Something Gained in the Translation

by David Pagel Los Angeles Times, 2006

As a culture, we are far more familiar with things getting lost in translation than discovered there. We accept that nuance and meaning fall between the cracks when translated from one language (or system) to another.

As an artist who makes paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and audio installations, Steve Roden begins with the opposite assumption: that translation is a wellspring of creativity. At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, his scrappy new works delight in the wacky adaptations that take place when symbols and significance do not precisely align, causing folks to fill in the gaps on the fly — fudging, fiddling and finessing our way to communication.

Roden’s new works are based on his recollections of grammar school music lessons (“Every Good Boy Does Fine”), which he uses to translate a classic score into colors, shapes and maneuvers. The loopy logic of his idiosyncratic system disappears in these paintings and sculptures (plus one silent video), all of which take on lives of their own.

Each painting looks like four or five geometric abstractions piled atop one another. Flat planes of dirty, tertiary tints are crisscrossed with candy-colored lines running every which way. Messy coats of oozing paint fail to cover previous applications, leaving multiple layers of ghostly traces that seem to inhabit different universes. Patterns emerge from cacophonous nonsense only to be swallowed in whirlpools of dissonance.

In many works, Roden makes a pretzel of perspective, providing top, front and side views of diagrammatic landscapes. He’s like a latter-day Cubist hired to map fantastic cities or to illustrate the instructions for impossible-to-assemble appliances.

Alfred Jensen’s insanely inclusive paintings lie behind Roden’s funky compositions, as do Chuck Close’s gridded pictures. Imagine Franz Ackerman with more discipline or James Siena with less and you’ll have an idea of the kaleidoscopic punch packed into Roden’s paintings.

In our obsessively professional age, there’s no shame in falling between the cracks. That’s where art thrives, alongside other creative translations.