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May 19 - July 7, 2002 at S.B. Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara

by Elenore Welles

Steve Roden’s visual and sound exhibition, some reconstructions of wandering and inner space, draws from both external contents and the internal text of his mind. Navigating between elusive intellectual substance and emotional response, Roden plunges full tilt into ambitious experiments with paintings, drawings, wood sculptures, a film/video based on sky observations and a site specific sound installation.

Roden deals with the transformation of chaotic actualities into the orderliness of art and vice versa. Fixed in space like the ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes via heady mathematical systems and structures, his works invoke a personal odyssey into sophisticated theories and rarified visual aesthetics. Pictorial idioms are an idiosyncratic blend of semiotics, design concepts, texts, geometry, electronics, architectural spaces and aural inspiration.

Graphic translations of language are strained into conceptual geometries. Transmission, for example, evokes a lacy, web-like design based on a system of letter-to-line equivalence that is a translation of John Glenn’s first message from space. The result is an image of immense complexity.

Wandering is a collection of drawings based on a similar para logical translation of a Herman Hesse book. Different shades of green correspond to a letter, the number of lines and colors are based on chance operation.

A mathematical twist on text-based paintings achieves fruition in a complex series using the phrase, “the silent world.” Here Roden applies an inches equivalence with the alphabet, such that the letter a equals a 1 inch line, b equals a 2 inch line, and so on. The text was mapped out in lines formed in different directions and colors. It’s a dizzying method that probably could be worked out more readily on the computer, but Roden’s efforts suggests a meditation.

The works hint at a type of conceptualism that reaches toward some kind of higher intellectual synthesis. What constitutes an intellectual exercise for the artist, however, can often turn into an exercise in futility as far as the understanding of the viewer is concerned. Roden’s experiments seem geared more toward an inner rumination about possibilities than any desire to let the viewer in readily.

Although Roden’s obsessive-compulsive methodogies and demonstrative rules come from a cerebral space, understanding certainly isn’t a prerequisite for engagement--which indeed seems to be part of the point. These works offer a repertory of possibilities, acting more like intellectual, psychological and perceptual triggers for both artist and viewer.

The good news is that eventually tedious structural complexities do evolve on the surface as clear aesthetic expressions. Colorful, tactile and drippy paintings are reminiscent of Mark Tobey. Conceptual intellectualism falls away as well in Cy Twombly-styled gestural drawings. Described as “interior landscapes,” they are replete with smudges and stains.

Intuition and chance play decisive roles in Roden’s sound installations, concepts that owe a debt to the experiments of John Cage. Surrounding the interior of the gallery and the outer courtyard are distorted ambient and electronic sounds such as finger tapping and scraping on metal railings. Inside the gallery, headphones for listening are placed behind walls. Holes in the walls are fixed with distorted lenses that provide detailed views of the outer space. Complex and vague the sounds balance harmony and dissonance, eliciting a subtle consciousness of normally overlooked daily resonances. Think John Cage in a Zen garden.

Roden’s sensibilities hark back to artists and movements that saw analogies between art, mathematics and music. It was a tradition largely based on artistic and conceptual applications of principles found in nature. The correlation of color with musical tones and geometry goes back to Kandinsky and Theosophist artists who felt that abstract expression in art could be decoded as a number with each work thereby assuming a hidden logic of construction. The idea and Roden’s take on it are expansions of the Goethian theory that artistic creation cannot be essentially different from the natural.

Montage of some of the "Mute Objects"
sculptures, acrylic, wax, basswood.

“The Bookseller,” 2001,
mixed media, 20 x 6 x 6”.

"Transmission", 2002,
oil, wax on canvas.

"Wandering," 2002,
pencil on paper.

"The Silent World," oil on linen.