systems that set you free: current work by steve roden

by john yau hyperallergic, 2013


At last, New York is getting to see a broad range of work by Steve Roden, an L.A.-based artist who makes paintings, drawings, sculptures, sound compositions and sound installations determined by self-invented systems. His exhibition, ragpicker, currently at CRG (September 12–October 19, 2013), includes large and small paintings, drawings on sheets of paper that mirror his body’s proportions, a sculpture and an uncategorizable wall piece, “cymbal/symbol,” which consists of four drawings, four vinyl records, four turntables, six speakers and three amps mounted on the wall or placed on shelves attached to the wall.

For those who want to know more about Roden’s music, a good place to start is the current issue of Bomb (Fall 2013), which includes a conversation between him and Stephen Vitiello. I also suggest that you check out the fascinating compilation of found photographs in his book … I listen to the wind that obliterates my traces: music in vernacular photographs 1880–1955, which contains two CDs (Atlanta: Dust-to-Digital, 2011). Available at CRG, this book helps flesh out the image of Roden as a “ragpicker,” a collector of what others have overlooked.

In 2011, in an artist’s statement, Roden described what he did like this:

My working process generally includes the translation of various forms of specific notation (words, musical scores, maps, etc.) into scores, which influence the process of making/composing a painting, drawing, and sculpture or sound composition. The scores, rigid in terms of their structure, are also full of holes – allowing for intuitive actions, mistakes and potential left turns. Other than its relationship to an inspirational source, I seldom know how an artwork will speak until it is finished.

Roden’s sources have included the music of John Cage, a collection of seashells that once belonged to Martha Graham, a group of carved stones that his artist grandmother worked on but never completed, and a quote by Henry Moore that she wrote on a piece of paper and kept in her studio. However, contrary to what one might expect, given the personal nature of many of his sources, the paintings are abstract. In fact, if Roden had not revealed his inspirations, I highly doubt that anyone could deduce what they were.


The paintings in CRG are based on an exhibition of Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, which Roden first saw in Berlin in 2007. Unable to read German, he “spent a day looking at writing, instead of reading the writing.” This led to further research, which seems to be an integral part of Roden’s process; he is compelled to dig deeper, to look further into the subject. According to the CRG press release:

The large paintings included in the show based are on a selection of Benjamin’s 36 methods of crossing out mistakes in his notes, organized by Roden into index cards and pulled at random to determine the structure of the subsequent work. The smaller paintings are based on a postcard from Benjamin’s childhood collection featuring the Siena Cathedral. The large works on paper, approximately the size of the artist’s body, are dictated by the color schema from the Arcades notebooks, and they also draw from French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s design schema for buildings in Chandigarh, India.

The statement is unclear about whether it was Roden or Benjamin who recorded the thirty-six ways that Benjamin crossed out mistakes, but whatever the case — which I don’t think matters in the end — Roden is a collector who assembles detailed indexes in order to catalog what he has accumulated, whether it is seashells, photographs of men holding musical instruments or a postcard from a philosopher’s collection. In this regard, Roden neither illustrates nor appropriates from Benjamin. Rather, he comes up with a translation that, paradoxically, stands on its own. Given that there are artists and even critics who like to browbeat the viewer by emphasizing that it is the subject, rather than the form, that makes the art, I find Roden’s stance liberating. Additionally, through his use of self-devised systems, he has found a way to reject the widely accepted postmodern strategy of appropriation and ironic citation commonly used by the “Pictures Generation” and those they have influenced.


In the three small paintings, all 14 x 11 inches, viewers can make a correlation between the source, which was the Siena Cathedral’s alternating layers of white and greenish-black marble, and Roden’s stacked bands of alternating colors. But it is a correlation that — to this viewer at least — quickly becomes extraneous to this open-ended series, which, according to the titles, numbers at least twelve. The connection ceases to be important once the work is made.

In both the small and larger paintings in the exhibition, Roden uses a pared down vocabulary consisting of bands of color that range from impasto to a semi-transparent wash. The band (or stripe) is the basic unit of the artist’s lexicon. In musical terms, you might say it is the note. It can come in any color and it can be placed horizontally, vertically or diagonally. A cluster of them can overlay another grouping in a different color combination, or two clusters can be abutted without any transition between. One system can be placed next to or on top of another. They can also nest inside each other, like Chinese puzzles. In other instances, Roden might space the lines apart to enable another color to fill in the spaces, to explore a figure/ground relation or establish distinct configurations within the larger grouping.

It seems that at any point in the process, Roden can cover over an area with a layer of color with cut-out sections that allow what preceded it to peek through. In the drawings, which were inspired by Benjamin’s notebooks and a design by Le Corbusier, it is evident that he employs a very different process, beginning with applying printer’s ink to a plastic sheet, which he lies on, making an imprint of his body. He also uses some kind of instrument to trace the contour of his body and to make linear configurations, as well as uses colored pencils to lay down areas of color next to each other.

While every one of Roden’s visual works is inspired by something particular, they don’t hang their hat on that source. In this regard, they share something with the work of Thomas Nozkowski. I was reminded of the slogan for the Yellow Pages: “Let your fingers do the walking.” Except, I imagined that Roden — through his self-devised system — transformed the phrase into: “Let your art do the talking.” Roden’s works contain and articulate all that’s going on. They are not about allusions and explanations, which often manipulates the viewer into going on a tiresome treasure hunt for small pickings. Against them, I would put up Roden’s small paintings, which are among some of the best that I have seen on that scale.

Steve Roden’s ragpicker continues at CRG gallery (548 West 22 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 19.