He left behind one last puzzle

Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles artist Jason Rhoades died suddenly this month at age 41, most published obituaries said the cause of death was unknown, pending autopsy results. Others cited the cause as heart failure, per one of Rhoades' primary art dealers.

For this enigmatic artist -- known for large-scale installations that often incorporated performance or interactive aspects -- postmortem rumors about a fast-lane lifestyle seemed to overwhelm the discussion about his art.

Indeed, Rhoades may be a target for speculation about the cause of his Aug. 1 death because he left so many blanks to fill when it came to explaining himself and his work. Despite critical acclaim, he is hardly a household name.

Gossip, suggested Rick Baker, 35, an assistant to Rhoades for four years, has come along to fill the void.

The debate will most likely continue until the autopsy results, including a toxicology report, are made public in six to eight weeks. The fact that the county coroner's office plans further investigation seems to exacerbate rumors -- though the department's Capt. Ed Winter said that the unexpected death of any man younger than 50 -- or woman under 60 -- usually becomes a coroner's case.

Rhoades, Baker said, never saw the value in cultivating a particular public image, like Andy Warhol or Salvador Dali. Baker believed that Rhoades regarded the world's perception if him as an artistic medium itself, like so much paper or clay, to be manipulated just to see what might happen. "If someone misunderstood what he was doing, he found that was as interesting as if they got his intention," Baker said. "He would let misconceptions sort of bubble and grow; he was fascinated by the myth that surrounded him."

The sense of Rhoades as a human puzzle also may have more than a little to do with the work itself. Large installations were filled with smaller installations, artworks within artworks. His chaos, colleagues said, was carefully calculated -- delighting those who could crack the code, frustrating those who could not.

Rhoades' mother, Jackie Rhoades, 67, speaking from the rural family home in Newcastle in Northern California, painted a picture of a "4-H kid who raised sheep and pigs" and charmed his way through school without studying much. And although he'd recently found a new circle of friends in the entertainment industry, she said, her son never adopted a Hollywood lifestyle.

Jackie Rhoades recalled the moment when she and her husband, Jack, took their son to begin his education at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (he earned his bachelor of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute and a master's from UCLA). "He showed pigs, and we took his pig and dropped it off at the livestock sale on the same trip," she said. "Didn't want to waste two trips."

Art dealer David Zwirner of New York's David Zwirner Gallery, who represented the artist for 14 years, acknowledged that Rhoades was no poster boy for a healthy lifestyle; he was overweight, overworked and stressed out by marital problems. He had been separated for a year and a half from his wife, artist Rachel Khedoori, with whom he had a daughter, 3-year-old Rubi. Zwirner also represents Khedoori, along with her twin sister, Toba Khedoori. Rachel Khedoori declined to comment for this article.

While his mother called him a good boy, there was a "bad boy" character to Rhoades' work, which often played with images of cars, sex, women and conspicuous consumption. Jackie Rhoades said he was poking fun at those images, not celebrating them. "His art could be off the edge, but it appeared to us that he was laughing, because the world was so taken with that stuff," she said.

A longtime collaborator of Rhoades agreed. "The work was way more complicated than this idea that it was about California, or about America," said artist Paul McCarthy, who taught Rhoades at UCLA and later worked on pieces with him.

"There was kind of a fog in it -- there was, like, a lot of stuff in it, this pile of stuff. People would sort of stop at the idea that it was about consumerism, or consumption, or American stuff," McCarthy said. "But the pieces were overlaid like communications wires, like a labyrinth that went nowhere. It wasn't so easy to find your way into it sometimes."

Rhoades further complicated the labyrinth by sometimes integrating people and characters into the artwork.

L.A. audiences may associate Rhoades with a series of interactive art exhibitions earlier this year at his studio in Filipinotown. Included were a series of unpublicized, invitation-only events, including 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.

Rhoades had established himself in Los Angeles with his 1994 show "Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts" at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. The piece included scores of assemblages cobbled together from mundane items such as cardboard, scrap wood, yellow legal pads, paper clips and staples. The artist's car, a fiberglass Pontiac Fiero, was parked out back as part of the artwork.

At the time of "Fiero Parts," the Felsen gallery was in a yellow 1950s building in West Hollywood. When the gallery moved to Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, Rhoades ended his association with it -- not because of a disagreement, Felsen said, but because he felt the original building had played an integral role in his art. The structure had been the site where photographer Tom Kelly had shot famous nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Plus, she added, the building's yellow exterior was in keeping with the yellow legal pads and other yellow objects in the show -- including the yellow Fiero.

One who was particularly impressed was former Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, now president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. "It was incredibly inventive, and really ambitious to pull off, and gutsy," Wachs said.

Wachs bought a piece of the massive installation and donated it to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art because "I didn't have room for it in my little place." The museum plans to hold a private memorial service for Rhoades in September.

There was a 12-year span between the two prominent L.A. shows during which Rhoades mostly exhibited in Europe. German journalist Roberto Ohrt, who has written about the artist, said one reason American galleries shied away from exhibiting Rhoades' work on a more regular basis was that Rhoades was difficult to please, demanding that his complex work be presented to his exact specifications.

Not that Rhoades was always all that easy to exhibit in Europe. At a memorial service for Rhoades last week in Northern California, Zwirner spoke about a work his gallery asked Rhoades to create in 1993 for the "Unfair," an alternative art fair in Cologne, Germany. Drawing a teasing parallel between tony art fairs and old-fashioned county fairs, "13 Booth Cologne County Fair" collapsed 13 county fair-style booths into each other and incorporated paintings Rhoades' mother had done of fruits and vegetables for fairs back home.

Rhoades caused a public stir by smuggling a pistol into Germany with the shipment of the art. "Jason kept the gun with him at all times, firing occasionally at lamps and even more disconcertingly firing inside the art fair at his own piece, in which he had set up a shooting gallery with dozens of carefully stacked glasses," Zwirner said.

Rhoades also insisted that Zwirner play the role of narrator in the art piece, wearing the old 4-H Club uniform Rhoades had worn to county fairs in his youth. "It barely fit, of course I looked ridiculous," Zwirner said. "Only later did I understand the importance of this gesture. While Jason had so far been a clown in his own work, he was now finding a substitute to do this work for him. He would from this time forward always designate a principal guardian and/or communicator for each of his pieces."

Zwirner told this story to explain the decision that the gallery will to go forward with its planned New York exhibition of Rhoades' "Black Pussy," to open in November. In New York, the show will not be a "soiree" with live participants but will include audiotapes and photographs of the interactions that took place in Los Angeles. Zwirner said that this was Rhoades' intention anyway.

And Rhoades' spirit, he said, will have an almost ghostly representation in the form of a white suit he wore in a recent photo he had taken of himself inside one of his installations. The photo was inspired by a similar photo that the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat had taken of himself in front of his own artwork, in a black suit.

"His final gesture was to take this white suit that he had had tailored for himself and hang it in the middle of the work -- he sort of signed off, boom," Zwirner said. "He never signed his work, because they weren't that kind of pieces. But that is in lieu of a signature."

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