Sound, paintings, and process; Alexander Graham Bell, kites and a grandmother’s attic
— Michael Ned Holte
Being a polymath is never easy: just ask Steve Roden. For a recent solo exhibition at Studio La Citta in Verona the Los Angeles-based artist presented a low-slung sound piece incorporating two painted, branch-like sculptures perched atop a handsome blanket fabricated by his mother, a series of drawings extrapolated from London street maps and a series of abstract paintings in oil and acrylic. The paintings – which juxtapose unlikely color combinations and contrast organic forms with crystalline Ofder to pleasantly psychedelic effect – are typical of Roden and represent his sophistication in a medium he has explored with increased confidence for several decades. Still, Roden is best known as a sound artist with a lengthy discography of meditative, often repetitive recordings – indebted to John Cage, Morton Feldman, Harry Partch and Concrete music, among many other things – created with an impressive array of mostly humble objects, whether explicitly or implicitly ‘musical’. To an audience familiar only with his live performances or recordings – most of them intended to be played at low volume – the paintings, with their relative exuberance, may indeed come as a shock.
Roden’s diverse pursuits are loosely woven together by a commitment to process rather than style. Leveling hierarchy in favour of synaesthetic equivalence, no single medium finds centrality in his practice: everything orbits around everything else. He tends to employ systems of his own invention, but his systems are often endearingly half-baked and full of fissures – if not crater-like holes – leaving plenty of room for interpretation and invention. At the heart of these systems is a slippery act of translation – often from one medium into another. In a 2003-4 series of paintings, for example, Roden translated the title of Jacques Cousteau’s 1954 book A Silent World by assigning different measurements to each letter of the alphabet, which then determined each brushstroke. The shared linguistic material – Cousteau’s title – provides a modu1arity that unites the series, yet intuition tends to overwhelm the rationality of systemic order.
Roden’s inventiveness recalls Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), another polymath who is predominantly known for one thing – the telephone – rather than his enthusiastic investigations into air-conditioning, hydrofoil technology, metal detection, desalination, aeronautic engineering and kite design. Robert Smithson, in his 1967 essay ‘Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site’, observed that ‘Bell’s awareness of the physical properties of language, by way of the telephone, kept him from misunderstanding language and object relationships. Language was transformed by Bell into linguistic objects [Smithson’s emphasis]. In this way he avoided the rational categories of art.’ Similarly, all of Roden’s works may be best understood as ‘linguistic objects’, each resulting from a child’s game of telephone played between the artist and the materials that fly into his homespun radar.
Not surprisingly, Roden paid explicit tribute to this multifaceted forebear in the 2006 painting celestial fallings and flyings (a new kite for Alexander graham bell), in which he translated each note from one line of a classical music score found in his grandmother’s attic into an equivalent number of painterly ‘decisions and actions’. In the paintings dozens of triangles commingle with thin vertical stripes, simultaneously recalling the tetrahedral facets of Bell’s elaborate kites and the self-organized patterns of palm
fronds and succulents common in Los Angeles. (Roden cites as influences on this series of paintings Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel and Rudolf Steiner’s writings, among other things.) With these paintings – and sculpture, drawings and sound – it is impossible to transcribe the ‘decisions and actions’ of these works back to the source material, though one is left with the woozy feeling that some organizing principle, however irrational, was followed to this conclusion.
Bell is also central to a site-based sound installation created in Athens in the summer of 2006. The title of the work, oionos, is a Greek word meaning ‘omen’ (good or bad) but was also the name given to a tetrahedral triplane designed by Bell. The exhibition, entitled ‘The Grand Promenade’, gave 44 international artists an opportunity to work with significant historical or archaeological sites around the Acropolis. Roden campaigned for a modest site: a tree next to a stone chapel, built by Dimitri Pikionis, combining modern construction and handmade masonry, and still in use. In the tree Roden suspended a series of speakers in coloured Perspex tetrahedrons, recalling Bell’s kites. The sound for oionos was created with primitive bells and crude noisemakers found at Athens’ Museum of Popular Instruments. (The sounds of more prized instruments were left to Roden’s active imagination.) More recently Roden situated a sound work inside James Turrell’s Skyspace (2003) at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery. Titled day ring, the five-channel installation gamely attempts to define its own space within the popular, atmospheric chamber. For day ring Roden married field recordings from Skyspace (which is open to the surrounding urban environment) to the sound of 11 different tuning forks and, for the first time, another enlisted musician, violinist Jacob Danziger. The work is perhaps the artist’s most ‘confrontational’ site work to date, although it is also surely a tribute to his unwitting collaborator Turrell, who, coincidentally or not, toils in a crater named Roden.