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
"The score demanded that I make seven more paintings. And so when I got there I started working on more of the music paintings, but after about three days I realized I had no reason to do this — I shouldn't be making something I could make at home while I was in this fantastic space. It was an old freezer building for a butcher. There was a subroof that had been taken off, and there was all this geometric structure — fucked-up, broken half-grids of rotten wood, with newish wood where they must have tried to fix it. Just beautiful. After about a week I found myself staring at the ceiling and telling myself that I don't make work based on stuff outside the frame of what I'm working on. And so the music performance is unfinished. I left those seven lines of music unplayed."
Instead, Roden started to move in a new direction, completing a group of paintings that are site-specific in their execution; three of these are included in the survey. At the same time, he was re-reading the famous "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter from Moby Dick with some concern, since he had proposed a major new piece for the Pomona College Museum of Art conflating that transcendentalist touchstone with an actual whale skeleton he had seen suspended from the ceiling of a natural history museum in Norway and a tiny, mysterious diagrammatic drawing by visionary architect Buckminster Fuller. Somehow, though, the shift was squeezing the whole cetacean angle out of the picture.
The picture that eventually emerged — titled bowrain (2010) and the largest sculptural work the artist has created to date — is the centerpiece of "Steve Roden: When Words Become Forms," the Pomona exhibit that, insanely, opens the very same day as his Armory retrospective. Scaling back his source documents to the single, cryptic rainbow Fuller doodle, Roden seems to have nevertheless channeled some portion of his Marfa epiphany into the sprawling multimedia installation — a geometric structure of fucked-up, broken half-grids of newish wood (to be precise, 90 pieces each of footlong birch, 3-foot walnut, 6-foot poplar, 9-foot cumala and 12-foot bass, plus 30 pieces of 15-foot fir). It's certainly beautiful, especially in combination with the abstract hand-painted 16 mm film/video projections and off-register 6-track audio component.
"I used the Fuller drawing to generate the score that generated the plan that generated the activity ... ," Roden says, laughing. "And I worked completely collaboratively with Gary Murphy, the installer at Pomona. He hand-milled the lumber, and he and I built the piece together. It wasn't like I told him what to do — we pulled numbers out of a paint can, then we'd get two pieces of wood and wire them together, and try to fit them into the structure."
To reanimate the skeletal remains of this summerlong architectonic game, Roden used the six-color schema from Fuller's diagram to determine the colors and forms drawn directly on three sets of 16mm film stock, which light the piece and create theatrically immersive spatial illusions, as well as to determine the objects — ranging from the violet key on a children's xylophone to a sample of a faint classroom film projector from a red-vinyl record titled The Sounds of Pomona, from which he extracted the loopy, aleatory audio element. It's like getting to the belly of the beast only to find a crystalline beatnik opium den. To quote scripture: "Jonah, what in the world is you smoking in there?"
To complement this magnum opus (which, come to think of it, strangely resembles a certain other artist's "largest sculpture ever" displayed in the lobby of the Getty a couple of years back ... hmmmm), Roden has filled a side gallery with his smallest paintings ever — postcard-sized abstract oils on canvas created in direct correspondence with a set of actual boring European travel postcards given to the museum's senior curator, Rebecca McGrew, by the late hard-edge abstractionist (and longtime Pomona faculty member) Frederick Hammersley. In addition to this posthumous visual dialogue, Roden invited L.A.-based art writer Michael Ned Holte to create texts for the blank backsides of the never-mailed missives. This fruitful three-way is rounded out with an actual Hammersley painting from the museum's holdings. The result is a charming and quixotic collaborative exercise that, as a stand-alone show, is more interesting than 90 percent of what you see in the galleries these days.
With all of this activity behind him, Roden is no doubt ready for a well-deserved break. Except he's committed to doing a double video projection of hand-drawn films of the west coasts of North and South America on a pair of sculptural screens at their juncture point on Santa Monica Beach for this year's Glow extravaganza, on September 25. Then there are the selections from his remarkable collections of vintage photographs and phonographs currently being prepped as a deluxe book/CD combo by the illustrious Dust-to-Digital label (you can get the gist of it from Roden's mesmerizing airform archives blog at inbetweennoise.blogspot.com).
Oh, yes, and of course there's his next solo exhibit at Vielmetter Projects scheduled for March.