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He left behind one last puzzle

Jason Rhoades filled his work with codes and remained enigmatic about his life. His death at 41 is his latest mystery.

August 18, 2006|Diane Haithman | 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.

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