Stranded – the connected lives of steve roden

by doug harvey la weekly, 2004

Steve Roden is three of the best-kept secrets of the L.A. art world. I’m not referring to the equal regard in which he’s held as a painter, sculptor and purveyor of sound installations (not to mention his Super-8 filmmaking), though that should be enough to write home about. But in addition to his critically lauded fine-art activities, Roden has created an entire oeuvre as an experimental recording artist, and co-authored a book for Taschen – not in his capacity as either artist or musician, but as co-owner of the world’s largest collection of vintage children’s-food packaging. Since its publication last year, Krazy Kids’ Food! has been hovering in and around Taschen’s Top 10 best-seller list, becoming a cult favorite of graphic designers, who find the lost and forgotten archetypes of their youth – from Bucky the Ipana toothpaste Beaver to the artificially flavored chocolate peanut spread Monster – a source of new inspiration.

Roden’s other cult followings are only slightly more conventional. His second solo gallery exhibition in L.A. – 1997’s “Translations & Articulations” at Griffin Contemporary – was also his last. Although cropping up regularly in group shows (his rickety, floor-hugging sculpture The Surface of the Moon was easily the standout work in UCLA Hammer’s 2001″Snapshot” survey) and producing a series of de facto solo shows at project spaces like Santa Barbara’s Contemporary Arts Forum and the Pomona College Museum of Art, Roden hasn’t had a genuine full-scale hometown exhibition of for-sale paintings and sculptures in nearly seven years. In July, all that will change when Roden will unveil a full range of his handmade conceptual eye and ear candy at Susanne Vielmetter’s gallery. Roden showed in Vielmetter’s cramped project balcony last year, but this time around he’ll be filling out her spacious new digs in swingin’ Culver City. Between now and then, he’ll be taking off at least three weeks to install a sound piece at the Sculpture Center in New York, but apart from that he’ll be in his studio seven hours a day, four or five days a week – this is the first time Roden’s scheduled a major show without having the work already completed.

Roden’s functional studio is attached to his rather remarkable Pasadena home – the last surviving “airform” building designed by architect Wallace Neff. The 1946 structure was made by inflating a giant rubber balloon and covering it with concrete, and gives the impression of a landed UFO or a bubble of gray magma breaking the earth’s surface. Within a year of moving into the Shell House in 1998, Roden had torn down the termite-ridden garage and commissioned the 700-square-foot studio. “You can tell from my sculptures,” he notes in a typically self-effacing tone, “that I’m not the person you would want to make a building.” The rectangular space has ample (but chock-full) storage racks for completed paintings, a narrow woodworking and tool-storage corridor, a bathroom, an office for managing his inventory of CDs, and a main painting area with two large white walls plus one cluttered with clippings and source materials for his mock-esoteric artworks.

As deeply unassuming and sensually pleasing as they are, Roden’s art and music are rooted in conceptualist strategies, using found or arbitrary systems to determine the formal parameters of the work. The Hammer piece, for example, was inspired by an obsession with the handmade geometric intricacies of early-20th-century “tramp art” whittled from cigar boxes. Using a table listing craters, mountains and other objects on the moon from the Reverend T.W. Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, Roden assigned an art material to each vowel – O meant gesso, E meant wire, and so on for tinfoil, pencil and beeswax. The number and kind of vowels in each crater’s name set the limits for each of the 490 tiny sculptures. This system, while available to the persistent and curious viewer, isn’t evident in the piece itself in any explicit way. “I don’t want the discourse to get in the way of the work. I know people can find it interesting, but I don’t want to bank on that. I want to allow you access to the ideas that went into the work, but I don’t want it to be the window that you see the work through. It’s a funny kind of balance.”

To this end, many of Roden’s appropriated structural patterns are deliberately obsolete, romantic or just plain goofy. And they are receding from the surface – a few years ago, his surfaces were colonized by wonky grids of letters, numbers, floor plans and other schematics. In his new body of paintings, such as the ones exhibited at Pomona and SBCAF, Roden deconstructs the title of Jacques Cousteau’s book The Silent World to govern their entirely abstract permutations. “I never worked on an idea over three pieces, and this is almost two years I’ve been working with The Silent World. You have to find ways of tweaking the foundation that you think you’ve built and you stand upon, because otherwise you’re just repeating yourself. The one reason I started using systems in the first place was I thought I could see everything I was going to make for the rest of my life. So it’s like, ‘How do I find a way to keep messing things up for myself?'”

The same restless evolution is evident in Roden’s sound work. With no musical background (except for a teen tenure fronting the L.A. punk band Seditionaries), Roden began developing an abstract compositional strategy in the early ’90s, coining the term “lowercase sound” to describe music that “bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it doesnÕt demand attention, it must be discovered. The work might imply one thing on the surface but contain other things beneath.” Roden initially produced sound under the moniker in/be/tween noise to distinguish the work from his visual output – but as the convoluted conceptual overlaps became more conspicuous, he began thinking of them as aspects of the same practice. Nevertheless, Roden’s identity as an experimental musician has a life of its own – since self-releasing a CD in 1993, he has (somewhat paradoxically) become one of the central figures in a “lowercase” movement that has a Yahoo newsgroup, regular concerts and a series of compilation CDs. He has had his work issued by high-profile experimental labels like Trente Oiseaux and Sonoris, and become a favorite of the influential U.K. new-music magazine The Wire. But apart from occasional live improvisations, Roden’s music is as contemplative and work-intensive as his paintings – looping and processing field recordings of sound events or environmental ambience on the computer in the bubble house.

If Roden had focused his energies on one area of creative activity, he’d be so famous. Instead, he’s a little bit famous in a bunch of different communities. But as Roden’s various bodies of work have evolved, they’ve grown toward one another, to the point where he no longer really draws distinctions. “I’m very excited about the show at Susanne’s,” he says. “I can finally do a show where all the work is part of a whole. It’s like painting is the sun, and then all these other things are the planets. I’m super happy with the reaction to the paintings lately, and the reaction to the sound work – but I’m so much more interested in a reaction to the whole thing.” And what of his role as a kingpin in the international vintage-cereal-box trade? Eventually, the taxonomy of Little Debbie snack-cake wrappers will undoubtedly become incorporated into Roden’s coalescing gesamtkunstwerk, but it’s good to keep one of his passions on the side – something to fall back on in case this whole art thing doesn’t pan out.