Saturday, February 13, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Secret Abstractions" (on Steven Roden's "A Year without Painting")

secret abstractions
by Douglas Messerli

Steve Roden A Year without Painting / Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the show Howard Fox and I attended was on opening night, January 19, 2016

It seems amazing—given Steven Roden’s remarkable output of art, music, video and other works over the past few years—that we are suddenly visiting a show that represents what he describes as “A Year without Painting.” After all, I have now done two reviews of his art since the vast retrospective of Roden’s art organized by my companion Howard Fox at the Pasadena Armory in 2010-11 and the large selection of his new painting in his Susanne Vielmetter show in 2013. 
      Obviously, the quick passage of time of a critic making his way through the work of many artists does not represent the career of a single artist trying, quite literally, to survive through his artistic production. And it’s quite brave of such of artist, given that need to survive and the fact that he has recently been perceived at the height of his artistic powers, that he was able to even allow himself to take time off to discover work that, as he describes it, might “feel different.” 
      The 10 new paintings and 5 prints of this new show, indeed, do feel “different” from his previous work even if the methods he used to create the art is quite similar.  Like the earlier work, Roden has once again based the images on a wide range of sources, often hermetically linking literature, music, scientific, and popular sources with the visual. Roden quotes All Kaprow’s advice, “You can steer clear of art by mixing up your happening, by mixing it with life situations.” 
      But obviously these “life situations” and the images that stimulate the artist to create remain quite private. 
     The new paintings continue to explore not only a graphic from the cover of a Domus magazine from his birth month and year, but also ideas around ritual and architectural form—specifically related to the fireplace and ceiling of R. M. Schindler’s Richard Lechner House (where he spent time as a child). [Roden’s father lived in that house for a few years after his divorce from the artist’s mother.]

     As Roden says in his press release: “Recently, I have also been obsessed with a photograph of two seemingly insignificant pieces of wood about the size of the inner part of a closed fist. The photograph appeared in an auction catalog, and I was fascinated to discover that these seemingly ordinary, or pathetic objects were pieces of George Washington’s coffin, and as such, their presences transcended the objectness.
     Roden, moreover, calls up his personal reflections on the great Tarkovsky film, The Sacrifice, the life of poet Hart Crane, and the painting of Marsden Hartley. 
     Yet none of these texts or images are easily recognizable, in full or in part, within the frames of his new work.  Indeed, the “difference” of this new art is not primarily its seeming abstraction (which, obviously, has long existed in all of Roden’s work) but in their appearance as succinct forms that, unlike his previous art, superficially appears not be tied to other sources. 
     Accordingly, even our discovery that works such one plus one minus one (loner), dark entries 2, and bird chamber (all of 2015) may have emanated from personal experiences and real objects, they have the feeling of being more formal constructions of pattern and a stunningly beautiful palette of colors. Nowhere in this group of paintings, for example, does Roden embed words such as in his 1995 painting mallarmee or his 1996 work R: poem. Gone from these new works are his open references to music, geography, and images from nature.

      In the cross-hatched lines of various colors (one for each monk) and his various triangulated patterns of dark entries 1 and 2, and morphing terrarium we are struck far more by pattern and color than any hermetic intervention. That these works do have another series of dimensions to them is interesting only after the fact of recognizing the simple beauty of them, and in that sense the viewer does not necessarily even seek out other relations and interconnections as we were wont to do in his earlier art.

     One gets the sense of these pieces stand alone and apart from his artist’s private sources; one might describe these, accordingly, as “secret abstractions,” abstractions that are based on specific sources outside of the viewer’s comprehension.

     Similarly, the new prints on paper, done with artist Leslie Ross Robertson—who also does “coded works”—conveys a lightness of color and theme that one generally does not associate with Roden. Although these prints—such as in a minute I’ll be flying, the streets are made of pistachio, and hands shaking hands, once again are based on other sources such as a Roden’s childhood comic book, they appear more as somewhat whimsical and combines (most are created with ink, collage, watercolor, pencil, and crayons) rather than an art that points back to its sources.
     I love both Roden’s works that point to (while yet not totally explicating) his sources—I am after all, a literary person—and these new ones equally. Yet one gets the sense in these new works that somehow the artist—although intellectually committing himself to literary texts, his personal experiences, and visual images that, as he puts it, serve up a sense of “alchemy”—has gained a new artistic liberty, encouraging the viewer to focus more on the images themselves.

Los Angeles, February 13, 2016

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