steve roden emerges ready for primetime

by Tyler Green modern art notes , 2011

part 1: steve roden emerges ready for primetime.

In a globalized art world in which collectors and curators bounce from the same art fair to the same biennial and back to the same art fair, careers such as Steve Roden’s shouldn’t happen. Still, somehow Roden, a California-based artist, has slipped through the cracks. In Europe he’s mostly known as a sound artist. In the Western United States, Roden’s paintings and sculpture have earned him a devoted cult following. In the East he’s almost entirely unknown. A just-closed 20-year survey exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Calif. reveals remarkable achievement that’s been hidden in plain sight.  (The show will travel to the University Art Gallery at San Diego State, where it opens on Feb. 14.)

Curated by Howard N. Fox, “in between” revealed Roden, 46, as one of the smartest, best painters of his generation. The exhibition also included smart examples of Roden’s multimedia installations, works that bring together Roden’s interest in projected images, sound and sculpture. Fox has also included several of Roden’s sculptures, which are less engrossing than his paintings or media works.

So who the heck is Steve Roden? The Pasadena-based Roden is a rare 21st-century example of a critics-driven artist. Gogo doesn’t push Eli or Dakis toward him. While Roden’s work is in a few Western museum collections, for the most part art museums and curators have not discovered his work. (For example, MOCA is showing 146 Los Angeles-area artists in this sprawling, miasmic exhibition. Inexplicably, Roden isn’t one of them.) Roden has shown throughout the West for a decade, but he has had only one East Coast exhibition, at New York’s Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in 2005. Meanwhile, critics, particularly Doug Harvey and to a lesser extent Christopher Knight, Michael Ned Holte and David Pagel, have followed each Roden presentation the way a VW microbus owner might follow the Grateful Dead. (Harvey oft wrote about Roden for LA Weekly. Unfortunately, the paper recently terminated its association with him. Look for Harvey in The Nation.)

Like Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie, Mark Lombardi, Jennifer Bartlett or Mark Bradford, Roden is interested in systems and in translating systems onto painted surfaces. Roden’s particular interest isn’t the networks themselves, but the information that travels through them. In ways too complicated for mere mortals to understand, Roden builds what might be called anti-algorithms through which he translates information into colors and compositions. Several times throughout the show and in his excellent catalogue essay, Fox installed wall-text that explained how Roden arrived at a series of works by following Sol LeWitt-inspired rules. I read them all. I didn’t understand a word. In a related story, I don’t understand the research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but I’m pleased that doctors are discovering things that will help keep me healthy. (I’ll share an example in a separate post next week.)

But all that comes later, when Roden really hits his stride in the late 1990s or in the early 2000s. Fox’s Armory installation began with a dozen or so small Roden paintings from the early ’90s, paintings in which Roden gropes his way toward learning how to translate data into paint. In equivalents (flame/place) (1994, above right) and i am sitting in a room (1996, above left), Roden builds compositions around joining letters, shapes, and expanses of color. Considered here in the context of Roden’s later work, it’s easy to see Roden feeling his way toward assigning visual elements to a bit (a byte?) of data or information. In these early works it’s a pretty literal translation: Roden paints small shapes and ‘assigns’ them a letter. By i am sitting in a room he joins the letters+shapes with lines to other letters+shapes, all juxtaposed against a topographical, painterly orange background.

Comparing the simple compositions of Roden’s early work to his later explosions of color and space is like comparing the capacity of a floppy disk to flash memory — and Roden’s early work indicates an interest in how data was and is stored. The green and yellow streaks of sleep holy babe (1994, right) recall the way information might be held on the grooves of a floppy disk; the word fragments at right seem to refer to the information stored therein. (In his catalogue essay, Fox reveals that Roden used a player-piano roll is a stencil to make this painting. Think of it as Roden using steampunk data storage to suggest then-modern data storage.)

