Kate Rhoades and the Labyrinth of Discarded Materials at Recology SFMay 17, 2016
Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to Bay Area artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.
Nestled among green hills and pastel-colored houses, Recology San Francisco—the region’s solid waste transfer station and recycling center—is an unlikely location for artists’ studios, much less their source of inspiration or materials. Nonetheless, the center’s Artist in Residence is a treasured award for six local artists each year. Along with providing studio space and a stipend, the program invites makers to select their primary materials from the site itself, including the Public Disposal and Recycling Area. As the Recology website humbly notes, this Transfer Station is commonly referred to as “the dump.”
Started in 1990, the program’s premise of merging artistic creation with repurposing certainly falls in line with San Francisco’s Zero Waste goals today, and fosters greater awareness of sustainability options and the environmental impact of landfill. But how does this particular constraint to reuse discarded materials affect an artist’s practice, assuming that tactic was not already present?
One of three current artists in residence (along with Weston Teruya and Cristina Velázquez), Kate Rhoades typically works in video, painting, and comics. As someone who rarely works three-dimensionally (“I failed sculpture class in college,” Rhoades laughed), she initially debated whether or not to apply. She didn’t necessarily see a way that her work would fit within the program, although she was interested after touring the facilities. Then she had a dream.
“I didn’t just dream about the artwork, I dreamt about the proposal itself, about the process of applying. I woke up and knew what to propose.” Based on this dream, Rhoades proposed to use the residency to tell through a video work the (made up) background story of the Junk Lady, a character from the cult classic film Labyrinth (1986). Of course, Labyrinth ’s main protagonists are high-profile characters played by the late David Bowie (Rhoades had the dream prior to his recent death) as the Goblin King and a young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah. A motley assortment of puppets by Jim Henson are the supporting roles who comprise the fantasy realm of the Goblin Kingdom, where Sarah gets thwarted while en route to rescue her little brother. But the Junk Lady, who gets less than five minutes of screen time, is a mere side character who dwells among refuse.
The Junk Lady carries her belongings heaped on her back, overwhelmingly packed enough that she blends right into the waste around her. Her role is to trap Sarah by showing her a version of her bedroom at home, fully intact with all of her favorite toys and objects. Sarah is temporarily convinced, but eventually realizes it’s an illusion. Sarah escapes, but the Junk Lady remains, never to be seen again in the film.
Besides the obvious relevance of junk and discarded materials, I asked Rhoades why she was drawn to this character. “She’s bitter, deceitful, and has no dimension at all,” Rhoades explained. “I wanted to tell her story, how she got to be where she was.” This kind of homage to an unlovable character on the margins is decidedly queer, and it’s worth noting that the Junk Lady is one of the few (or only) characters coded as female in the film.
In reimagining a history for the Junk Lady, Rhoades christened her “Karen” (the Junk Lady voice actor’s first name) and envisioned a past wherein the character tries to rescue her father, who had been ensnared by the lure of the junk pile. Karen gets caught up in a loan scheme while trying to leave, but she can’t escape. Similar to Labyrinth, Karen meets other side characters along the wall (all are puppets made by Rhoades).
The puppets are made from discarded materials from the Public Disposal: found upholstery foam, yarn, clothing and fabric scraps, plastic necklaces, toys, and other debris. This hunting and gathering is new for Rhoades, but she’s taken to it effectively. “First, you gear up with a safety suit and pull on sturdy boots. Mine are steel-toed and puncture-proof. You find a shopping cart and hold on to it for the duration of your time there.” Artists also repurpose other objects for tools as needed (insider tip: a ski pole offers the dual function of stabbing and, with its handle, hooking). Then get digging. And, if you’re Rhoades, get constructing puppets in a DIY version of Jim Henson style—with a touch of camp, riot grrl, and punk-rock aesthetics.
Rhoades is able to weave her characteristic humor into each creation, no matter what materials she uses. “I go for bright and shiny,” she notes. Among the discarded materials, she finds what can be called “glamorous garbage.” One of the characters, named Mop, was crocheted by Rhoades with a paintbrush and a mechanical pencil she found. Another, named Yarno, is made primarily of a mop (Rhoades refers to them as her “queer craft moment,” in homage to UC Berkeley art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson). The two characters discuss an art opening at the junk pile, Yarno concerned with his self-image and acceptance as an artist. In one scene, Karen attends a gallery opening trying to escape the junk land, but becomes mistaken for a live performance piece attributed to Yarno.
The inclusion of lucid aspects of art-world culture is a familiar topic for the artist. Prior to this residence, Rhoades’ projects included Required Skimming (2014–2015), a video series, equal parts sincere and sarcastic, that surveys popular art-theory essays. A cartoony series about Lil’ Painty (2015) playfully shows the life cycle of a painting from studio to collector’s crate (reframed as a coffin). (Take a playfully narrated tour of the artist’s website here.) Rhoades also co-hosts Congratulations Pine Tree with Maysoun Wazwaz, a weekly podcast that offers a tongue-in-cheek survey of Bay Area arts and culture news. Whatever form her creativity takes, Rhoades foregrounds humor as a way to critique institutions, economy, and social systems.
Most of Rhoades’ previous work tends toward the improvisational and, although her way of making the puppets falls in line with this, the longer film project is a new direction. “I tend to work quickly and end up with something that’s more YouTube-style: cartoony, cute, with a consumer-grade video aesthetic.” For this project, Rhoades has planned thoroughly, hiring voice actors to do the roles (instead of her usual self-narration), and acting more as a director for the film itself.
The first scene of Karen (from an unfinished version shared by the artist) exemplifies this tension of improvisation and careful production. The puppet Karen, made from painted upholstery foam, yarn, and fabric, falls through space in a scene that’s reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. She yells melodramatically as she falls. Behind her, plastic pipes, hoses, bicycle inner tubes, hula hoops, and even an orange life saver spin slowly around her. She lands onto the junk pile with a dust cloud and debris. Music that unmistakably resounds of the 1980s blasts as the title plays. Karen sits up, brushing refuse from her hair, disoriented and lost, but soon begins asking resident creatures if they’ve seen her father. The scene clearly follows a narrative storyboard while illustrating the imaginative repurposing of materials, allowing a certain scrappiness to flourish.
Rhoades is forging new ground with her residency. By taking on a cult classic film, she still manages to include her meta perspectives on the art world. Her practice concerning video work has shifted into something that requires her to sculpt and craft. It seems clear that she is testing out a new direction. For Rhoades, the Recology program is an incubator for risk-taking and, in today’s San Francisco where artists are struggling to find space to work, fighting to survive, that’s no small feat.
Although the cycle culminates with a public exhibition, a significant durational portion of the Artist in Residence program involves onsite outreach to school groups and members of the community. While I was onsite, a large workspace was filled with elementary-school children, gleefully creating art by repurposing found materials. Rhoades mentioned that an important part of the residency includes speaking with children and showing them work in progress (children made enthusiastic cheerleaders, it turns out). In doing so, the artists also show them what it’s like to be an artist in San Francisco today. In a time when funds for humanities and arts programs in education seem to be decreasing, this exposure—proof that working artists in our communities exist, and providing accessible examples for children to engage with in person—adds a degree of hopefulness for the future that goes beyond the residency itself.
What happens when environmental concerns merge with artistic practice? Anything can happen, depending on the artist, of course. But what seems clear is that this program is opening up a broader understanding of sustainability in the local economy: one that includes supporting artists who live here, and encouraging the community to get to know them.