Jason Rhoades, 41; Artist Combined Humor, Poignancy

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles artist Jason Rhoades, who became more celebrated in Europe than in the United States for elaborate installations that broke down conventional walls between performance and conventional art, died Tuesday. He was 41.

Rhoades was transported from his home early Tuesday morning to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy is pending.

Friends and colleagues reached Wednesday expressed shock at the artist’s unexpected death. “It’s so tragic,” said Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “He was one of the most significant artists of his generation.


“Both he and his art were known for their humor -- one could almost say buffoonery -- but there was more importantly a poignant, tragic quality throughout,” Schimmel said by telephone from the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where he was vacationing. “He addressed social taboos; it’s almost as if he were constructing sculpture with irony. He was an American artist not of the East Coast -- he was a California artist with an interest in architecture, popular culture, county fairs, extremes of lifestyle, sports, entertainment, music.”

Los Angeles art lovers may connect Rhoades’ name most recently with his series of interactive art exhibitions this year that he dubbed “soirees.” The series included such provocative and provocatively titled invitation-only events as the “Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macrame,” a combination exhibition and dinner party that featured violet neon signs with African, Caribbean, Creole and hip-hop slang for female genitalia.

Previously, Rhoades had made his mark in Los Angeles with his 1994 show “Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts” at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, which was then on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Times art critic Christopher Knight called the show “one of the most ambitious and memorable gallery solo-debuts I’ve seen.”

“Rhoades filled the big space with scores of ephemeral-looking assemblages cobbled together from cardboard, scrap wood, yellow legal paper, glue, paper clips and staples,” Knight recalled Wednesday. “And he parked his old fiberglass Pontiac Fiero out back. The wildly inventive installation was a collision of an IKEA ‘big box’ store, the garage workshop of some mad suburban tinkerer, an art museum, a paper-pushing white-collar office and an artist’s studio. It caused such a stir that Rhoades became a symbol of L.A.’s explosive emergence as an international center for the production of new art.”

Rosamund Felsen, who has since moved her gallery to Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station, described Rhoades as “just like a big boy having fun -- but he was really smart.”

For most of his career, Rhoades had been represented by New York’s David Zwirner Gallery, which was planning a major exhibition for November in New York that would represent an extension of the Los Angeles soirees. Zwirner said the gallery had not decided whether to continue with the exhibition but added: “I really think he was one of the most influential artists to emerge in the ‘90s. He leaves a huge legacy.”


Zwirner’s partner in the gallery, Hanna Schouwink, speculated that Rhoades, who has an exhibition underway in Malaga, Spain, established more of a reputation in Europe than elsewhere because “he was really ahead of his time. There is sort of a link that’s missing to the greater art world.”

At the time of his death, Rhoades was preparing a live event for Aug. 12 in Portland, Ore., with curator Marjorie Myers. It was to feature a wrestling match involving homeless teenagers wallowing in a plastic pool filled with bath soaps, lotions and sexual lubricants.

The event has been canceled, but Myers said that in tribute to Rhoades, she and members of Taeglichdigital, a German artists’ collaborative that was to participate in it, plan to spend the next six weeks creating an artwork using a trailer, which they will then drive to land owned by Rhoades near Joshua Tree National Park and leave parked there.

Born in Newcastle, northeast of Sacramento, in 1965, Rhoades received his master of fine arts degree from UCLA in 1993 after studying at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Art Institute and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.

According to the David Zwirner Gallery, Rhoades is survived by his wife, artist Rachel Khedoori; daughter Rubi, 3; parents Jack and Jackie Rhoades; and brothers Greg and Matt Rhoades.