Art Happening

For six months prior to his death of heart failure at age 41 in August 2006, Los Angeles-based artist Jason Rhoades held 10 salon-style happenings at his Beverly Boulevard studio.

For six months prior to his death of heart failure at age 41 in August 2006, Los Angeles-based artist Jason Rhoades held 10 salon-style happenings at his Beverly Boulevard studio. Called (absurdly) “Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé,” they became sought-after social events as well as an integral part of his 3,000-square-foot art installation. Art collectors like Rosette Delug and Norman Stone and bold-faced names like Ashley Olsen and Alex Kerry blew through his studio, leaving their recorded voices behind as part of the massive sculpture. They also suggested euphemisms for female genitalia to add to the master list Rhoades was compiling — many of their terms were later made into neon signs and added to the work.

The piece, which also comprises hundreds of dream catchers, hookah pipes, Chinese scholar stones, Venetian glass vegetables, cloth rugs and a wall-sized “macramé” of vintage T-shirts, opens to the public for the first time on Tuesday at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. A book from Steidl is due out later in the year.

Here, attendees and friends of Rhoades’ recall the larger-than-life artist and his work:

Alex Israel, collaborator: I met with Jason in the summer of 2005 to talk about this project he wanted to do in Los Angeles. He wasn’t quite sure at this point what the project was going to be, but he’d just rented a studio on Beverly Boulevard and wanted to do something involving the community in Los Angeles. We began organizing a series of events to bring people to the studio to experience it in a very special way. So I became a corroborator and co-host for what came to be known as “Black Pussy Soiree Cabaret Macramé.”

Paul Schimmel, Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator: I first heard about it from Jason. He had in his own mind positioned this project as his homecoming to Los Angeles — his self-proclaimed, self-supported homecoming.

David Zwirner, gallerist: It was kind of amazing because it was layering a sculptural process and a sort of entertainment and performance process. The people who went to these things really thought of it as a party. But he thought of it as making a piece of work, because the people who came to the openings had to participate. They had to work on this macramé, they had to give a pussy word, they would be taped and photographed and that again would become part of the work. So it was sort of a studio practice, but it was at the same time something totally different. I thought it was pretty radical.

This story first appeared in the November 9, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Israel: We made lists of people we wanted to come. We wanted to create a real mix of guests who wouldn’t normally come together in this context. If they RSVP’d, we would send a map to the Secret Studio. And the guests would have to arrive at 7:50 p.m. and they were asked to wear bright white.

Gary Garrels, chief curator of the Hammer Museum: Everybody met in the front room and had drinks and you went in. And it was just like someone had opened Ali Baba’s cave. You just went into this totally magical, visually voluptuous environment. It was a total surprise, behind a magical closed door.

Bettina Korek, planted “guest”: Jason and Alex had this speech that they did and they would tell the story of Jason collecting pussy words and about [his earlier works] “My Madinah” and “Meccatuna” and that this was the third in a trilogy of works.

Garrels: It was so carefully choreographed and planned….Jason was the raconteur and Alex was his foil. They were a little bit like a funny vaudeville routine. Jason was the comandante. He was the emcee, he was the Barnum, the W.C. Fields. He was the animator.

Schimmel: Jason was not Jewish, but he was trying so hard it had a Borscht Belt quality to it. He had this humorous schtick, which wasn’t very funny and we would kind of cringe.

Zwirner: There were two strategies that Jason employed again and again: to engage you or to piss you off. Playful was a strategy, because when you laugh about a work of art you are also engaged. If you are upset about a work of art, it will also linger with you and you will try to grapple with it. So there was a lot of politically incorrect stuff in his work, not to mention the title. You are going to say, “What is this artist doing?”

Korek: Sometimes there were moments when people didn’t know what to do. And so whether it was clapping at the right time, or doing macramé or helping to keep things going the way they wanted them to be, I would help. I knew what was going to happen next, so I helped get things started.

Israel: Jason was running around the studio, saying, “Come on, yell out the words. If you are too shy, whisper it into my ear and I will scream it for you.”

Cliff Einstein, collector and MOCA board member: I may have broken the world’s record. I loved “corner pocket,” and “cul de sac.”

Israel: A singer, Anita Sherman, was at every soiree, and she would sing back the words that everyone would yell out. Rick, the studio manager, would check the words on the archive on the computer. So that’s how we collected new words. And after that we would have dinner, and after dinner, there were other activities.

Korek: There was “Spukaki” — candle making. They had made a scent of the Black Pussy. And everybody got to make a candle in these ceramic donkeys.

Diva Dompe, lead singer of the band Blackblack: He had this attachment — it’s pretty much like a fake penis with the candle wax shooting out of it.

Einstein: I was a lead player with that wonderful instrument and filled up lots of those little donkeys. That was not necessarily the photo I wanted on the annual report of MOCA, but I loved being there.

Zwirner: The one I went to, there were these amazing girls, the Chapin sisters, singing “Toxic” by Britney Spears. It was beautiful — it was a cappella. They also sang at Jason’s funeral, which was very moving. There was also Jelvis, a Jewish Elvis, which was kind of weird and bad and hilarious. And then there was a house band and a friend of Courtney Love’s came, this woman who was completely drunk and really weird, but she gave it this touch of Hollywood.

Israel: We ended up getting crashers. And then we felt like we were really successful. Once that actor, Harry Dean Stanton, came and we both looked at each other and were like, “Who invited him?” One of the Olsen twins came — Ashley. That kind of stuff started happening toward the end.

Zwirner: Jason was interested in ephemeral things. As a sculptor, he was interested in materials that are not traditionally in sculpture. So he did work with smoke, light, sound. And the idea of charisma is completely ephemeral. So he wanted to bring all these people in there with “charisma” and now all that charisma has been caught in the dream catchers. The work has that layer — but you can’t see it.

Israel: Jason saw the soirees as a social project and he wanted to have it translated through the book as well. When we were making the catalogue, we looked at other social publications — we liked the size of Brooke de Ocampo’s “Bright Young Things.” We ended up emulating the dimensions of that book. It was no accident, that was really purposeful.

Einstein: He was proud of himself. At the soirees, Jason was at the top of his form. As tragic as his young death was, I don’t think he felt he had failed to grow. He had achieved everything he had set out for himself, probably much more. There’s no question how tragic this was and a lot of it, we do to ourselves. But these soirees were the complete expression of what Jason wanted to do and be.

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