a lively intellect that bucks the system

by David Pagel Los Angeles Times, 2004

Steve Roden’s new work at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects is at once loopy, logical and memorable. And more.

Thirty years ago, artists put their faith in systems. Whether mathematical, scientific or philosophical, the idea was to eliminate personal taste so art could stick to the facts, say something truthful and be defended on rational grounds. Today, systems aren’t what they used to be. Chaos plays a greater role in our understanding of how the world works. Intuition no longer has a bad name. And taste is beginning to make a comeback.

These developments lie behind Steve Roden’s new work. At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the artist takes them and runs, creating paintings, drawings and a sound installation that are at once loopy and logical. It’s his best work yet, and among the most memorable exhibitions of the year.

The 13 modestly scaled paintings form the show’s heart and soul. Never measuring more than 2 feet on a side, Roden’s intimate pictures are made up of fractured patterns, geometric eccentricities, overpainted mistakes, drippy washes and diagrammatic doodles. Most resemble homemade maps to imaginary lands far more fantastic than any on Earth. All are painted in dirty tertiary and vibrant primary colors, with the secondary shades coming in a distant third. The rough-and-tumble surfaces make them look as if they’ve been around the block once or twice and are the wiser for it. A few appear to have gone to hell in a handbasket and come back to talk about it.

The mixes of media that go into each sturdy, linen-covered panel including oil, enamel, acrylic, ink, polyurethane, beeswax and glitter suggest a witch’s brew of toxins. Despite the scruffy toughness of Roden’s paintings, there’s a delicacy to their marks. To look closely at these polyglot compositions is to see strings of decisions made by the painter. Such gestures provide ample evidence of a lively mind in action, often pushing itself beyond its comfort zone to discover whatever it can.

It’s a testament to Roden’s intelligence (and his willingness to embrace serendipity) that every painting is different from every other, and that so many are filled with a cornucopia of definitive flourishes. In this they bear comparison to Thomas Nozkowski’s extremely individualistic abstractions, as well as to those by Joyce Lightbody, Ynez Johnston and Franz Ackermann.

Roden’s 5-by-6-foot painting lacks the intimate density and raw elegance of his smaller works. Unlike them, it’s not a unique translation of “The Silent World,” Jacques Cousteau’s first book, but a fanciful riff on “Clay Street,” a 19th century Sunday-school song.

Roden’s eight drawings are visual transcriptions of the chirping of such American songbirds as yellow warblers, black-capped chickadees and red-eyed vireos. His sound installation recycles glass bottles and an old punk cassette, creating lovely background music that sounds like a chorus of electronic crickets or techno wind chimes.

Roden’s paintings, however, provide the long-lasting excitement. The systems they begin with all but disappear in the multilayered process of creation. Their individuality intensified, they give each viewer plenty of room to maneuver in fanciful worlds.