Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 21 June – 2 August

Steve Roden
 — Ed Schad

Despite their elaborate systems mixing musical and visual ideas, Steve Roden’s paintings are sober affairs, not prone to the exaggeration and excessive expansion of much current Los Angeles abstraction. They are tight bundles of lines and shapes, heavily worked passages of oils and acrylic that clot and coagulate on the surface. The works are warm, intimate and do not betray their programmatic origins. At the same time, however, they suggest more than accumulations of rules and density: they appear intuitive, rushing forward with confidence before crashing.

Similar descriptions were applied to the work of Terry Winters in the mid-1990s, when critics noticed that Winters’s work was neither aggrandised like neo-Expressionism nor cold like conceptualism, using found sources to push abstract painting’s prospects forward. Roden’s work is in the same spirit, but the terms have changed. Unlike Winters’s inspirations from mathematics or nature, or Philip Taaffe’s decorative historical mediations, or Christopher Wool’s corruption of Minimalism, Roden’s found abstract systems are of a stranger variety. His most common touchstone is music and words; he once spent two years on work abstracted from just the title of Jacques Cousteau’s memoir, The Silent World (1954) – assigning each letter of the title a material and a function inside a homemade system of abstraction.

For his recent exhibition Roden applied his wild rules to 12 pages of musical notation, producing a suite of paintings, a hanging sculpture made of wooden blocks, a sound piece and multiple drawings. For instance, the same sun spinning and fading… (2008) is the result of musical notes assigned different colours, strips of line and gestural motions. As a score moves forward, the system unfolds; but each time the painting attempts a pattern or symmetry, the colours and shapes seem to track in the opposite direction or stop a gestural motion. Spirals of neon fade into thick, muddy browns. Complacent red solids almost appear shocked by shards of yellow. Since Roden reserves the right to ‘mess things up for himself’, a viewer does not know whether the interventions on the canvas belong to the system or the artist’s intuitions.

These makeshift, broken systems fit well in an artmaking climate that avoids recognisable patterns or centred, rational visions. However, Roden’s rigorous processes and humble approach to materials and image distinguish his work from a host of Los Angeles geometric abstractions and replayed psychedelic paintings. He sets rules in his work yet knows that these rules do not guarantee a preknown outcome. Open to chance and ephemeral reflections, he still manages to make weighty, intellectual work.

Perhaps what gives Roden his ‘weight’ is his apparent return to the source of abstract painting, the union of the senses and an aspiration to the aesthetic ends of music, with the changed ambition to position such ideas in a new world of doubt. Roden is not Kandinsky, who truly believed colour could correspond to sound and that synaesthesia was a ticket to transcendence. Instead, Roden’s clumsy, cobbled-together synaesthestic objects bring music into the slippery, unpredictable world of the physical, plucking its notes from the air and reanimating them with paint.