In this post which I published just before the latest Smithsonian news-burst, I began my two-part review of a 20-year survey of Pasadena, Calif.-based painter Steve Roden. The show, titled “in between,” was curated by Howard N. Fox and debuted at the Armory Arts Center in Pasadena. It will open at San Diego State’s University Art Gallery next month. I described Roden as a particular kind of systems painter: 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. I finished my first post by examining mallarrrmee (1995), a painting in which Roden staked out his conceptual ground.
Roden had determined the subject matter of his work by 1995, but his visual language took a little bit longer to come together: While mallarrrmee is essentially a painted conceptual statement, it wasn’t until around 2000 Roden figured out how to take a core idea and merge it with a color-smart palette, composition, a trademark painterliness and a funky texture that makes his paintings hard to not reach out and touch.
Roden’s the anatomy of touch (wandering all the world has become) (1997, above) is the next key transitional painting. It features what looks like a more organic Sol LeWitt writhing on a background that looks torn from Mimmo Rotella or Alberto Burri. I don’t know if it was Roden’s first overt embrace of other painters or not, but it’s from this painting on that Roden’s brush catches up with his brain. He quickly advances into the painting canon in paintings such as mora pahara 7 (2001), which features a simplified organic growth on a background that references Jasper Johns, Robert Ryman and Paul Cezanne. By 2002 Roden is no longer overtly referring to some of his forefathers, he’s synthesized them completely. Here is where he emerges as a mature painter, as one of our best. It is also the point at which it becomes impossible to explain what makes a Roden painting look like a Roden painting.
They just are. I don’t know how to describe one, a problem that other critics have also discovered. What I can say is this: There are brushstrokes in Rodens that suggest Alfred Jensen, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn and Clyfford Still, except that Still did not use brushes and that Jensen and Thiebaud are nothing like Diebenkorn and Diebenkorn embraced seemingly messy drips (as does Roden, often) while the other three were fundamentally tidy. Somehow they’re all in Roden, who seems to bask in the tactility of paint, in its texture and in the way it gets cruddy when it accumulates at the edges of his canvases, like it does in the same sun spinning and fading (2007-08, left), which is probably Roden’s masterpiece to date.
For all that mess — and there’s some oily gunk on the margins of at least a third of the paintings in this show — Roden’s work is certainly influenced by clean, crisp, hard-edge painting, most obviously by John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin and Frederick Hammersley (except that Roden isn’t much interested in geometry or hard edges). Spaces in Roden paintings are set apart from other spaces. Delineations are clear. Color gets its own place, there is a border, then there is the next thing. You can see this in 20 lines a day (1) (2010), a 2010 work-on-paper which is both tidy, painterly and which seems to reference both hard-edge painting and Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park-era geometry.
Except that only portions of Rodens recall hard-edge painting. Otherwise, he eschews the straightforwardness of hard-edge compositions. Roden’s paintings are always organized. Everything is where it should be. But they seem more carefully tacked-up than anything else. Some ascend, some appear to be top-down views. Regardless, they’re impeccable. I know where my eye is supposed to go in each because Roden makes sure of that. Fall after moons fall after… (2008, right) seems like it’s almost Georgian in its symmetry, but of course close examination reveals it’s not. The whole painting ascends seems to ascend like a Guido Reni Madonna, but the corners and edges are just as interesting as the central basket-like abstraction. Rodens are quite explicitly not full-field paintings: Parts of Rodens are more important than other parts. But the unimportant parts are still pretty awesome.
Lee Mullican is in a lot of Roden’s paintings too, but not in any way that is communicable. (That’s not true: I typed this before deleting it because it sounds dumb: “Mullican’s paintings are full of short, stiff, steely brushstrokes that emanate from somewhere in the middle of the painting and go everywhere. Roden does that too, only his brushstrokes are tightly confined. In other words, they’re only about 15 percent like Mullican’s.”) I’ve seen a lot of Mullican. I’ve seen a lot of Roden. Trust me, it’s there. Celestial fallings and flyings (a new kite for alexander graham bell) (2005, below) has nothing that resembles Mullican’s brushstrokes, but the painting starbursts in a way that recalls the way the energy of a Mullican painting explodes out of the off-center. It’s not just in that one painting, either.
Rodens are inevitably colorful. Roden’s palette is immediately identifiable but is hard to get specific about. He uses colors that are about two shades off of what I want to describe them as. Roden’s blues are kind of purple. His greens are kind of yellow, except when they’re mostly orange. Or something else. In one mountain of found breath (2005-06, below) I counted six shades of green that are sorta green, including one that looks like a David Reed reference (it’s in the lower right). The thing is: If the colors are not ‘green,’ I’m not sure what they are. (I have no idea what David Reed is doing in this paragraph, but this is the way the brain works when looking at a Roden.) I think Roden’s yellows and red are actually yellow and red, except when I look back at the reds I discover they’re more fuchsia than fire engine. And the yellows sometimes are kind of lime-colored. Which, I suppose, makes them green?
In the end, so much of Roden’s paintings come down to an element of faith: I can’t place every influence or every reference. I can’t even name most of his colors. But over a lifetime I’ve looked at enough paintings to be able to feel parts of what I think Roden is referring to. Roden has so much faith in what he’s doing that he doesn’t make his debts plain. He’s confident that his audience will recognize it, even if they can’t always identify it.
Maybe the best way to explain this is by contrasting Roden with Mark Grotjahn, a contemporary of Roden’s who also revels in the materiality of paint. Grotjahn’s recent works are smart, magnificent riffs on Pablo Picasso, the younger painter’s debt to the older painter made overt on every canvas. Roden’s paintings don’t spring from one font. There’s a little bit of seemingly everything here. When I look at Roden’s paintings with friends I find myself blurting out names and subjects: , Odilon Redon’s fancies. Larry Poons? Picasso’s bust of Fernande Olivier. Paul Klee’s sense of space, Ross Bleckner, Gego’s sculptures.
It’s a pity that Roden remains such a secret. On the other hand, “in between” reveals how much fun it will be to watch more art lovers discover his work.