McBean Project Space, San Francisco Art Institute, CA January 14 – March 12, 2005

Steve Roden
 — Laura Richard Janku


Given the semiotic complexity of Steve Roden’s ideas, one might expect his art to be visually meticulous. Instead, Roden’s imprecise paintings, sculptures, and soudn works reflect the inexactitudes and inconsistencies of language itself, particularly when translated beyond the verbal. It’s easy to think of translation as purely analogue–this is like this–especially since elisions and creative license are apparent only when comparing the original with its foreign alias. In “seamarks,” the artist doesn’t tell us what Saint-John Perse’s 1957 text, Amers (Sea Marks), says; rather, he focuses on random particulars, constructing arcane and arbitrary transliterative systems around them. The result is, of course, not a linear understanding of the narrative, but rather Roden’s personal and mutable visual paraphrase–and a cautionary tale about the translator as eminence grise.

Clustered in the center of Walter McBean Gallery were pedestals of varying heights, each supporting a sculpture titled for a chapter in “seamarks.” The name of every color mentioned in that chapter was measured out in wood dowel lengths and string, then assembled intuitively into small maquette-like works. By virtue of scale and of the materials–both source and physical–these assemblages reinforce the texts maritime preoccupations–a mast here, a lanyard there–an association underscored by the watery drips of liberally applied polyurethane. While the colors do include bright primaries associated with nautical conventions, Roden veers into a carnival of chromatics: garish pinks, golds and lime greens, browns, blacks and whites.

The palette, linear elements, and homemade feeling of the sculptures recall the purposesful and ingenious recylced wire toys made in Africa and elsewhere, but our understanding or Roden’s relationship to folk craft and outsider art here is likely to be mediated by other precedents within the Western art world, notably Alfred Jensen. Like Jensen, Roden’s use of color is methodic, a coded search for understanding offset by the unquantifiable nature of that which it explores. Not surprisingly, the creative and correlative kinship between these two artsits is most obvious in Roden’s five intimate paintings, each a visual translation of the phrase “the silent world,” the title of Jacques Cousteau’s first book. The works’ analytic concept and diagramatic compositions are softened by the imasto and imprecise application of the paint, perhaps a metaphor for the organic processes that transform highly structured frameworks into living things. For example, one work suggests an aerial view–motherboard or motherland?–a telescoping out from fundamental units and details to an overall feelings, held together and kept on the surface by color and texture, and the messy marks of their maker. Perspective is pushsed and pulled, offering the viewer the choice to see the paintings as magnifications or glimpses of distnat vistas, or just trippy abstractions.

Across the room, 18 drawings share a similar emotional tenor wrought from a gnomic system of visual signs: “Each of these drawings [is] a translation of a single phrase from individual pages of the Sea Marks text that did not reference a color.” By working in granite, Roden offers a literally monochromatic translation, a tongue-in-cheek visual conceit in tension with Perse’s colorful language. The sheer numbers–obsessive repetition within each work and the group’s installational hanging–amplify the drawings into visual white noise.

In a similar translation strategy that conflates forests of language with their symbolic trees, the sound work seam arks is constructed out of Saint-John Perse’s Nobel Prize speech and the vowel structure of “seamarks.” Roden plays the “e-a-a” notes on a xylophone, overlaying tracks so as to conjure rhythmic ocean waves. Vague background static–more white noise, but of a more literal kind–contrasts with the clarity of tones, suggesting both tinnitus and a meditative attempt to quiet the mind.