unfinished symphony:
steve roden shifts into overdrive

by Doug Harvey la weekly, 2010

Until I finally saw them standing next to each other at a barbecue a couple of years back, I always had a suspicion that Steve Roden and Tim Hawkinson might be the same person. This in spite of the fact that I’ve known both personally for a couple of decades, and they bear almost no physical resemblance to one another. I couldn’t completely rule out the possibility that some alien with the hyperdimensional equivalent of a fun-house mirror was pulling a fast one. Come to think of it, he could have been using some doppelgänger beam at that barbecue. The theory may bear further scrutiny.

OK, here are the facts: Tim and Steve both live in Pasadena and have weird-ass record collections with frequent overlaps. I mean weird-ass like Vachel Lindsay reciting “The Mysterious Cat” in 1931, just before committing suicide — and it doesn’t get much more weird-ass than that. Each one’s work is a personal and idiosyncratic exploration of systems — systems of construction, of communication, of cognition. Both invent and build their own musical instruments. They have identical birthmarks on the left buttock in the shape of Léon Theremin’s right profile. (That last item is unconfirmed.)

What’s certain is that they are two of the most unschmoozy artists I’ve ever encountered. They’re happy to talk about their work, but shun the spotlight in favor of long hours in the studio — hours that are fantastically productive in both their cases. In spite of this, they seem to be everywhere … well, almost everywhere. For a long time, Hawkinson was the most egregious example of the L.A. museumscape’s “prophet without honor in his own land” syndrome. The lightbulb should have gone off in 1996 when Jay Belloli — the recently retired director of Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts — curated “Tim Hawkinson: Ali Ikmnostw,” but it wasn’t until almost 10 years later when the Whitney came sniffing around that Howard Fox was able to persuade LACMA to do the right thing (the 2005 retrospective “Tim Hawkinson”).

Now Belloli’s left the Armory, Fox is free of LACMA and Steve Roden — who has been perennially jamming out stellar solo shows of his gorgeous painterly puzzles for Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects since 2003, while gaining international acclaim for his experimental music and sound art installations — is a front-runner for the most-egregious-prophet award. (Don’t get me started on Jim Shaw and Jeffrey Vallance!) So what’s the upshot? Fox curating “Steve Roden: In Between, a 20-Year Survey” at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts! Mere coincidence?

“When we installed the Hawkinson show at LACMA, it was not a chronological hang,” Fox admits. “People were expecting to find a well-developed history, a kind of trajectory they could define. But that’s not the way the work behaves, and it would have been an imposed misreading to try and do it that way. Ditto for Steve.

“I think one of the things that informed the way Steve’s show looks,” Fox elaborates, “is that with all of his creativity in all its dimensions — whether we’re talking about painting, sculpture, sound performances, film, these more improvisational kind of drawings — it’s all seamless, it’s all connected, and you can’t really parse it out into categories or themes or styles or phases of his career.”

In spite of Roden’s seamless, interconnected, unparsable complexity, both he and Fox (under duress) admit to certain identifiable progressions. There’s scale, for one: The works included expand over time from the 7-inch-square jewel i am sitting in a room (1996) through transmission 11/60 (stellar regions)(2002, 72 inches square) to untitled (36/2) (2009, 82 by 60 inches).

Then there’s the gradual blurring of boundaries between Roden’s various pursuits — his earliest sound works (apart from fronting L.A. teen punk band Seditionaries) were issued under the alias in/between/noise. As his reputation as a sound artist grew — and spawned the still-percolating electronica subgenre known as “lowercase music” — he branched into sound sculpture and site-specific audio installations, and such arbitrary divisions grew redundant.

“There’ve been three or four moments of shift in the work,” Roden says. “There was one when I got out of grad school [Art Center] — I had been making intuitive abstract paintings and getting my ass kicked for it. So I spent a couple more years making intuitive abstract paintings and started to feel like I was going to be making the same painting for the rest of my life. That’s when I started using really simple arbitrary systems.” This is where the survey show picks up, when Roden began using textual fragments, floor plans, player-piano rolls and a dazzling variety of other encoded sources of information to determine — and in turn be translated and distorted by — the creative decision-making involved in constructing his art.

At first Roden left tantalizing clues about these hidden structural codices across the surface of the painting — often in the form of apparently random letters or numbers, both invoking and usurping conceptualism’s authoritarian literary capacity to intrigue us and control our attention. By the late ’90s it had become something of a signature style. Time for a shift.

