Sunday, November 23, 2014

"When the Body Becomes a City" (on Roden's "ragpicker" show) by Douglas Messerli

when the body becomes a city

Steve Roden “ragpicker” / Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the opening I attended was on Saturday, September 14, 2013

Writing on Steve Roden’s art in November 2010 (see My Year 2010: Shadows) I noted that, even if we could not precisely comprehend the hidden systemic processes behind his works, we still perceive the art as a “’shadow’ of process that seems to demand a search,” not simply for the artwork’s “meaning,” but for its individual significance to each of us:

                         For Roden all his hidden systems—what one might describe
                         as the building blocks of his art—emanate from his intellectual
                         and spiritual interests and his attempts to translate them—in a
                         way that most good literary translators comprehend—into a
                         language in which he can better understand them or reveal
                         them to a different audience.

     I hinted, moreover, that the artist worked slowly, accumulating greater and greater depth in the process of its creation, as Roden sometimes returns to pieces years later, “working on them anew,” as if they were only “temporarily complete.”


     I entered Susanne Vielmetter’s large multi-roomed project, accordingly, with some startlement, given the vast number of new works featured, and being told that the Los Angeles show was just one of two—the other in New York— simultaneous shows of new Roden paintings, sculptures, drawings, and recordings.

      Most of these works, moreover, suggested less an internalized and somewhat privatized structure of interwoven colors of his past works than larger and far more dynamic landscapes and architectural constructions. Although Roden has always been a kind of “ragpicker,” an artist who, when asked, after my suggestions of some influences I had perceived, whether there were other “influences I was blind to,” answered: “I will blind you with my gaggle of influences…and the convoluted path I’ve shared with them.” 
     These new works not only, at times, remind one of the dynamic projections of the German Expressionists, particularly in works such as “black extendable (fragments and letters),” “bachus on a billygoat,” and “everything crushed underfoot,”—the last featuring large black brush-strokes streaking across a sickly pink and pea green sky, punctuated with an almost clownish rocket-shaped object, while below sits a dynamic muddle of colorful remnants of the city or buildings that once may have stood upright. Friend and artist Dan Wheeler, looking at the picture over my shoulder, commented on how difficult it was to create those fine black brush strokes, which, so Roden had confided to him, were the impetus of the rest of the work.

     Other compositions, such as “when the body becomes a city and the city becomes a body (levitation).” a piece created of printer’s ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, call up the intricate gowns and long coats of figures by Gustav Klimt, while Roden’s series of “Themes/Paths/Rags,” particularly #8, with its totemistic numbers and letters, remind one of two of Roden’s favorite artists, Adolf Wölfli and Alfred Jensen.


 Images of the city, or least of city structures, in fact, become some of the dominant works in this large Roden show. The clue he provides in the series of drawings, “when the body becomes a city and the city becomes a body,” is played out brilliantly in his series of 13 views (only 7 shown in this exhibition), a “body” of work that again reminds me of certain German Expressionist works by Kirchner—not only his cityscapes, but the large stripes of his figures’ robes as in “Self-portrait with model” of 1909-1910—except that Roden’s stripes can be read as the windows or eyes of his city-body or aerial street scenes.

      I do not mean, in pointing out these possible art historical references, to suggest that Roden’s work is imitative. Roden’s way of drawing on art history is still a remarkably private one that might frustrate the efforts of any old-fashioned art comparativist simply because his influences are fragmentary and nearly inexhaustible, two or three different art references sometimes combined into a single work that is, in Roden’s hands, still fresh and alive. One is tempted to describe his approach to the past, given his Cage and Fluxus-influenced musical works, as a bit like music “samplings,” minutely brief bursts of images, in this case, that call up the whole of art history; and it is precisely this possibility in Roden’s paintings and drawings that gives so much pleasure to anyone with any knowledge of the past. Simultaneously, however, no viewer needs to know anything about art history to be excited by Roden’s art, particularly given the dynamism so apparent in these works.
    A few days later, I wrote Steve to ask him some questions about the show, of which I have expressed my views above. The computer interview is certainly one of the most revealing conversations that one might have with the artist. So I have shared his responses and my introductory questions below.

messerli:  Just a couple of questions, Steve: how did this new series of numerous works begin?

