review of shells, bells, steps & silences

by doug harvey artvoices magazine, 2012

Steve Roden is best known for his luminously hued, thickly textured abstract paintings — hermetic intuitive translations of musical scores, literary texts, architectural diagrams, and similar conceptual jumping-off points. He’s also famous in the insular worlds of minimalist electro-acoustic music and sound art as the founder of “lowercase music”: tiny everyday sounds electronically altered and amplified. As with most artists who found movements, Roden’s own explorations of sound have gone far beyond these initial parameters — increasingly manifesting themselves in synaesthetic sculptural installations, and, most recently, fused with an environment of new projected video work at LACE.

Roden is no stranger to the moving image, though until a concurrent screening organized by Los Angeles Filmforum his experiments with cinema have rarely been exhibited. Until 2003, when his camera broke, all of these were shot in Super 8, and most were silent (though he provided live soundtracks at several screenings). Many were composed using a conceptual script — 2002’s monochrome blue (a year of skies) compiles 365 daily 8-frame shots of the sky. four words for four hands, 2006, transposes a musical score (which Roden has never heard performed) into a series of hand-painted color-coded dots, which jitter and pulse to the quirky rhythm of their own process of translation.

With Shells, Bells, Steps and Silences, Roden has finally made the logical leap from film to video — where his films have been previously exhibited or included as components of installations, they have been transferred to video. The qualitative differences with the earlier celluloid works is therefore negligible, although the absence of hand-painting and other material modifications is immediately noticeable. Certainly Roden’s emphatically DIY philosophy remains uncompromised.

Upon entering the darkened gallery, visitors are immediately confronted with a large-scale rear-projected looped image of the artist’s hand repeatedly opening and closing, roughly edited so that different small objects — seashells, rocks, jewelry, etc — appear each time the hand opens. everything she left behind that fits in my hand, 2012, is a powerfully poetic opening salvo, a beating prestidigital heart offering an endless array of intimate objects that hearken back to the earliest handheld artifacts in our species’ cultural history. The fact that the objects filled two boxes from the estate of Martha Graham, the preeminent genius of modernist choreography, adds even further layers of poetic resonance.

The exhibit as a whole acts as a meeting ground for three such prominent cultural figures, albeit filtered through Roden’s idiosyncratic agenda. Besides Graham’s knick-knacks, Roden also draws from a month-long residency with philosopher Walter Benjamin’s archives in Berlin and a diary-like project of realizing composer John Cage’s legendary “silent” score 4’33” every day for a year. The latter piece accounts for the cinematically scaled title projection that activates the majority of the gallery both sonically and visually, with forty small events of various durations looped to create approximately infinite variations from the most minimal of sources.

My favorite piece in the exhibit (though it functions consummately as a whole) is one that actually reinforces the intimacy of its source material, while using the video medium to replicate the most primitive of cinematic special effects. cathedral loops consists of three small pillars supporting upended monitors showing three different stop-animation loops based on a postcard from Benjamin’s childhood collection. Roden’s animations dismantle and reassemble the striped interior columns of the Cathedral of Siena into an architectural folly, a chromatic index, and a slapstick abstraction, all with the dazzling modesty of his best work.