Out of "Deep Blue' 

‘Cool and creepy, that's what Deep Blue is all about. The jellyfish were fun and playful, but that's over now. Expect some teeth to show up within the undersea lights." Doug Rhodehamel almost whispers this as he sips his coffee at Stardust, and the intensity of his expression is reassuring; if anyone can pull off cool and creepy, it's Orlando's cutting-edge installation artist, as he talks about his show opening at Bold Hype.

Rhodehamel, 40, hints at the overall idea, but he is evasive about the exact nature of the art in Deep Blue, still a work in progress at the time of our conversation. By now, with his ever-evolving Migration series into its fourth iteration and the Spore Project well-established (even Canadians are experimenting with his educational paper-bag mushrooms), plus an unrelenting schedule of jellyfish, guppies, UFOs and coffee art, Rhodehamel has established his signature sense of whimsy and playfulness, albeit on a sophisticated level.

While Rhodehamel may appear remote or opaque to some people, he is in fact warm, funny and pleasantly accessible when talking about the world of ideas. His art career reflects a dedication to this level of thought that defeats most other artists who must, at some point, live in the transitory here-and-now and get sucked into money, people and materialism. Rhodehamel has consistently rejected temporal temptations. Instead, he focuses on what critic Lucy Lippard has described as "a type of art that generates emotions, ideas, and actions, not without a leaven of humor that intentionally undermines the potential pretentiousness" of the artist's goals. Lippard's read is based on the notion of ritual, elevating a simple action to that of the sacred, and placing it in a different realm.

Much about Rhodehamel's work is ritualistic: The jellyfish installations involved gathering dozens of soda bottles, slicing the bottoms and inserting pink organs and tentacles, which became a group rite. Other undertakings are the result of similar ceremonies: friends sitting around for endless hours twisting paper bags to make his favorite fungus.

Other conceptual artists, like the celebrity Christo, first visualize an idea, then invent a process to capture it. The final phase of execution often involves the experimental and unproven. Werner Spies, describing Christo's 1983 island-wrapping effort in Miami, stated that Christo had to "gamble on the whole outcome
right from the start … the effect of surprise, consisting largely in oversized dimensions, will bear no visible step-by-step preparation. Gradual growth would lessen the effect of suddenness of the alien and visionary."

The element of risk also drives Rhodehamel forward, because he doesn't know in advance how his concept will converge with the physicality of the show. This is worked out in the days, hours and minutes before opening night. Yet, like a fighter pilot, Rhodehamel remains cool and calm about it, concealing the inner adrenalin rush that's at least part of his payoff. "Deep Blue ran into some trouble earlier this week, but I think I've straightened it out," he shares, his flat expression belying any drama.

Rhodehamel, ever the scientist, focuses on three things: the ideas behind the work, making and installing the work, and the immediacy and freshness of the result, both in his mind and the viewers' reactions. It is this single-mindedness and ability to cut through the clutter of everyday concerns that allow Rhodehamel to build upon each project. "I don't worry much about the economy," he comments, his eyes focused far away. "I think about growth and progress."

Installation art and conceptualism arguably began in the late '60s and '70s. As a part of the larger "idea art" movement, conceptual art came to be about the process rather than the product, connecting the mind of the viewer with the mind of the artist at the point of conception. And such was the experience when viewing Rhodehamel's Migration 2, part of the recent RS 21 group exhibition at the Maitland Art Center. The clay "badger-like animals" (his only clue to their origin) emerged from a clay drain pipe on the center's grounds; the herd traveled up a brick walkway and strayed into the grassy sculpture garden.

Yet Migration 2, like the others in Rhodehamel's Migration series, is not so much about the pieces themselves; rather, it's about the notion of populations on the move, causing the viewer to connect with the art on this level. Migration taps into the fears and concerns of the zeitgeist, and this predictive quality begs some edgier questions about migratory behavior in general — disrupted habitats, catastrophe, environmental disasters and unlivable situations. As for Rhodehamel's own predictions, he offers, "I hope that by Migration 10, the individual animals are large enough to drive a car through."

If his process feels strangely familiar, it may be due to his industrial design schooling at Ohio State University. This rigorous method, combined with his art training at the Columbus College of Art and Design and Detroit's Center for Creative Studies, informs Rhodehamel's mass-produced (though handmade) mushrooms, jellyfish and badger-
like animals.

Growing up in both California and Ohio, Rhodehamel was always fascinated with nature and water. "One winter, I took all my mom's Playtex gloves and filled them with water," he tells me, "and there was a creek in our neighborhood. I went by it on the way to school every day. When these gloves froze, I stripped off the rubber and put them in the ice, all these frozen hands sticking up out of the creek, which everybody saw. I guess that was my first installation, although I didn't know it at the time."

Later he saw a documentary in middle school about Christo and "that might have influenced me somewhat," he remembers. "In college I did some installations involving railroad spikes on a friend's porch, but that was kind of an excuse for a party." Even today, Rhodehamel's inspirations are an excuse for a party, and that's what makes the artist and his special events so charmingly infectious.

As a child, he recalls observing tide pools, watching Jacques Cousteau on television and reading about deep-sea life. He has hinted at this alien world in installations such as Jellyfish, which converted those deadly organisms into softly tactile, almost angel-like creatures. "The music, composed by Nigel John, also totally complemented the show," he adds. In contrast, Deep Blue should be darker and more menacing, with John's soundtrack of "deep, dark, scary, spooky music,"
says Rhodehamel.

Rhodehamel aspires to create total, expansive environments incorporating all the senses, and his career evinces that this will be the case. By leading the way in Orlando, he has carved out an expanding niche of conceptual art that has no doubt inspired others. For example, Patricia Coyle recently invited the public to watch her install and uninstall her Lily Pad forest at the CityArts Factory, and Kim Walz's "Tea With André" at Maitland's RS 21 event was a live, text-based installation.

The conceptual basis of Rhodehamel's installations successfully hooks average folks with playful interpretations of science and sociology. He transforms everyday materials into ethereal, ephemeral, joyful works of art, and then they are gone, without leaving a permanent record. This, perhaps, is the most interesting quality of his productions, for his art flows like music — it comes and goes, yet it resonates in people's minds and enters into conversation in a way that fixed paintings and sculpture so often do not. Rhodehamel cites land artist Andy Goldsworthy as another influence, and this artist's beautiful, extremely temporary installations — witnessed by no one but the artist and recorded in a photograph — speak to a similar sensitivity toward nature and aesthetics.

Orlando has nurtured more than a few artists whose work has moved on regionally and nationally. If we can eventually be known to the art world as "where Doug Rhodehamel is from," we will have achieved a new milestone as an exporter, not just an importer, of talent. And all this is possible — he has already had an installation show in New York — with his disciplined focus on the ideas and the art and the outcome. Deep Blue at Bold Hype is an important step along this way and should be part of the itinerary of anyone interested in ideas, process, and cool and creepy fish.


More by Rex Thomas


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