“Before the Santa Barbara show [at the Contemporary Arts Forum in 2002], I got to this place where I felt I was the guy who paints letters,” recalls the artist, “and the question became, How can I evolve from that as opposed to exploiting it? I needed to go back to my source materials and find something other than what’s on the surface. And that generated the systems that started with the Silent World project.”

The Silent World project was Roden’s first sustained exegesis of a single source — in this case the title of Jacques Cousteau’s first book — and made up the bulk of his Santa Barbara survey as well as his first show at Vielmetter. Conspicuously devoid of letters, numbers or much of any sort of such left-brain static, the series untethered Roden’s already formidable formalist chops, freeing him to produce his most gorgeously rickety palimpsests yet of oils, acrylics, encaustic, polyurethane and spray paint. By embedding his generative processes so deeply, Roden displayed a new confidence in the capacity of shape and color to embody complex conceptual backstories — without having to advertise it — and the results were the kind of alchemical wedding of outsider conceptualism and painterly acumen found in the works of Alfred Jensen, Jess and a handful of other modern masters.

“Actually,” Roden says, “when that shift came, I stopped painting for a year. I worked on that sculpture that I showed at the Hammer, and I started to work on the Swedish poems.”

The sculpture in question was The Surface of the Moon — actually an amalgamation of 490 tiny sculptures inspired by tramp-whittled cigar-box art and assembled from wood, wax, wire, tinfoil, gesso and graphite according to a list of lunar landmarks from the Rev. T.W. Webb’s 1910 guidebook Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes — whose star turn in Hammer’s 2001 “Snapshot” show put Roden on the art-world map for many.

“The Swedish poems” refers to Roden’s ongoing translation of a book by Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist, meticulously detailed English renditions made in spite of — or rather, because of — the fact that Roden doesn’t read a lick of Swedish. But he gives it his best shot, which is all one can ask. The resultant artifact — included in the Armory show under the title fallen/spoken (2000-present) — may seem like an exercise in absurdist whimsy, but it points to one of the central, and most widely misconstrued, strengths in Roden’s oeuvre.

More than once it has been suggested that Roden’s repurposing of various intellectual programmatics to arguably decorative ends is essentially an assault, an insult to rational discourse, or a despairing abandonment of the very possibility of meaningful human communication. While it’s fair to assume in Roden’s approach a certain amount of implicit critique of our culture’s disproportionate privileging of linear verbal narrative, any inference of nihilism is what we social scientists refer to as “bass ackwards” thinking.

I would contend that Roden’s insistence on confronting the Void with an incomplete set of obsolete tools and a handbook in Urdu is first and foremost an object lesson in true, functional protocols of intellectual creativity; that in art — and quite possibly in all of human culture — quantifiable data is an arbitrary, secondary component to the mechanisms of discovery and invention. Given the state civilization has reached through the assiduous application of rationalization, this is a radically optimistic position.

And, of course, a position that is far too Uppercase for Roden to ever espouse. And rightly so, since it is, itself, a rationalization, and beside the point. Roden has stated repeatedly that the main motor of his artistic evolution is his discomfort with being able to see too far into his own future. The shifts in strategy are a form of applied random mutation and willful disorientation. The question isn’t, “Why do I keep fucking up?” but, “How do I keep fucking up?”

For the last five years, Roden has been fucking up with the help of an unidentified 12-page classical-music score that he took from his grandparents’ garage during his high school years, using each line of musical notation as the template for a new work — including a spectacular body of paintings that picked up and ran where The Silent World left off. The completion of this untitled notational unraveling was in sight, just in time for the Armory survey, as luck would have it. But then the shift hit.

“In January to March, when I was in Marfa, Texas [as a 2010 artist in residence at the Chinati Foundation], the idea of the next shift occurred,” Roden recalls. “I was reading a lot of [Donald] Judd and [Robert] Irwin about site specificity when they handed me my packet for the residency — where to go to the market and all that — and there was a real aggressive quote on the front page from Judd about site specificity, and it really pushed my buttons. It’s very common for me to do a site-specific sound work, but I would never make a site-specific painting or a site-specific sculpture.

