The late artist Jason Rhoades, who died suddenly at age 41 on Aug. 1, 2006, will be remembered as a Rabelaisian figure whose over-the-top installations are colorful in more ways than one. During the last year or so, Rhoades had been focused on his "Black Pussy" project, a series of cabaret performances, exhibitions and more, ranging from a show last fall at Galerie Hauser & Wirth in London (which critic Adrian Searle called "an assault on the senses, as well as an affront to sensibility") to the "Pacific Northwest Pussy Harvest and Lube Drive," a planned one-night event (involving "homeless teens" wrestling in a 50 x 50 ft. inflatable liver-shaped "Liverpool" sculpture) on Aug. 9 in Portland, Ore., that was cut short by Rhoades death. He was scheduled to have a show at David Zwirner in New York this fall, and indeed the gallery is going ahead with "The Black Pussy" installation in November.
This summer, Rhoades brought his extravaganza to his hometown of Los Angeles, quietly organizing the Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé, a dense combination of art and performance. Colorfully woven carpets, strewn with photographs documenting the cabaret, surrounded a stage that hosted a range of live entertainments, including Jelvis, a Jewish-themed Elvis act. Open to a carefully chosen, invited audience, Rhoadesí cabaret nights also featured exotic food and drink -- a person might be prompted to eat some yoghurt from a shoe, for instance.
On shiny, freestanding steel shelves throughout the space were hundreds of different items -- cowboy hats, old polished Chinese rocks, Indian dream catchers, small porcelain donkeys and mules, Turkish smoking pipes. Interspersed everywhere were words in neon letters -- now Rhoadesí signature sculptural form, and all examples from his ever-growing database of more than 7,000 synonyms for "pussy."
Rhoades would say that the installation was a recreation of the 360 gods that the Prophet Mohammed destroyed in order to create a single god for Islam. At the same time, he claimed that the cabaret was nothing more than a typical 18th-century salon, which he was sponsoring simply to improve his social life.
The following interview took place in spring 2006 at Rhoadesí studio in Los Angeles, and was first published in the National Icelandic newspaper Saturday cultural supplement, Morgunbladid, Lesbůk, in Reykjavik on July 29, 2006. The interview is made available in English in fond memory of Jason.
Heimir Björgúlfsson: So, this show, or cabaret, is viewed by invitation only. Is that to exclude the anonymous viewer?
Jason Rhoades: Itís to exclude a certain art public thatís nosy and critical.
HB: Itís better to show the work like that?
JR: Because the nature of the work is delicate -- it would be nice to have sex with your viewer in an intimate way. I have always thought the perfect audience would be me and two viewers -- the work is connected to you and the viewer, and things feel equal somehow. Itís a social interaction, a social situation. This would never work in a situation where itís public. . . This is a studio situation, like Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1985. Guests come in while people are working, so all the lines are blurred.
I would say it's taking back control, in a weird way. When I do an exhibition in Iceland, itís done and then I have to leave, and Iím uncomfortable with that situation. . . Iím uncomfortable with actually finishing something. This feeds into that and that feeds into this -- I am trying to keep it in flux somehow. But that flux can be stopped in time by an institution or a collector, and then the relationship changes.
Perhaps I just like to have people understand the way I work. They come in and a lot of the stuff is just testing and playing around. I do not choose any of the photographs that are laying around in this piece. I wish I could, because some of them make me look bad. Some do not. But I donít want to make those decisions, I want to herd things along instead of slaughtering individual animals -- Iím more of a sheep mover than a taxidermist.
HB: A shepherd.
JR: Yeah. But weíll play around with something once in a while, pick a photo out.
HB: The work sort of has a life of its own?
JR: Somehow. I mean, I have control issues, so I love controlling. But I let the work think it has a life of its own -- then I beat it on its head to bring it back. On one side, this is a cabaret and very fluid. But on the other, I want to build it like a bronze sculpture, though I know it can never really be that.
HB: You plan to present the piece in the autumn in New York, right?