By the mid-90s Roden starts to incorporate not just letters, but recognizable words into his works: A small painting titled mallarrrmee (1995) is essentially Roden’s marker, a declaration of future intent. The painting refers to 19th-century French poet and critic Stephane Mallarme, for whom words were more useful as tools and toys than as conduits of understood meaning.

Mallarme’s poetry is built around a the use of words as sounds, as building blocks, as alchemical ingredients. Instead of relying on their contemporary meanings, Mallarme mined words’ long-forgotten roots and original definitions in an effort to build pure essences of distilled knowledge. According to Mallarme’s best-known theory, beyond the real lies nothingness, but somehow within this nothingness can be found the essence of perfect forms. With mallarrrmee, Roden declared his intent to build complex alchemical — or in today’s lingo, ‘logarithmical’ — formulas to mine the obscure so as to arrive at perfect painted forms.

In mallarrrmee Roden’s painterly, visually untidy embrace of Mallarme is also a pointed rejection of  the tidyness of LA’s postwar ur-painter Ed Ruscha, for whom crisp words and their meanings and marriages to crisp images are critical to an artwork. (The circles around the letters that spell “mallarrrmee” are all different sizes, they all float in space above a  bar code-recalling rack of pointedly not-straight lines.) Then Roden puts each letter of “mallarmee” on a key… but leaves vague whether he’s referencing the keys of an instrument or a keyboard or a typewriter or another data-input device. Roden merely suggests he’s aiming to become the Mallarme of painters, someone who takes familiar information, strips it bare, mines it and builds something special out of it.From mallarmee, Roden accelerated quickly into making his now recognizable mature work… and that’s where we’ll pick up next week.

part 2: steve roden matures into a significant painter.

In this post which I published just before the latest Smithsonian news-burst, I began my two-part review of a 20-year survey of Pasadena, Calif.-based painter Steve Roden. The show, titled “in between,” was curated by Howard N. Fox and debuted at the Armory Arts Center in Pasadena. It will open at San Diego State’sUniversity Art Gallery next month.  I described Roden as a particular kind of systems painter: In ways too complicated for mere mortals to understand, Roden builds what might be called anti-algorithms through which he translates information into colors and compositions. I finished my first post by examining mallarrrmee (1995), a painting in which Roden staked out his conceptual ground.

Roden had determined the subject matter of his work by 1995, but his visual language took a little bit longer to come together: While  mallarrrmee is essentially a painted conceptual statement, it wasn’t until around 2000 Roden figured out how to take a core idea and merge it with a color-smart palette, composition, a trademark painterliness and a funky texture that makes his paintings hard to not reach out and touch.

Roden’s the anatomy of touch (wandering all the world has become) (1997, above) is the next key transitional painting. It features what looks like a more organic Sol LeWitt writhing on a background that looks torn from Mimmo Rotella or Alberto Burri. I don’t know if it was Roden’s first overt embrace of other painters or not, but it’s from this painting on that Roden’s brush catches up with his brain. He quickly advances into the painting canon in paintings such as mora pahara 7 (2001), which features a simplified organic growth on a background that references Jasper Johns, Robert Ryman and Paul Cezanne. By 2002 Roden is no longer overtly referring to some of his forefathers, he’s synthesized them completely. Here is where he emerges as a mature painter, as one of our best. It is also the point at which it becomes impossible to explain what makes a Roden painting look like a Roden painting.

They just are. I don’t know how to describe one, a problem that other critics have also discovered.What I can say is this: There are brushstrokes in Rodens that suggest Alfred Jensen, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn and Clyfford Still, except that Still did not use brushes and that Jensen and Thiebaud are nothing like Diebenkorn and Diebenkorn embraced seemingly messy drips (as does Roden, often) while the other three were fundamentally tidy. Somehow they’re all in Roden, who seems to bask in the tactility of paint, in its texture and in the way it gets cruddy when it accumulates at the edges of his canvases, like it does in the same sun spinning and fading (2007-08, left), which is probably Roden’s masterpiece to date.