(I have retained most of Roden’s eccentric use of capitalizations and punctuation)

roden: It all began in a 2011 residency at the akademie der kunste in berlin to study walter benjamin's notebooks. i should mention that i don't speak nor read german, so it was a relatively unconventional approach - since everyone else in the room was working on a PHD dissertation or a book. i had seen some of the notebooks, 4 or 5 years earlier in an exhibition and i was fascinated by all the glyphs, symbols, colors, graphic accidents, etc.

one of the things i was very interested in was a series of colored symbols such as a red square with a black X inside or green filled in oval with a black plus sign inside. these were used in the notebook for his arcades project and those symbols are relatively known, but their meanings are still not entirely known other than each was used to mark certain themes in the notebook so as to be able to organize fragments together later.  What excited me about them was that they sort of looked like avant garde graphicnotation that john cage, stockhausen, etc. were exploring the 1960s

after recording all of the symbols in the first week or so, i began to explore the materials and because i could not read the primary information (i.e. the text), i started LOOKING at everything. at some point i realized the way that benjamin crossed things out were completely inconsistent, and i ended up notating 40 different ways of covering mistakes - a squiggle, a
horizontal line, a box filled in, an X, several X's, etc. and so i "claimed" them, and named each method based on its form (so that a black filled in triangle was "black bird" or a kind of crosshatching became "basket"... and i made a video related to the material in 2012
here's a link:

for the paintings in the exhibition, i used the same marks to develop the paintings, using index cards and pulling them blindly and layering the images via chance operation until the original form was lost to a sea of forms... and when it sufficiently dense, i started to look at the lines as a
kind of rorschach blot until i started to see forms - which certainly do seem connected to landscape and architecture as you mention.


Messerli: I see these pieces as dealing with landscape and architectural spaces, which I don’t think appeared in your previous work. Was this a systemic development (even if very private?)

Roden: the main things about the difference in these paintings is that they are mostly on canvas. for nearly 20 years i have painted on linen, and i began with body of work with 5 very large paintings on linen, and when i went to order some more, the supplier said that the linen was somehow hard to get at that moment and it would be 8 weeks or so until i could get what i needed.

so i asked them to make me a few stretchers with canvas... they told me emphatically it would be very very different, but i figured i had no choice, as i was in the beginning stages of this body of work and didn't want to sit around waiting for materials... of course, they were right, the new surface was totally different - allowing me to suddenly shift the way i make paintings which never would've happened without this simple snafu! what i noticed immediately was at the early stages of the painting the thin paint would be absorbed into the canvas surface very very differently than on the primed linen (obviously the weaves are quite different)... but i was
shocked at the difference and after finishing the first piece on canvas, i put the 5 larger paintings on linen under a tarp and deemed them the end of something, while the paintings in the show are the beginning of something. they are much much thinner in terms of paint build-up, and my process with them has been much slower, probably because i don't know yet what i'm doing!

messerli: Even your title, “ragpicker," suggests the influence of numerous others.


roden: baudeliare wrote a short text about ragpickers that benjamin was very fond of:       

      ‘here we have a man whose job is to gather the day¹s refuse in the capital.
      everything that  the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything
      it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects.
      he collates the annals of intemperance, the  capharnaum of waste. he sorts
      things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser guarding a treasure,
      refuse which will assume the shape of useful of gratifying objects 
      between the jaws of the goddess of industry.’

and this is benjamin's words that he added to baudelaire's text at the end:

     "this description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as baudelaire
      practiced it.ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse."

since i was ruffling a fair amount of feathers by researching the work of one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century and not being able to read the texts, i looked to benjamin to offer me "permission". I wanted to be respectful and to have this conversation with his notes in a way that felt somehow akin to some of benjamin's own methods, etc.

so these two quotes - baudeliare and benjamin about the ragpicker as a poet, it sort of felt like exactly what i was doing - sifting through the "least important" materials to bring them to life again and to give them representation in the work so that they might acquire meaning again. i mean, i was doing exactly what baudelaire described - taking everything that was
crushed underfoot and finding "treasure".

the proof was that most of the questions i asked the archivist, they could not answer, so i was clearly looking at things that had for the most part been ignored.


messerli: I see in this work some influences (which I mentioned to you) such as Klimt and Wöfli, and even Kandisky, as well of others. The cityscapes seem very much influenced by German Expressionism. Can you tell me something about this?


