encoded creations

by Christopher Knight los angeles times, 2003

Steve Roden’s recent paintings, full of hybrid wonder, are among today’s most compelling new abstractions.

Remember in “The Fly” when David Hedison (and, in the remake, Jeff Goldblum) climbed into the teleportation machine and got his genes all mixed up with those of an errant bug while the two of them traveled across the room at the speed of light? Steve Roden’s paintings are sort of like that — without the mutant horror and its Nuclear Age overtones of science run amok but with a decided sense of miraculous hybrid wonder fully intact.

Thought and intuition are intertwined like strands of DNA in Roden’s recent paintings, which are turning out to be among the most compelling new abstractions being made today. Better known for aural works mixing ambient and manipulated sound, Roden is emerging as an unusually interesting painter.

A modest exhibition of recent work at the Pomona College Museum of Art, ably organized by curator Rebecca McGrew, offers a concise tour through the artist’s newly maturing art. Roden, 39, has shown sporadically in area group and solo shows during the last 10 years. (Through Saturday, a beautiful suite of four paintings is in the upstairs room at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in mid-Wilshire, together with other works.) Drawings, sculptural objects, photographs and sound pieces have also been on his radar screen, and some of each are included here.

The show features a wall-relief based on the alphabet. Roden spoke each letter into a microphone, then modeled 26 small sculptures on the design of the resulting waveform created on a computer screen. Dowels pierced with sticks wrapped with string are painted — the ones that correspond to vowels are different colors from the gray-green used for consonants — and they do look strange. Little telephone poles with tangled wires mingle with the suggestion of a nerve-packed spinal cord, while thoughts of ancient critters trapped in amber float into mind.

Even more peculiar is a group of 14 glazed ceramic objects, made when Roden closed his eyes while listening to music; the piece is another, slightly different effort to translate sound into touch. Recumbent, puddled with thin green and yellow glazes and pocked with insistent finger marks, the lumpy forms are bizarrely cuddly — and even sensual. Some digital photographs and an outdoor sound piece are also here, but the paintings are where Roden’s recent work takes off.

Modest in size, they are big in ambition. Redolent of important predecessors, they are wholly distinct. Painters as different as Alfred Jensen, Lee Mullican and Roy Dowell come to mind in front of Roden’s pictures, while Post-Minimalist, John Cage-like strategies for melding knowledge with ambiguity form a firm foundation.

Roden’s best work retains its own poetic verve. While coaxing beauty out of randomness, his inventive touch results in small marvels of unexpected delight. The six paintings are from a group called “The Silent World,” after the book (and, later, film) by sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. They do not illustrate the invention of the aqualung or describe scary creatures of the deep. Instead, they possess an imaginative sense of exploration — the temporary discharge from convention — that strapping on an oxygen tank and diving under water for the first time surely had for the oceanographer.

Mixing oil and acrylic, Roden gets variable surfaces. They range from iridescent to muddy, runny to lumpy, sleek to shabby. Space is ambiguous, shifting as your eye travels across the painted field. Patterns are common — checkerboards, tetrahedrons, lines of dots — but invariably the structural order undergoes collapse. Organic curves devolve into angular geometry. Sheets of solid color melt over fizzy atmosphere. Layers of under-painting emerge through flaked or crackled surfaces, courting a picture of passing time. Shape-shifting is the order of the day. That, in a sense, is also how Roden makes his paintings.

“The Silent World” series is composed by translating the letters of the title into different visual codes. As the accompanying small catalog explains, the letter A can equal a 1-inch line, the letter B a 2-inch line, and so on. There’s no way to look at the paintings and reconstitute the title, though, because intuition, choice and serendipity also intervene. There’s no point in trying to, either. The accommodating dance between systems and subversions is what counts.