For all that mess — and there’s some oily gunk on the margins of at least a third of the paintings in this show — Roden’s work is certainly influenced by clean, crisp, hard-edge painting, most obviously by John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin and Frederick Hammersley (except that Roden isn’t much interested in geometry or hard edges). Spaces in Roden paintings are set apart from other spaces. Delineations are clear. Color gets its own place, there is a border, then there is the next thing. You can see this in 20 lines a day (1) (2010), a 2010 work-on-paper which is both tidy, painterly and which seems to reference both hard-edge painting and Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park-era geometry.

Except that only portions of Rodens recall hard-edge painting. Otherwise, he eschews the straightforwardness of hard-edge compositions. Roden’s paintings are always organized. Everything is where it should be. But they seem more carefully tacked-up than anything else. Some ascend, some appear to be top-down views. Regardless, they’re impeccable. I know where my eye is supposed to go in each because Roden makes sure of that. Fall after moons fall after… (2008, right) seems like it’s almost Georgian in its symmetry, but of course close examination reveals it’s not. The whole painting ascends seems to ascend like a Guido Reni Madonna, but the corners and edges are just as interesting as the central basket-like abstraction. Rodens are quite explicitly not full-field paintings: Parts of Rodens are more important than other parts. But the unimportant parts are still pretty awesome.

Lee Mullican is in a lot of Roden’s paintings too, but not in any way that is communicable. (That’s not true: I typed this before deleting it because it sounds dumb: “Mullican’s paintings are full of short, stiff, steely brushstrokes that emanate from somewhere in the middle of the painting and go everywhere. Roden does that too, only his brushstrokes are tightly confined. In other words, they’re only about 15 percent like Mullican’s.”) I’ve seen a lot of Mullican. I’ve seen a lot of Roden. Trust me, it’s there. Celestial fallings and flyings (a new kite for alexander graham bell)(2005, below) has nothing that resembles Mullican’s brushstrokes, but the painting starbursts in a way that recalls the way the energy of a Mullican painting explodes out of the off-center. It’s not just in that one painting, either.

Rodens are inevitably colorful. Roden’s palette is immediately identifiable but is hard to get specific about. He uses colors that are about two shades off of what I want to describe them as. Roden’s blues are kind of purple. His greens are kind of yellow, except when they’re mostly orange. Or something else. Inone mountain of found breath (2005-06, below) I counted six shades of green that are sorta green, including one that looks like a David Reed reference (it’s in the lower right). The thing is: If the colors are not ‘green,’ I’m not sure what they are. (I have no idea what David Reed is doing in this paragraph, but this is the way the brain works when looking at a Roden.) I think Roden’s yellows and red are actually yellow and red, except when I look back at the reds I discover they’re more fuchsia than fire engine. And the yellows sometimes are kind of lime-colored. Which, I suppose, makes them green?

In the end, so much of Roden’s paintings come down to an element of faith: I can’t place every influence or every reference. I can’t even name most of his colors. But over a lifetime I’ve looked at enough paintings to be able to feel parts of what I think Roden is referring to. Roden has so much faith in what he’s doing that he doesn’t make  his debts plain. He’s confident that his audience will recognize it, even if they can’t always identify it.

Maybe the best way to explain this is by contrasting Roden with Mark Grotjahn, a contemporary of Roden’s who also revels in the materiality of paint. Grotjahn’s recent works are smart, magnificent riffs on Pablo Picasso, the younger painter’s debt to the older painter made overt on every canvas. Roden’s paintings don’t spring from one font. There’s a little bit of seemingly everything here. When I look at Roden’s paintings with friends I find myself blurting out names and subjects: , Odilon Redon’s fancies. Larry Poons? Picasso’s bust of Fernande Olivier. Paul Klee’s sense of space, Ross Bleckner, Gego’s sculptures.

It’s a pity that Roden remains such a secret. On the other hand, “in between” reveals how much fun it will be to watch more art lovers discover his work.