Los Angeles Times

Roden is an artist’s artist with considerable appeal
 — Holly Myers


Highly regarded by his peers and generally beloved of critics, especially in Los Angeles, Steve Roden is what you would call an artist’s artist. It is a particular distinction, implying not merely talent but a certain quality of integrity as well, one whose essence may be lost on the layman.

The phrase comes to mind as you take in Roden’s current show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. The question of what about Roden’s work earned him the distinction, however, is worth parsing.

The show is appealing by any measure: colorful, energetic, nuanced and confident — the work of an artist entering a sophisticated mid-career maturity. With nearly a dozen paintings, 16 works on paper, a handful of sculptures and a subtle but mesmerizing video/sound installation, it hits most of Roden’s multiple bases and speaks to the breadth of both his skills and his vision.

But looking through the eyes of a hypothetical layman — from whose vantage point, after all, we are none of us so far removed — you might be hard-pressed to differentiate the work from the general current of cheerfully colored, pleasant-to-look-at, basically geometric abstraction that’s claimed some portion of Los Angeles gallery space for years — and whose subtle distinctions would seem largely a matter of academic dispute. What makes this work not only appealing, the layman might ask, but important, particularly to other artists?

My theory is threefold.

The first point is methodological. Roden works with systems, generating the visual works here, for example, from sheets of musical notation based on a complicated framework of self-generated rules: this type of mark for that type of note, and so on. In the case of the show’s sound piece, he worked in the opposite direction, generating notes — which he hums on a recording — from the visual dynamics of a painting that appears in sensual close-up in the video projection.

Contemporary artists love systems, especially systems that are largely arbitrary and likely to go awry. The predilection dates at least to the ’60s, when Minimalism and Conceptualism turned to geometry, mathematics and theories of chance in an effort to eradicate the romantic tendencies of Modernism. Today, the interest seems to be as much in the failure of systems as in their integrity, and Roden straddles the divide brilliantly, often following his rules but often breaking them, exploring the tension between geometry and gesture, intention and accident, pattern and variation. That his visual works feel both systematically generated and intensely handmade, even instinctual or intuitive, is evidence of the careful balance he maintains.

The second point is formal. Although conceived in multiple media, Roden’s work stems from a close and rigorous connection to materials. His paintings, with their wavering lines and thick, bumpy, glistening pigment, have everything to do with the condition of paint — they could have been made in no other medium. The works on paper, some including elements of text collage, others involving the interplay of hard pencil lines and loose, saturated blobs of colored ink, are deeply responsive to the condition of paper.

It is this specificity that makes his translations between media — turning musical notes, for instance, into hanging strings of wooden blocks — so compelling.

Finally — most ineffable but most important — the work feels like the product of someone who thinks. And looks. And reads. And listens. And thinks some more, and looks again, and keeps looking. It is inquisitive, attentive, responsive. And here is where the idea of integrity figures.

This is rigorous work pursued at a high level of formal and conceptual sophistication and, it seems, for entirely the right reasons. In its presence, you feel yourself in very good hands.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through Aug. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.