Stephen G. Rhodes' revisionary history of philosopher Immanuel Kant at Metro Pictures had me terrified last week—an experience I rarely find or seek in art. I was unnerved by the cryptic cacophony of noises that filled the galleries and disoriented by the flickering projections jumping across the gallery walls. The cluttered installation looked like someone gathered everything from a ramshackle house and then dumped the debris into the galleries: thrift-store coffee mugs, digital clocks, unlocked cabinets, scorched rugs, graffiti-like scrawls of German text, and even a gnawed-upon book by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all make an appearance. Kant was not a lunatic, but Rhodes' asynchronistic pastiche makes the philosopher seem like just another unstable and cranky kook.
The press release, including a section written by Rhodes, adds to the historical revision of Kant seen in the galleries; allegedly, the artist suffered from chronic constipation, a life-long problem brought upon by his refusal of any sex or masturbation, and maintained a sadistic relationship to his servant Lampe. It's not weird that control freaks exist, but it's certainly ironic to think of Kant, someone who was professionally concerned with the rational mind, to be included within this neurotic cohort. The truth of Rhodes' tale aside, the artist exposes how anything can potentially contain its opposite, as shown in how Kant's day-to-day obsessions with thwarting bodily pleasure and pain seem in direct opposition to his logical investigations. Rhodes has investigated the historical mash-up before, and relatively recently in Dar Allers War Ne’er Eny Bear Bear, a 2009 installation, where he juxtaposed The Shining with the Disney film Song of the South—to similarly chaotic effects.
The artist's agenda appears to be one of taking what we assume to be true and then fucking with it: with history, language, philosophy, and viewers. And yet, as dark as all this sounds, Rhodes makes funny stuff while illustrating how anything and everything can be ripped apart; that is, if you can find the humor in laughing at the violent, maniacal characters in Rhodes' film who look like they're playing dress-up in 18th century costumes and powdered wigs.
Although many historical figures make appearances throughout Rhodes' exhibition, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau casts a shadow throughout the three galleries. Born within two decades of each other, Rousseau, unlike Rhodes' sexually repressed version of Kant, romanticized human nature and believed in its essential goodness. In this sense, Rousseau's haunting effigy stands in direct opposition to Kant. Curiously, as different as the two men were, Kant, according to legend, owned a portrait of Rousseau. Rhodes jumped on this peculiar juxtaposition of personalities by including his own versions of the legendary Rousseau portrait within the exhibition.
The two painted canvases in the exhibition — both titled Vacant Portrait: Rousseau (2011) — lack any figurative element. However the central plane, where the portrait of the “other” Kant should be, has been punctuated by a hazy pinkish-purple aura. A note tacked onto each painting—one in German and one in English—reads “Come again,” a pun at the same time as a serious declaration.
Rhodes humor shows in his choice of titles: some, like Inkantinent Mochte Gemacht; Arizona (2011), are scatological puns (Inkantinent/Incontinent/Kant); others, like Grundlegung Zur Krankisch Grundrisse Kopf bis Magen Innere Wirkung Natur Kapputt Aus Gemacht (2011), are just needlessly long and difficult to say out-loud. The latter title refers to a rickety monster of a contraption with four loud, rotating projectors. It's clearly the strongest—as well as loudest—element in the exhibition.
Aside from the powerful mechanics of Grundlegung—with each spin of the motor, images lept along the gallery walls and the projectors' bright blue lights would then hit me straight in the eyes—the graphically violent scenes reiterate the madness already present within the room. I wanted to leave, unsure how to position myself in relationship to the unstable imagery and fairly ruthless projector.
In some scenes of the film, the characters smash mugs and burn carpets, revealing a possible source for the objects in the installation galleries. Other scenes show Kant behaving badly to his servant Lampe. Spliced with anachronisms, I just couldn't take the artist's project as wholly serious: a truck filled with men, hooting and hollering; and a topless pin-up girl tucked into Kant's typewriter; and of course, the powdered wigs!
Nothing new is added in the third gallery; just an array of objects in disarray quite like those found in the first. Perhaps the shock of the first two rooms affected my experience, but I wanted something more, even after the spectacles of the first two galleries. In this room, the sheer mess of hundreds of objects causes some to be looked over, some merely glanced at, and others just forgotten. It just seemed banal in comparison to what came before. Of course, the banal and spectacular go hand-in-hand in Stephen G. Rhodes' exhibition, a project where opposites become entangled with one another. In this world, the erotic and esoteric coexist, even if the story, like Rhodes' historical revision of Kant's life, is just a fiction.