a laugh with my fellow visitors at the sight, and a moment of contemplation of the commonly shared experience of being birthed through that body part. Using taboo subject matter to attract rather than repulse, My Madinah is decidedly more extroverted than Rhoades's earlier work. Moreover, the possibility of communion around My Madinah makes it exceed the curatorial classifications provided, giving a glimpse of another side of Rhoades perhaps not so easily categorized.