Highly regarded by his peers and generally beloved of critics, especially in Los Angeles, Steve Roden is what you would call an artist's artist. It is a particular distinction, implying not merely talent but a certain quality of integrity as well, one whose essence may be lost on the layman.
The phrase comes to mind as you take in Roden's current show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. The question of what about Roden's work earned him the distinction, however, is worth parsing.
The show is appealing by any measure: colorful, energetic, nuanced and confident -- the work of an artist entering a sophisticated mid-career maturity. With nearly a dozen paintings, 16 works on paper, a handful of sculptures and a subtle but mesmerizing video/sound installation, it hits most of Roden's multiple bases and speaks to the breadth of both his skills and his vision.
But looking through the eyes of a hypothetical layman -- from whose vantage point, after all, we are none of us so far removed -- you might be hard-pressed to differentiate the work from the general current of cheerfully colored, pleasant-to-look-at, basically geometric abstraction that's claimed some portion of Los Angeles gallery space for years -- and whose subtle distinctions would seem largely a matter of academic dispute. What makes this work not only appealing, the layman might ask, but important, particularly to other artists?
My theory is threefold.
The first point is methodological. Roden works with systems, generating the visual works here, for example, from sheets of musical notation based on a complicated framework of self-generated rules: this type of mark for that type of note, and so on. In the case of the show's sound piece, he worked in the opposite direction, generating notes -- which he hums on a recording -- from the visual dynamics of a painting that appears in sensual close-up in the video projection.
Contemporary artists love systems, especially systems that are largely arbitrary and likely to go awry. The predilection dates at least to the '60s, when Minimalism and Conceptualism turned to geometry, mathematics and theories of chance in an effort to eradicate the romantic tendencies of Modernism. Today, the interest seems to be as much in the failure of systems as in their integrity, and Roden straddles the divide brilliantly, often following his rules but often breaking them, exploring the tension between geometry and gesture, intention and accident, pattern and variation. That his visual works feel both systematically generated and intensely handmade, even instinctual or intuitive, is evidence of the careful balance he maintains.
The second point is formal. Although conceived in multiple media, Roden's work stems from a close and rigorous connection to materials. His paintings, with their wavering lines and thick, bumpy, glistening pigment, have everything to do with the condition of paint -- they could have been made in no other medium. The works on paper, some including elements of text collage, others involving the interplay of hard pencil lines and loose, saturated blobs of colored ink, are deeply responsive to the condition of paper.
It is this specificity that makes his translations between media -- turning musical notes, for instance, into hanging strings of wooden blocks -- so compelling.
Finally -- most ineffable but most important -- the work feels like the product of someone who thinks. And looks. And reads. And listens. And thinks some more, and looks again, and keeps looking. It is inquisitive, attentive, responsive. And here is where the idea of integrity figures.
This is rigorous work pursued at a high level of formal and conceptual sophistication and, it seems, for entirely the right reasons. In its presence, you feel yourself in very good hands.
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through Aug. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.vielmetter.com
A big tent for creative ideas
The centerpiece of "Super Faulty Reconfiguration," an exhibition by Oakland-based artist Bruce Busby in the project room at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is a white nylon tent, large enough to sleep in and open to anyone willing to take off her or his shoes. Despite a curious, off-kilter slant and a number of mysterious cylindrical protuberances, it's a slick, snazzy contraption that would look right at home on the floor of a sporting goods emporium.
But this is no ordinary tent. In the words of the artist, it is a "Creative Enhancement Shelter capable of variable cooperative cluster formations or solitary unit deployment to enable all inclusive cultural evolution following catastrophic systemic breakdown and for reinvigoration of general ho-hum continuum."
How does it work? "Macro tubule technology funnels Creatively Inhibitant Embedded Impurities for maximized reconfiguration to assist formation of essential personal and social evolutions, ultimately providing a critical platform for the survival and ascension of humanity."
The impressive fabrication of these sentences, echoing as it does the flawless fabrication of the tent, sharpens the parody nearly to the point of invisibility. So deadpan is the presentation that you can't help but wonder whether Busby is, in fact, serious -- even think, for a moment, that he might be onto something.
In its reflection of undeniably familiar stereotypes of California (and, to some degree, American) culture -- the ecological paranoia, the exaltation of personal expression, the longing for therapeutic consumer solutions and the pseudo-scientific language in which these solutions are generally couched -- the work actually rings more true than not.
Also on view are several large, beautifully rendered drawings of what look like ribbons of smoke or strips of soft, billowing fabric: "Creativity Impairment Plumes," according to the artist. Like those vivid sunsets that come with the fires, in other words, they're enchanting but toxic.
If you're nervous about exposure, though, just crawl into the tent. That, after all, is what it's there for.
Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., G1, Santa Monica, (310) 586-6488, through Aug. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.smmoa.org
Life as recorded in a visual journal
Robert A. Nelson made his first film in 1963, in collaboration with the artists William T. Wiley and Robert Hudson, the composer Steve Reich and a mime troupe director named Ron Davis. Recalling the experience later in Film Culture magazine, he said: "None of us knew anything about making movies, but we all knew about art (namely that it had to do with having a good time)."
The photographs in "Common Ground," at Another Year in LA, were taken roughly four decades later, after Nelson had gone on to make several dozen films, and are as solitary and quiet as the films were collaborative and wry.
But the same experiential ethos appears to persist: a notion of art as not just an act of production but also a joyful extension of living.
The photographs were made over the last nine years in the vicinity of the artist's rural home in Northern California. They were not, according to the gallery, intended to be exhibited but were taken in the spirit of a visual journal. They record indistinct fragments of the landscape -- fields of grass, light on water, a patch of dirt -- often blurred or double exposed.
The effect is touchingly intimate, almost tender -- something like a walk in the woods with a cherished uncle.
Carefully chosen and handsomely installed, the images reflect a meditative chapter in the life of an artist who, as a key figure of the post-Beat San Francisco avant-garde film scene, must have seen a lot in his day.
Another Year in LA, 2121 N. San Fernando Road, No. 13, Los Angeles, (323) 223-4000, through July 18. Closed Mondays and Saturdays. www.anotheryearinla.com
Baby photos of the future past
The photographer Lewis Baltz is best known in America for his cool, stark images of desolate vistas -- of tract houses, industrial parks, dejected inner cities and the Southwest desert -- whose components, even when newly fabricated, seem to be already dying.
It is surprising, then, to come across the installation at Gallery Luisotti of selections from a key transitional series by Baltz, undertaken around the time he moved to Europe in the late 1980s and was just shifting into color, that records the period of a momentous birth: that of the cybernetic age.
Called "Sites of Technology" and never exhibited in the U.S., the series consists of 53 color photographs made between the late '80s and the early '90s. It includes images of a Toshiba factory in Japan, a supercomputer in Geneva, a meteorological center in Grenoble, France, and a nuclear plant on the northern French coast.
The images aren't generally as potent as Baltz's early black-and-white pictures, and many are compelling chiefly for historical reasons. But there are details of startling clarity, beauty and even grandeur, as in the glowing, diagonal slats of an office ceiling or the sparkling cavern of a nuclear reactor. Despite the novelty (at the time) of their subjects, these are also, in a sense, images of desolation, filled with objects, ideas and environments that were, given the pace of technology in the late 20th century, on the verge of obsolescence from the moment they came into being.
Gallery Luisotti, 2525 Michigan Ave., A2, Santa Monica, (310) 453-0043, through July 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.galleryluisotti.com