Susanne Vielmetter

Steve Roden
 — Christopher Miles

Though known in the field of sound art, Steve Roden is a polymath artist, most familiar as a sculptor and painter, whose work descends from West Coast abstractionists like Lee Mullican, and Peter Krasnow. But Roden also has a Conceptualist’s fondness for plans and systems, combined with the Surrealist and Dadaist penchant for chance and the irrational, and the Expressionist’s drift toward the idiosyncratic and the ego, all of which are subjected to an old-school formalist’s veto.

The bulk of this show was a selection of paintings, drawings, and collages – the latest additions to an ongoing project that Roden began in 2004. Each work for the project stems from the same musical score, which the artist prefers not to identify, and is based not on listening to the music but, rather, on examining its twelve-page score. Roden has translated the notes into letters or numbers, sometimes shown as such in the finished works but most often assigned colors, shapes, particular marks and movements, or line segments of various lengths, which ware then used to build up the compositions.

Focusing on two to four bars of music per work, Roden proceeds note by note, laying down the corresponding formal components,. But this is where a certain kind of fidelity ends, the artist painting out and over sections, subverting and tweaking his own system, and developing new visual elements out of old – aggregates of components derived from his initial system. One sculpture in the exhibition – representing the entire score with dangling chains of wooden blocks in assorted colors, shapes, sizes, and clusters, not unlike beads strung by a child – flaunts a visual code that perhaps be cracked. But the paintings and works on paper are too distant from their origins; they reveal the presence of plan and system but offer no hope for decoding. their intricate geometric compositions, which perpetually oscillate in their emphasis, between shape and line as well as between the angular and the curvilinear,  and which lurch between shadowy glazes and muddy grays and the most vibrant of colors, deal in a kind of translation and playback with no imperative of correctness.

Not surprisingly, Roden is interested in Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, the Frenchman who, decades before Edison’s first recording, used a “phonoautograph” device to scratch sound waves on soot-covered paper, not for direct playback, but for the purpose of visualizing sound. With recently developed technology, engineers “played” one of Scott’s papers from 1860 to reveal ten seconds of a French folk song in what sounds like a child’s voice. Listening to the recording, which can be found online, Roden produced a cameraless film by scratching ink-coated 16-mm stock, “notating” the music according to an aleatory and intuitive system of spontaneous marks – making himself a kind of human phonoautograph, but charging himself with the duty of subjective interpretation rather than mechanical recording. While watching his own film, he hummed, his pitch rising and falling according to the zigs and zags of his scratches as he attempted to read them like a score, again intuitively. The 16-mm footage was transferred to DVD, with a recording of the humming serving as the sound track; in the gallery, the resulting video was projected onto a plaster cast of an old shellac phonograph record. The work makes the lost recording physically, corporeally present, while returning it to an abstraction akin to that from which it came. Such antics might seem esoteric, but arguably they are also thoughtful, invested, and rigorous while resistant to desires to decode and decipher. 

Christopher Miles