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Unfinished Symphony 

Steve Roden shifts into overdrive

Thursday, Sep 9 2010

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click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON - Steve Roden

Until I finally saw them standing next to each other at a barbecue a couple of years back, I always had a suspicion that Steve Roden and Tim Hawkinson might be the same person. This in spite of the fact that I've known both personally for a couple of decades, and they bear almost no physical resemblance to one another. I couldn't completely rule out the possibility that some alien with the hyperdimensional equivalent of a fun-house mirror was pulling a fast one. Come to think of it, he could have been using some doppelgänger beam at that barbecue. The theory may bear further scrutiny.

OK, here are the facts: Tim and Steve both live in Pasadena and have weird-ass record collections with frequent overlaps. I mean weird-ass like Vachel Lindsay reciting "The Mysterious Cat" in 1931, just before committing suicide — and it doesn't get much more weird-ass than that. Each one's work is a personal and idiosyncratic exploration of systems — systems of construction, of communication, of cognition. Both invent and build their own musical instruments. They have identical birthmarks on the left buttock in the shape of Léon Theremin's right profile. (That last item is unconfirmed.)

What's certain is that they are two of the most unschmoozy artists I've ever encountered. They're happy to talk about their work, but shun the spotlight in favor of long hours in the studio — hours that are fantastically productive in both their cases. In spite of this, they seem to be everywhere ... well, almost everywhere. For a long time, Hawkinson was the most egregious example of the L.A. museumscape's "prophet without honor in his own land" syndrome. The lightbulb should have gone off in 1996 when Jay Belloli — the recently retired director of Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts — curated "Tim Hawkinson: Ali Ikmnostw," but it wasn't until almost 10 years later when the Whitney came sniffing around that Howard Fox was able to persuade LACMA to do the right thing (the 2005 retrospective "Tim Hawkinson").

Now Belloli's left the Armory, Fox is free of LACMA and Steve Roden — who has been perennially jamming out stellar solo shows of his gorgeous painterly puzzles for Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects since 2003, while gaining international acclaim for his experimental music and sound art installations — is a front-runner for the most-egregious-prophet award. (Don't get me started on Jim Shaw and Jeffrey Vallance!) So what's the upshot? Fox curating "Steve Roden: In Between, a 20-Year Survey" at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts! Mere coincidence?

"When we installed the Hawkinson show at LACMA, it was not a chronological hang," Fox admits. "People were expecting to find a well-developed history, a kind of trajectory they could define. But that's not the way the work behaves, and it would have been an imposed misreading to try and do it that way. Ditto for Steve.

"I think one of the things that informed the way Steve's show looks," Fox elaborates, "is that with all of his creativity in all its dimensions — whether we're talking about painting, sculpture, sound performances, film, these more improvisational kind of drawings — it's all seamless, it's all connected, and you can't really parse it out into categories or themes or styles or phases of his career."

In spite of Roden's seamless, interconnected, unparsable complexity, both he and Fox (under duress) admit to certain identifiable progressions. There's scale, for one: The works included expand over time from the 7-inch-square jewel i am sitting in a room (1996) through transmission 11/60 (stellar regions) (2002, 72 inches square) to untitled (36/2) (2009, 82 by 60 inches).

Then there's the gradual blurring of boundaries between Roden's various pursuits — his earliest sound works (apart from fronting L.A. teen punk band Seditionaries) were issued under the alias in/between/noise. As his reputation as a sound artist grew — and spawned the still-percolating electronica subgenre known as "lowercase music" — he branched into sound sculpture and site-specific audio installations, and such arbitrary divisions grew redundant.

"There've been three or four moments of shift in the work," Roden says. "There was one when I got out of grad school [Art Center] — I had been making intuitive abstract paintings and getting my ass kicked for it. So I spent a couple more years making intuitive abstract paintings and started to feel like I was going to be making the same painting for the rest of my life. That's when I started using really simple arbitrary systems." This is where the survey show picks up, when Roden began using textual fragments, floor plans, player-piano rolls and a dazzling variety of other encoded sources of information to determine — and in turn be translated and distorted by — the creative decision-making involved in constructing his art.

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