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Jason Rhoades exhibition is the major spring attraction at Baltic

An artist who used pretty much everything in his art has taken over the two biggest floors at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

First impressions of the new big show at Baltic might be that you have got mixed up and arrived before they have cleared away after the last big show.

But despite the apparent clutter and mess, this was just the way Californian artist Jason Rhoades liked his work to be displayed.

“It took six weeks to put together, so longer than double the normal turnaround,” said Baltic’s chief curator Laurence Sillars.

“Visitors don’t always understand why we have to close floors. I understand their frustration but hopefully they’ll see this exhibition and realise why.”

This might not be uppermost in people’s minds when first they venture into Jason Rhoades: Four Roads, which covers the contemporary art centre’s two biggest floors.

“What the...?” might be the initial reaction. This spring attraction is far from neat pictures in rectangular frames and light years away from minimalism - although that can’t be what people have learned to expect from Baltic.

This exhibition will be most people’s introduction to an artist who lived among the brash and garish fruits of capitalism and deployed them in his art.

Here are just some of the materials used in The Creation Myth, a Rhoades extravaganza made in 1998 and painstakingly reassembled here:

“Tables, Styrofoam blocks, train set, wheelbarrow, wood, tree trunks, colour prints mounted on tree trunks, Plexiglass, plastic, photographs, cardboard, paper, kitchen towel, monitors, overhead projectors, refrigerator, smoke machine, small electric tricycle manufactured by Legend...”

And so it goes on and on.

But it wasn’t quite enough. Rhoades also invented his own art material, PeaRoeFoam, which he used liberally in his work and which you will see here, an integral part of some of the exhibits but also in crumbs on the floor.

As one of the information panels explains: “Rhoades approached everything in culture, no matter how repellent or inadvisable, as potential material for his art.

“PeaRoeFoam is a nasty building compound that he invented. It consists of bright red salmon eggs, dried green peas and white Styrofoam beads coagulated together with copious amounts of white glue.”

Rhoades regarded the creation of his art as a performance, directing his assistants in the application of PeaRoeFoam while also happy to get his own hands dirty.

One of those assistants back in 2002, when Rhoades was making one of his installations in Liverpool, was Laurence Sillars, who was then working at Tate Liverpool.

The piece was called The Liver Pool and it included two huge inflatable livers containing what one critic described at the time as “the revolting mess of Rhoades’s experiments”.

Laurence was in there too for a time, sharing liver room with the artist.

Jason Rhoades died of heart failure in 2006, aged just 41. But what was he like?

“He had pretty bad food poisoning at the time,” recalled Laurence.

“But he had astounding energy, ambition and enthusiasm... and clarity. You might walk in here and think, what the heck? It’s just a random cluttered assortment of everything. But there’s a very clear system and logic to all of it.”

An exhibition of work by artist Jason Rhoades entitled 'Four Roads' at Baltic
An exhibition of work by artist Jason Rhoades entitled 'Four Roads' at Baltic

The Creation Myth, he explained, is actually a representation of the artist’s brain with sections for the accumulation of knowledge, memory processing and the subconscious (the latter represented by shredded documents under the tables).

Laurence said Rhoades had been brought up on a farm in rural California – the nearest town was called Newcastle – and knew a lot about sheep. But like most Californian kids, he cared more about cars.

One of the installations at Baltic is called Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita).

It was first made in 1993 and is, observed Laurence, “half garage, half shed”. It contains a powerdrill (Makita being a well known brand) attached to a V8 engine.

“He was obsessed with cars. This was the piece he made for his first ever solo show in New York,” said Laurence. “For his degree show he organised a car race and gave the winners gold pizzas.”

You can see some of them here, lying amid the carefully reconstructed detritus.

That Liverpool review of 2002 concluded by noting that Rhoades had never had a major show in Britain.

That has now been rectified. The exhibition, put together by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, comes to Baltic from Bremen in Germany, where it also had to be reassembled and then taken down again.

It will be on show on levels three and four at Baltic until May 31, with support from The Henry Moore Foundation, and there will be a warning at the entrance for parents and those of a sensitive disposition.

Jason Rhoades borrowed stuff from here, there and everywhere and didn’t overlook life’s sleazier corners.

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