In a globalized art world in which collectors and curators bounce from the same art fair to the same biennial and back to the same art fair, careers such as Steve Roden’s shouldn’t happen. Still, somehow Roden, a California-based artist, has slipped through the cracks. In Europe he’s mostly known as a sound artist. In the Western United States, Roden’s paintings and sculpture have earned him a devoted cult following. In the East he’s almost entirely unknown. A just-closed 20-year survey exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Calif. reveals remarkable achievement that’s been hidden in plain sight. (The show will travel to the University Art Gallery at San Diego State, where it opens on Feb. 14.)
Curated by Howard N. Fox, “in between” revealed Roden, 46, as one of the smartest, best painters of his generation. The exhibition also included smart examples of Roden’s multimedia installations, works that bring together Roden’s interest in projected images, sound and sculpture. Fox has also included several of Roden’s sculptures, which are less engrossing than his paintings or media works.
So who the heck is Steve Roden? The Pasadena-based Roden is a rare 21st-century example of a critics-driven artist. Gogo doesn’t push Eli or Dakis toward him. While Roden’s work is in a few Western museum collections, for the most part art museums and curators have not discovered his work. (For example, MOCA is showing 146 Los Angeles-area artists in this sprawling, miasmic exhibition. Inexplicably, Roden isn’t one of them.) Roden has shown throughout the West for a decade, but he has had only one East Coast exhibition, at New York’s Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in 2005. Meanwhile, critics, particularly Doug Harvey and to a lesser extent Christopher Knight, Michael Ned Holte and David Pagel, have followed each Roden presentation the way a VW microbus owner might follow the Grateful Dead. (Harvey oft wrote about Roden for LA Weekly. Unfortunately, the paper recently terminated its association with him. Look for Harvey in The Nation.)
Like Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie, Mark Lombardi, Jennifer Bartlett or Mark Bradford, Roden is interested in systems and in translating systems onto painted surfaces. Roden’s particular interest isn’t the networks themselves, but the information that travels through them. In ways too complicated for mere mortals to understand, Roden builds what might be called anti-algorithms through which he translates information into colors and compositions. Several times throughout the show and in his excellent catalogue essay, Fox installed wall-text that explained how Roden arrived at a series of works by following Sol LeWitt-inspired rules. I read them all. I didn’t understand a word. In a related story, I don’t understand the research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but I’m pleased that doctors are discovering things that will help keep me healthy. (I’ll share an example in a separate post next week.)
But all that comes later, when Roden really hits his stride in the late 1990s or in the early 2000s. Fox’s Armory installation began with a dozen or so small Roden paintings from the early ’90s, paintings in which Roden gropes his way toward learning how to translate data into paint. In equivalents (flame/place) (1994, above right) and i am sitting in a room (1996, above left), Roden builds compositions around joining letters, shapes, and expanses of color. Considered here in the context of Roden’s later work, it’s easy to see Roden feeling his way toward assigning visual elements to a bit (a byte?) of data or information. In these early works it’s a pretty literal translation: Roden paints small shapes and ‘assigns’ them a letter. By i am sitting in a room he joins the letters+shapes with lines to other letters+shapes, all juxtaposed against a topographical, painterly orange background.
Comparing the simple compositions of Roden’s early work to his later explosions of color and space is like comparing the capacity of a floppy disk to flash memory — and Roden’s early work indicates an interest in how data was and is stored. The green and yellow streaks of sleep holy babe (1994, right) recall the way information might be held on the grooves of a floppy disk; the word fragments at right seem to refer to the information stored therein. (In his catalogue essay, Fox reveals that Roden used a player-piano roll is a stencil to make this painting. Think of it as Roden using steampunk data storage to suggest then-modern data storage.)
By the mid-90s Roden starts to incorporate not just letters, but recognizable words into his works: A small painting titled mallarrrmee (1995) is essentially Roden’s marker, a declaration of future intent. The painting refers to 19th-century French poet and critic Stephane Mallarme, for whom words were more useful as tools and toys than as conduits of understood meaning.
Mallarme’s poetry is built around a the use of words as sounds, as building blocks, as alchemical ingredients. Instead of relying on their contemporary meanings, Mallarme mined words’ long-forgotten roots and original definitions in an effort to build pure essences of distilled knowledge. According to Mallarme’s best-known theory, beyond the real lies nothingness, but somehow within this nothingness can be found the essence of perfect forms. With mallarrrmee, Roden declared his intent to build complex alchemical — or in today’s lingo, ‘logarithmical’ — formulas to mine the obscure so as to arrive at perfect painted forms.
In mallarrrmee Roden’s painterly, visually untidy embrace of Mallarme is also a pointed rejection of the tidyness of LA’s postwar ur-painter Ed Ruscha, for whom crisp words and their meanings and marriages to crisp images are critical to an artwork. (The circles around the letters that spell “mallarrrmee” are all different sizes, they all float in space above a bar code-recalling rack of pointedly not-straight lines.) Then Roden puts each letter of “mallarmee” on a key… but leaves vague whether he’s referencing the keys of an instrument or a keyboard or a typewriter or another data-input device. Roden merely suggests he’s aiming to become the Mallarme of painters, someone who takes familiar information, strips it bare, mines it and builds something special out of it.From mallarmee, Roden accelerated quickly into making his now recognizable mature work… and that’s where we’ll pick up next week.