The shifting, architectural art of Steve Roden
Winding through a studio filled with collections of curious objects — midcentury ceramics, vintage design magazines, Victorian-era photographs — Steve Roden pauses before a small, rather plain architectural drawing: his most prized possession, he says, by a man he considers “probably the largest influence on me of any artist,” modernist architect Rudolf Schindler.
It is a surprising statement from an artist who, though deeply indebted to modernism philosophically, would seem to share none of its fastidious aesthetic, nor architecture’s tendency toward stable, monumental forms. But then Schindler was not, perhaps, your classic modernist, and when Roden speaks of him — comparing him, initially, with his peer Richard Neutra — the affinity is clear. Indeed, he might as well be talking about himself.With Neutra, he says, “there’s a crispness to everything. It’s like theater, in a way. With Schindler, there’s wonk. There’s tactility. There are things that don’t work. There’s a strange use of color at times. I don’t think he was ever struggling toward a signature. Architecture seems like such a rigid job, and yet he would literally change plans in construction. There’s something I find unremarkable about the work — in a positive way. It’s never trying to show off, and it exploits the formal qualities of the medium to such an interesting degree.”
One might say the same of Roden’s work, though he would likely shy from the comparison. This tension between architecture and “wonk,” rigidity and experimentation, is a defining feature of his broad oeuvre, which spans painting, drawing, sculpture, film and sound art. Building on artists such as John Cage and Sol Lewitt, he works from predetermined systems that generally involve the translation of information from a source material into another medium: translating the notes of a musical score into colors and patterns for a painting, for instance, or using the visual dynamics of a painting as a score for generating sound.
The systems are cannily derived and sometimes bafflingly complex, but the effect is far from dry. Intuition enters in as well as subjective aesthetic judgments. Rules are broken, mistakes are made and embraced. Roden’s surfaces, whether physical or sonic, are engagingly tactile. His paintings — all abstract — flirt with architectural structure but with a handmade character that leaves them feeling wobbly, dynamic and exuberant.
With two shows coming in Southen California, it's a good time to consider his work. To read my Arts & Books section article, click here.
— Holly Myers
Image: human scale (topography), 2005. Credit: The Armory Center for the Arts.