critics picks

by Michael Ned Holte Artforum, 2004

Sol LeWitt began his 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” with the following gem: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”

In a series of thirteen paintings titled “the silent world” (all works 2004), Steve Roden reveals “mystic truths” by running the title of Jacques Cousteau’s first book through a word-to-image transposition of his own devising, arriving at a postlinguistic epistemology of painterly sensation. The cryptic means are less important than the pulsatory results: In these densely mapped small to medium-size canvases, organic and crystalline regimes interlock through bright primary daubs and linear patterns that engage murkier earth-toned passages.

Despite the opacity of the systems in operation, there is nothing solipsistic about the work: Roden’s paintings gamely bridge missed connections among the concurrent tactics of Conceptual art, Situationist drifting, and psychedelic culture, suggesting a secret, more unruly (and hence more satisfying) version of art history than usually admitted.

The polymathic artist also serves up a serene sound sculpture suggestively titled duet (your magnetic ashes) and an exquisite suite of drawings divined from goofy, faux-onomatopoeic transcriptions of birdcalls found in an old book-and-record set.

Intuition has become a dirty word in contemporary-art discourse, but Roden wears it as a badge of honor, following his own loopy logic to discover hidden potentialities and irrational rewards and leaping to conclusions no system could reach without a little “mystic” tinkering.