roden: it's interesting, particularly in terms of that large drawing and the many people who mentioned klimt. the first art i responded to as a kid was George grosz, egon shiele, and klimt. and when i started art school at age 18, that's the kind of work i wanted to make. i didn't make my first true abstract painting until my last year of undergraduate, four years later.
when i made the body trace drawings, i ridiculously thought they would look like maps and no one would ever know they were figures (i made them by linking up a piece of plexiglass the size of my body. laid the paper face down on the ink, and then laid down my body on the backside of the paper and then with the stick side of a paintbrush, scraped the image via pressure--and i could not see what i was doing, since i was working from the back. when i pulled the first one off of the ink i was floored at how much the figure remained... and when i pulled the one that we will call "the klimt" I thought long and hard about cutting it into pieces and putting it back together so that the figure would be impossible to see. instead, as you saw,
i decided to move in another direction by emphasizing the figure, but silhouetting it in black. it was not so much an aesthetic decision as a risky decision, to bravely own what came about, as opposed to forcing it to do what i know or what i like - which was in many ways the intention of the show... because in these too, there was a sense of beginning.

the first influence was a short interview with le corbusier during the building of a city in india called chandigarh, and corb described the buildings like a body, and each sector was a limb or organ, and those limbs and organs were the parts of my own body that i traced in each one.

another interesting aspect is that after finishing these drawings, i found a polaroid photograph of myself at age 7 standing next to a piece of paper my height, with a tracing of my body (filled in to look like an army man!). so while these feel very new, i suppose i'm simply repeating childhood experiences... and i do think as i get older, i find myself reflecting a lot
more on early childhood experiences of making things.

messerli: Are there other influences I'm blind to?


roden: probably the other big influence is a book i bought 15 years ago that shows around 150 different maps through history of the island in paris where notre dame sits. (and now the monument of the deportation). looking at these maps of the same place but over time with shifts not only in the landscape but also printing processes, language etc. i tried several times to make work out of those images and they always felt forced... i know i never would've
gotten to these drawings without that book sitting in my studio stubbornly for years!

messerli:  I loved this show (as I loved Howard Fox’s show of your work in 2010), but it so different. Has something major happened? To be able to do a New York show and an LA show at the same time, that's truly amazing. What drug are on you on? Or, more seriously, what so energized you. I'm not asking for a defense (who needs that?) but a helpful clue to your obvious "turn" (as Celan might describe it) in your work.


roden: i think it was a series of moments that became stages of evolution. first, it took me 4 years to get permission to do the research - so i was already energized when i finally got permission and a grant to do the research. This has happened to me before, where it takes me an inordinate amount of time/applications and generally it is worth the wait.... and once i got home
with all of the notes i took, i started slowly. in 2011 i used the notes to generate a sound piece, and i also created a series of videos shown at lace all related to benjamin, but also martha graham and cage (it's a long story), and while it was easier to begin with media works, i was chomping at the bit in terms of how to deal with the material in visual static forms. i'm not sure if the two shows at the same time helped or hurt, but more than anything that shift in the paintings (in terms of process) and the acknowledgement of the figure in some of the drawings, really gave me an energy charge.

i'm sure you know as a writer, there are ways that you do things and there are also things that hover at times like flies, and yet you keep swatting them away, but they keep coming back, and at some point you acknowledge them. i consider myself an abstract painter, but as a viewer, i don't only respond to abstract paintings. i also think that over time people come to
know certain aspects of your work, leading to expectations. my interest is in being able to move wherever the work or the source suggests, and i felt in this work i was not afraid to go wherever the work wanted to go. as artists, we  generally think we are free to do as we please (and we are
free), but we also (whether we admit or not) can't help but acknowledge that people see, hear or read what we do in relation to what we have already done. what was energizing was seeing the "klimt" and being excited, not because i made a so-called figurative work, but because that drawing in particular had the potential to contradict expectations in terms of what i
do, and that, more than anything else, was energizing.


“black extendable (fragments and letters)” (from Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects)

“everything crushed underfoot” (from Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects)

“when the body becomes a city and the city becomes a body (levitation)” (from Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects)

“thirteenth view” (from Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects)

Sarri and Steve Roden at the Muddy Leek restaurant, Culver City, California (©2013 by Douglas Messerli)

Los Angeles, September 18, 2013
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2013).


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