By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
"Before the Santa Barbara show [at the Contemporary Arts Forum in 2002], I got to this place where I felt I was the guy who paints letters," recalls the artist, "and the question became, How can I evolve from that as opposed to exploiting it? I needed to go back to my source materials and find something other than what's on the surface. And that generated the systems that started with the Silent World project."
The Silent World project was Roden's first sustained exegesis of a single source — in this case the title of Jacques Cousteau's first book — and made up the bulk of his Santa Barbara survey as well as his first show at Vielmetter. Conspicuously devoid of letters, numbers or much of any sort of such left-brain static, the series untethered Roden's already formidable formalist chops, freeing him to produce his most gorgeously rickety palimpsests yet of oils, acrylics, encaustic, polyurethane and spray paint. By embedding his generative processes so deeply, Roden displayed a new confidence in the capacity of shape and color to embody complex conceptual backstories — without having to advertise it — and the results were the kind of alchemical wedding of outsider conceptualism and painterly acumen found in the works of Alfred Jensen, Jess and a handful of other modern masters.
"Actually," Roden says, "when that shift came, I stopped painting for a year. I worked on that sculpture that I showed at the Hammer, and I started to work on the Swedish poems."
The sculpture in question was The Surface of the Moon — actually an amalgamation of 490 tiny sculptures inspired by tramp-whittled cigar-box art and assembled from wood, wax, wire, tinfoil, gesso and graphite according to a list of lunar landmarks from the Rev. T.W. Webb's 1910 guidebook Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes — whose star turn in Hammer's 2001 "Snapshot" show put Roden on the art-world map for many.
"The Swedish poems" refers to Roden's ongoing translation of a book by Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist, meticulously detailed English renditions made in spite of — or rather, because of — the fact that Roden doesn't read a lick of Swedish. But he gives it his best shot, which is all one can ask. The resultant artifact — included in the Armory show under the title fallen/spoken (2000-present) — may seem like an exercise in absurdist whimsy, but it points to one of the central, and most widely misconstrued, strengths in Roden's oeuvre.
More than once it has been suggested that Roden's repurposing of various intellectual programmatics to arguably decorative ends is essentially an assault, an insult to rational discourse, or a despairing abandonment of the very possibility of meaningful human communication. While it's fair to assume in Roden's approach a certain amount of implicit critique of our culture's disproportionate privileging of linear verbal narrative, any inference of nihilism is what we social scientists refer to as "bass ackwards" thinking.
I would contend that Roden's insistence on confronting the Void with an incomplete set of obsolete tools and a handbook in Urdu is first and foremost an object lesson in true, functional protocols of intellectual creativity; that in art — and quite possibly in all of human culture — quantifiable data is an arbitrary, secondary component to the mechanisms of discovery and invention. Given the state civilization has reached through the assiduous application of rationalization, this is a radically optimistic position.
And, of course, a position that is far too Uppercase for Roden to ever espouse. And rightly so, since it is, itself, a rationalization, and beside the point. Roden has stated repeatedly that the main motor of his artistic evolution is his discomfort with being able to see too far into his own future. The shifts in strategy are a form of applied random mutation and willful disorientation. The question isn't, "Why do I keep fucking up?" but, "How do I keep fucking up?"
For the last five years, Roden has been fucking up with the help of an unidentified 12-page classical-music score that he took from his grandparents' garage during his high school years, using each line of musical notation as the template for a new work — including a spectacular body of paintings that picked up and ran where The Silent World left off. The completion of this untitled notational unraveling was in sight, just in time for the Armory survey, as luck would have it. But then the shift hit.
"In January to March, when I was in Marfa, Texas [as a 2010 artist in residence at the Chinati Foundation], the idea of the next shift occurred," Roden recalls. "I was reading a lot of [Donald] Judd and [Robert] Irwin about site specificity when they handed me my packet for the residency — where to go to the market and all that — and there was a real aggressive quote on the front page from Judd about site specificity, and it really pushed my buttons. It's very common for me to do a site-specific sound work, but I would never make a site-specific painting or a site-specific sculpture.