Art review: ‘Steve Roden: in between, a 20-year survey’ @ Armory Center for the Arts; ‘Steve Roden: when words become forms’ @ Pomona College Museum of Art


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Steve Roden has an uncanny way with making paintings that seem accidental yet inevitable, inscrutable yet utterly coherent. There’s a place for everything and everything is happily in its place, fussed over and as carefully assembled as a precise calculation; but the exact principle driving the placement is indecipherable, save for the gauzy concept of intuition.

In the beautiful 20-year survey of his work at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, as well as a smaller but related show of new work at the Pomona College Museum of Art, the 46-year-old painter emerges in a tradition of artists like Arthur Dove, Paul Klee and Alfred Jensen. He’s an eccentric virtuoso whose paintings look abstract, but only in the way that a chair, a tree, a face or even a Pop-Tart becomes abstract the longer you look at it -- which is to say real, highly specific and not representative of more than itself. His remarkable pictures coagulate.


And while I think of him as a painter, Roden also works in sculpture, sound, film, drawing and installation, which are all of a piece with his oils and acrylics on linen, canvas or wood. Together these two shows -- the Armory’s organized by guest curator Howard N. Fox and Pomona’s by museum curator Rebecca McGrew -- offer a superlative kickoff to the fall art season.

Roden’s work is notoriously difficult to describe. Take a painting like 2008’s ‘fall after moons fall after...’. An irregular, crystalline structure of multicolored linear hatch-marks dominates the upper third of a roughly three-foot-square canvas. The form appears to rest on a pedestal or stage, flanked by banners, flags or separating curtains.

Bilateral symmetry is loosely suggested. Like Marsden Hartley’s abstractions from the early 20th century, many of them veiled portraits, few if any of the elements is a specific emblem or insignia. Yet they appear distinctly related to something outside themselves.

Curves erupt in ‘the same sun spinning and fading...’ (2007-2008), like intersecting ripples on the surface of a pond caused by gentle rain, or sound waves emanating from a chorus of voices. Color ranges from murky to intense -- earthy browns abutting sharp crimson, both interrupted by rainbow stripes.

Notably, all Roden’s titles use lowercase letters, a device that functions in multiple ways. You read the title as if you are coming in at the middle of something, rather than at the beginning or the end. No part of the name seems more important than any other. Poetic implication is lofted, rather than precise statement.

Roden works by starting with a found system or structure that is personally meaningful -- the notes of a musical composition he found in his grandmother’s garage, say, or the letters in astronaut John Glenn’s first message from outer space, coded according to their place in the alphabet. In the case of the room-size installation of tethered wooden sticks that fills the large gallery at Pomona, a little sketch by engineer and futurist Buckminster Fuller provided the key.


He might then assign colors to the letters, linear lengths to the musical notes or different types of wood to different aspects of Fuller’s sketch. When he paints, or when he begins to construct a sculpture, he follows the arbitrary system.

The structure of colors, shapes, textures, lines, patterns and sizes is therefore predetermined, but he’s not making some sort of visualization of music or text. Instead, their placement in the composition is improvisational -- as much the result of not understanding the original source as fully comprehending it. A rhythm grows from the engagement, the product of thousands of accumulated small decisions. The resulting works, some employing recorded sound and projected film that are produced according to a similar process, appear playful but labor intensive -- paintings thick with oil and layered marks, sculptures constructed like elaborate Tinkertoys.

Looking at a Roden painting, sculpture or projected film, you sense this interaction of formal system and cryptic intuition. Coherence is self-evident yet elusive, its parameters hard to pin down. An acute awareness quickly blossoms, but it’s simply (or profoundly) the pleasurable, deeply sensual consciousness of watching yourself perceive and think. The art becomes a field of dynamic engagement.

Roden’s work has a deep spiritual dimension that isn’t often encountered in art these days. The effort to evoke it is encountered early, in a modest if finally unsuccessful 1997 sculpture near the entrance to the Armory’s show. Upright wooden dowels lined up in rows on a small, low platform are coated in beeswax, the top ends of the dowels painted as flat disks of solid color.

It’s hard not to read the assemblage as a cluster of votive candles, like the ones you might see at a church altar, with color as their elusive flames. The sculpture, titled from a fragment of Psalm 150, is called ‘let everything that hath breath.’

Nearby, 1999’s ‘guardian angels’ is a small canvas thinly brushed in dusky, atmospheric greens, brown and purple. Translucent white letters of the alphabet are sprinkled across the surface, like ghostly glossolalia. Meaningless sounds are pictured, as if yearning for an understanding beyond language.


Likewise, ‘mallarrrmee’ is a little square painting supported by a small box so that it stands out several inches from the wall, establishing a kind of poetic membrane in space. The title’s reference to the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whose portrait was famously painted by Edouard Manet, is composed of white letters inscribed inside gray ovals arrayed on wobbly lines, like musical notes on a staff or laundry fluttering in the breeze.

Roden seems to be after Mallarmé’s fusion of artistic mediums (painting, sculpture and sound) to achieve compositions of multilayered, spatially diverse ambiguity. As with the glossolalia and the psalm, however, the linear reference to an observable source weighs down work that seeks to function as an omnidirectional web.

The resolution doesn’t come until the start of 2002, when Roden began work on a group of drawings and paintings whose inspiration was Jacques Cousteau’s 1953 book, ‘The Silent World.’ The book tells how the development of the aqualung first allowed for the untethered, free-floating experience of deep water. The artist’s translations of written language into an array of visual codes, shown that year in a small ‘Project’ exhibition also at the Pomona College Museum, set his work free. Selections from Roden’s ‘the silent world’ are included in the Armory presentation.

This is just a guess, and perhaps it goes too far, but I can’t help but notice that Roden’s breakthrough came in the immediate aftermath of the shock to the collective psychic solar-plexus caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Like the awful attacks itself, the insanity that followed was draped in the false garments of rational thought. Rationality is often overrated in modern society, and artistic strides have been made through its rejection after bursts of bloody violence. Whatever the case, an essential shift in Roden’s art quickly came. The Pasadena and Pomona exhibitions show him working at peak form. (He’ll also be participating in Santa Monica’s all-night Glow festival Sept. 25.) These are shows not to miss.

-- Christopher Knight

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Steve Roden: in between, a 20 year survey, Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 792-5101, through Jan. 9; Steve Roden: when words become forms, Pomona College Museum of Art, 330 N. College Way, Claremont, (909) 621-8283, through Dec. 19;



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