“The score demanded that I make seven more paintings. And so when I got there I started working on more of the music paintings, but after about three days I realized I had no reason to do this — I shouldn’t be making something I could make at home while I was in this fantastic space. It was an old freezer building for a butcher. There was a subroof that had been taken off, and there was all this geometric structure — fucked-up, broken half-grids of rotten wood, with newish wood where they must have tried to fix it. Just beautiful. After about a week I found myself staring at the ceiling and telling myself that I don’t make work based on stuff outside the frame of what I’m working on. And so the music performance is unfinished. I left those seven lines of music unplayed.”

Instead, Roden started to move in a new direction, completing a group of paintings that are site-specific in their execution; three of these are included in the survey. At the same time, he was re-reading the famous “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter from Moby Dick with some concern, since he had proposed a major new piece for the Pomona College Museum of Art conflating that transcendentalist touchstone with an actual whale skeleton he had seen suspended from the ceiling of a natural history museum in Norway and a tiny, mysterious diagrammatic drawing by visionary architect Buckminster Fuller. Somehow, though, the shift was squeezing the whole cetacean angle out of the picture.

The picture that eventually emerged — titled bowrain (2010) and the largest sculptural work the artist has created to date — is the centerpiece of “Steve Roden: When Words Become Forms,” the Pomona exhibit that, insanely, opens the very same day as his Armory retrospective. Scaling back his source documents to the single, cryptic rainbow Fuller doodle, Roden seems to have nevertheless channeled some portion of his Marfa epiphany into the sprawling multimedia installation — a geometric structure of fucked-up, broken half-grids of newish wood (to be precise, 90 pieces each of footlong birch, 3-foot walnut, 6-foot poplar, 9-foot cumala and 12-foot bass, plus 30 pieces of 15-foot fir). It’s certainly beautiful, especially in combination with the abstract hand-painted 16 mm film/video projections and off-register 6-track audio component.

“I used the Fuller drawing to generate the score that generated the plan that generated the activity … ,” Roden says, laughing. “And I worked completely collaboratively with Gary Murphy, the installer at Pomona. He hand-milled the lumber, and he and I built the piece together. It wasn’t like I told him what to do — we pulled numbers out of a paint can, then we’d get two pieces of wood and wire them together, and try to fit them into the structure.”

To reanimate the skeletal remains of this summerlong architectonic game, Roden used the six-color schema from Fuller’s diagram to determine the colors and forms drawn directly on three sets of 16mm film stock, which light the piece and create theatrically immersive spatial illusions, as well as to determine the objects — ranging from the violet key on a children’s xylophone to a sample of a faint classroom film projector from a red-vinyl record titled The Sounds of Pomona, from which he extracted the loopy, aleatory audio element. It’s like getting to the belly of the beast only to find a crystalline beatnik opium den. To quote scripture: “Jonah, what in the world is you smoking in there?”

To complement this magnum opus (which, come to think of it, strangely resembles a certain other artist’s “largest sculpture ever” displayed in the lobby of the Getty a couple of years back … hmmmm), Roden has filled a side gallery with his smallest paintings ever — postcard-sized abstract oils on canvas created in direct correspondence with a set of actual boring European travel postcards given to the museum’s senior curator, Rebecca McGrew, by the late hard-edge abstractionist (and longtime Pomona faculty member) Frederick Hammersley. In addition to this posthumous visual dialogue, Roden invited L.A.-based art writer Michael Ned Holte to create texts for the blank backsides of the never-mailed missives. This fruitful three-way is rounded out with an actual Hammersley painting from the museum’s holdings. The result is a charming and quixotic collaborative exercise that, as a stand-alone show, is more interesting than 90 percent of what you see in the galleries these days.

With all of this activity behind him, Roden is no doubt ready for a well-deserved break. Except he’s committed to doing a double video projection of hand-drawn films of the west coasts of North and South America on a pair of sculptural screens at their juncture point on Santa Monica Beach for this year’s Glow extravaganza, on September 25. Then there are the selections from his remarkable collections of vintage photographs and phonographs currently being prepped as a deluxe book/CD combo by the illustrious Dust-to-Digital label (you can get the gist of it from Roden’s mesmerizing airform archives blog atinbetweennoise.blogspot.com).

Oh, yes, and of course there’s his next solo exhibit at Vielmetter Projects scheduled for March.

Forget Tim Hawkinson. My new theory is that Steve Roden is actually a set of identical septuplets, cloned in the bowels of a secret laboratory deep beneath Arcosanti perhaps. Or maybe just the most under-recognized artistic genius working in L.A. I’ll keep you posted on the results of my research.