at GRIFFIN CONTEMPORARY ART, 7 November-20 December
Art issues. 1998
Steve Roden's paintings and sculptures take found systems of various kinds—often a schematic from some serious modernist art, literary, or design source—and subjects them to playful reinterpretation. heaven, earth & architecture (all works, 1997), a typi¬cal sixteen-inch-square painting, derives from the floorplan of a Joseph Beuys mu¬seum exhibition. Repeated failed attempts to transcribe the map to canvas first resulted in a suggestion of a murky horizontal land¬scape, radiant above and ominously dark below. Adding a few touches to empha¬size this duality, Roden then cut out the rooms from the Beuys map and reinscribed them and their mirror images at more or less equal intervals across the painting's sur¬face. The artist then roughly translated the original German text into English, wrote it adjacent to the icons, and covered the text with opaque white bubbles.
Many artists take pains when they appropriate high-modernist tropes to pre¬serve the glum authoritarianism of the orig¬inals, thereby ensuring their own work's dominance. In contrast, Roden continually derails the self-important train of thought, crashes or couples it with a train from some other line, and loads it with alien cargo, so that if and when it finally gets to the sta¬tion, it serves no rhetorical purpose what¬soever. Getting from here to there is ren¬dered meaningless, and the knee-jerk rev¬erence these deeply graven routines once commanded is lost among the sidings, being poked with a stick by a hobo. Hear its whim¬per: Don't hurt me, Mister; I'm semiotically indistinguishable from Walker Evans!
Such works as the Joycean cham¬ber music weave together ambiguous ideational landscapes in which we're un¬certain whether one element is more "mean¬ingful" than another, or whether a partic¬ular color choice has been determined arbitrarily or according to an obscure note¬book entry by Josef Albers. While it's ob¬vious that there is some theoretical mech¬anism involved in generating aspects of the visual content, it's equally apparent that Ro¬den has no qualms about abandoning his tack for a passage of sheer painterly in¬dulgence. This tainting or hybridization of the epistemological purity of the work results in a rickety conceptualism, where even if we figure out the hidden structural components, the function of the piece has slipped too far into retinality for us to say we've "got it," and dismiss it from our senses.
By refusing to order his impulses and intuitions hierarchically, Roden attempts to even the playing field so that his works more accurately mimic the workings of an en¬gaged and curious creative consciousness, excluding neither the high and dry, nor the low-down and funky, neither inviting nor discouraging art-historical interpreta¬tion or sensual rapture. Forging a domain where all possibilities are inextricably avail¬able for consideration is a tall order, and generates its own teleological pitfalls. But in Roden's time-based work in sound and Super-8 trim, similar strategies result in seamless and elegant solutions: The ten¬sion between teasing allusion and formal extravagance recedes, and real fusion oc¬curs. A CD released concurrently with the exhibition, of sound enclosed by planes or surfaces, is a twenty-plus minute com¬position layered from samples, of ambient sounds in the empty gallery space. The pos¬sibility of a similar denouement perme¬ates the sweet awkwardness of Roden's painting and sculpture, and much of their generous humor derives from retaining and playing off these territorial antagonisms.
John Cage once defined art as "pur¬poseless play," an attitude that exemplified the group of strangely up-beat post-World War II innovators who were characterized as early as the nineteen fifties by poet and Black Mountain College Svengali Charles Olson as "post-modern." Although Olson didn't coin the term, and it has certainly come to pack a bewildering panoply of connotative sludge, there is a certain inabil¬ity to set goals among those artists of his milieu that set them apart from other pre¬tenders in the ahistorical sweepstakes. While it hasn't hit the jackpot yet, in works such as Roden's 216 lyrical abstract drawings de¬rived from childhood Hot Wheels sten¬cils, we can sense him edging paradoxically toward a more deeply integrated and less self-conscious ambivalence.
Doug Harvey is semiotically indistinguishable.