JR: Yes, but thatís far away in the autumn, so who knows. Everything I do informs the next thing that is going to happen. The pieces blend into each other, they go into each other and kind of contaminate each other. And, of course, Iíve learned from it -- though actually learning kind of sucks! Once you learn, then you know, and itís better to be a bit stupid about things.
HB: Thatís what I think too -- you always try to be ahead of what you already know, so you are doing something you donít quite know.
JR: I like that shaky, soft place in the ground. Nobody wants to put their foot in the mud, but once it happens, you find a soft spot that punctuates certain things. Like, I never knew about music before. I donít really even like music! I just listen to Sheryl Crow over and over again and people give me a lot of shit for that. So by bringing these indie rockers here, I try to listen to more progressive music. I like it when itís here -- but I donít like fighting to get into a club or a bar to see it with a bunch of angry people. And I donít like going to the record store, buying the CD and being kind of disappointed.
HB: You are going to publish a book about The Black Pussy.
JR: Yes -- we are going to try to make a type of a book. There are also all these audio recordings from the performances here. Weíll show everything and those books will be quite interesting.
HB: It will include documentation of what went on here.
JR: Well, yes -- itís a celebrity book. . . itís a coffee table book. I donít want it to be an art or a photography book. We collect all kinds of images from disposable cameras and digital cameras and thereís a photographer that comes in and takes photos of the events. Itís a "bar mitzvah," the whole thing. Little groups of things choreographed, yes, like a "bar mitzvah" somehow. . .
HB: And do you see that book being published in conjunction with the exhibition in New York?
JR: I hope so. Whether itís one volume, or takes some other form.
HB: And you want it to become something commercially available, in an unlimited edition?
JR: I think so -- but I go back and forth on it, I still have to decide. Thatíll be the end of the trilogy, whether The Black Pussy stops or is shown again somewhere else, I donít know. Like now, the show I am doing in Malaga is a sort of a fake Black Pussy, with Moroccan and Mexican paraphernalia. A lot of it has to do with gathering all these "pussy" words -- itís like a harvesting machine. Itís a combine sculpture for harvesting words.
Ideally, I would like to put The Black Pussy into somebody's environment, Iíd like to build a building for it and have it work as a cabaret in somebody's house. I would like it to be private actually -- I donít think it would function so well in public. But that would depend on the institution. Itís all about finding people to protect your works.
In the end, this is what I do. Sometimes I know what it is and sometimes I donít know what it is. Whatís really beautiful is when it's happening. People are singing and feeling heartfelt, weíre feeding them, and harvesting "pussy" words, and people give up a little bit of themselves and I just look around and think "wow, this is really fucked up -- what am I doing?"
You donít know what it is but itís there and itís humming, itís humming along to its own rhythm. When that happens, it has its own meaning and its own principle. It has its own charisma. Thatís what this is -- itís a charisma catcher. I believe that in order to be with works of art, you have to give up some of your magic, and then you get more back. But you have to let yourself go. I think a lot of works today are just bad posturing, just slight commentary or decoration. Thereís no dedication, no investment.
HB: You donít think itís always been like that?
JR: No, I donít think so. Not when it was not so easy to slip something by. Of course, we can do anything, right? But now, we see people slip too much by and not putting in enough effort. Nobody says anything if you change your style. Thatís how you get to be successful, when you change your style to look like everything else. We all do that.
HB: Well, thatís the outside pressure saying that. . .
JR: Yes, but if you had a choice of just laying in bed and being massaged by nymphs in a spa, in a bubble bath with grape juice. . . ? (laughs)
HB: No, I would not personally go for that. (laughs)
JR: Oh really? I always imagine all these nymphs will come in and stay so I can become a polygamist and just live in the strange fucked up world that I have. I just think of something, and have it become reality. That is like. . . that's Icelandic. †(laughs)
HEIMIR BJÖRGÚLFSSON is an artist currently living in Los Angeles, California. His website is www.bjorgulfsson.com.