Occasionally, unrelated occurrences conspire to create what I, for want of a more discernible category, consider an authorless art event. For example, several years ago, a cassette came into my possession marked ”Charles Darwin: Live & in Concert — Promotional Copy — Not for Sale.“ Being something of a connoisseur of outsider music, I gave it a listen, and was surprised to find that it indeed contained several songs in a variety of musical-theater styles, performed in the voice of the author of The Origin of Species.
I became fascinated by the cassette. Its brief selection of show tunes was performed over decidedly cheesy studio-hack backing, and the tone veered from awkwardly didactic to breezily surreal, with lyrics such as
‘Twas adaptive radiation that produced the mighty whale
His hands have grown to flippers and he has a fishy tail
Selection’s made him streamlined for his liquid habitat —
Why didn‘t I think of that?
I lobbied my friends to share in my enthusiasm, but most demurred. They didn’t forget, though, and a few weeks ago I found a newspaper clipping in my mailbox about the ersatz Darwin — a.k.a. anthropologist Richard Milner, senior editor at Natural History Magazine. Seems he was still at it — had been touring his one-man musical for the past six years, and his next stop was at L.A.‘s Natural History Museum in two days! I hastily secured seats and encouraged friends to do likewise, in spite of a warning that a soccer match was scheduled at the nearby Coliseum and parking might be a difficulty.
I tend to steer clear of organized sports, so I had no idea that the ”parking difficulty“ would translate into 42,000 SUVs backed up Exposition Boulevard. A couple of semilegal driving strategies and some fast talking to a security guard allowed me to miraculously skirt the mayhem and slide into a spot in the museum staff lot. The museum lawn was covered in SUVs. From the distance drifted a curious droning that suggested a vast swarm of ducks performing a ’60s minimalist composition — the sound of a coliseumful of plastic horns in continuous modal bleat. The sky was overcast. The small, disheveled Jean Delacour Auditorium was the first building we came upon, and as my single fellow Milner enthusiast and I ducked inside, the shift in atmosphere was acute and peculiar, from the electric bipartisan tribalism of large-scale spectator sports to the tweedy idiosyncrasy that tends to accompany musical theater about the history of science.
Milner mounted the podium and briefly introduced himself and his subject before launching into his personification with the words I had heard so many times . . . ”Darwin‘s the name. I was born a naturalist.“ Although I’d been prepared for some of Milner‘s character shifts (on the tape he segues from the voice of Darwin to that of his contemporary advocate Thomas Henry Huxley and 1925 Monkey Trial defendant John Scopes), the range of his pomo pastiche was startling, from a first-person curriculum vitae recited to Gilbert & Sullivan’s ”Modern Major-General“ and a song about Milner‘s junior-high buddy and frequent Natural History contributor Stephen Jay Gould, to minilectures on the Galapagos finches and the life and work of Alfred Russell Wallace (co-proposer of natural selection), and delightfully inexplicable impersonations of Maurice Chevalier and Jimmy Durante. The Durante shtick was the finale, and Milner ended his set with a glint in his eye, muttering, ”Good night, Stephen Jay Gould, wherever you are!“
Cash poor, I bypassed the line of supplicants buying autographed copies of Milner’s CD and Darwin biography, and wandered toward the rose garden in search of ice cream. The sky was still overcast, but the sun had sunk below the clouds, casting a dramatic golden light across the fields of four-wheel drives. Suddenly, the duck drone started growing louder, and fat, dense herds of people began oozing from the Coliseum portals. Dashing to our car, we barely managed to escape the throng a second time. Mexico had defeated AC Milan 2-1. The next day it was announced that Stephen Jay Gould had died of cancer.
Hardcore skeptics may scoff, but it is just such improbably cinematic conflations of unrelated phenomena into profoundly moving, aesthetically surprising experiences that give me hope for an underlying sentience to the universe. This tug of war between chaos and order continues to be one of the central concerns of modern art, from the random collages of Arp to the elephant paintings championed by Komar and Melamid. Steve Roden is another contemporary explorer of this ambivalent zone of stochastic conceptualism, combining conscious formalist decisions with elaborate, multilayered decision-making mechanisms derived from seemingly arbitrary sources — museum floor plans, fragments of literary texts, the calendar. The results, whether drawing & painting, sound composition or Super-8video, are uniformly sumptuous, thanks to Roden‘s unapologetic gift for design, and the underlying labyrinthine strategies are buried deep (Roden sometimes doesn’t bother to notate his process). In The Surface of the Moon, his redeeming contribution to the Hammer‘s ”Snapshot“ exhibition, Roden’s tiny column of chess-piece-like assemblages of cork, tinfoil and gesso corresponded to an obsolete catalog of lunar craters. The components of the individual pieces were determined by the minutiae of each crater‘s entry — the number of vowels determining the amount of gesso or something. It doesn’t really matter.
In his current show at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara, Roden translates Hermann Hesse‘s Wandering into a series of drawings on foolscap, using a small vocabulary of uniform geometric colored-pencil marks in 26 shades of green; renders the instructions for John Cage’s ”silent“ composition 4‘33” into a softly psychedelic latticework of languorous pastel stripes; and transforms the title of Jacques Cousteau’s first book into a suite of 10 small oil paintings composed from 14 linear elements, one for each letter in The Silent World. But you have to read the catalog to know that, and while awareness of the work‘s convoluted genealogy adds intellectual dimension to the experience, the strength of the unexplicated final object suggests that the intelligence underlying our grandest schemes is continuous, perhaps identical with the intelligence that informs our senses. Pleasure is information.
This is nothing new for Roden, who has been negotiating these ambiguous waters in both his fine-art and his experimental-music careers in L.A. for a decade. What will be a surprise for followers of his painting is the leap in scale that magnifies the familiar intimacy of his pagelike early work into 5 12-foot-square museum-ready canvases. Transmission, a splayed phosphorescent-green geodesic network inlaid with a bruised purple mandala, is based on John Glenn’s famous communication from Earth‘s orbit describing plasma balls flitting past Friendship 7; The Silent World (Aqualung), based on a logarithm derived from variations in the knee positioning of Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson, is identically scaled. Happily, this risk pays off, delivering in spades the same formalist sensual charge and subliminal conceptual tickle that make his smaller works tick.
Celebrating both the joys and limitations of text, Roden’s art is freed to follow the deep-rooted intelligence of the pleasure principle. Or as Darwin would have it:
At the end of the day
When your voyage is through
Will you be able to say
That your work is your play
‘Cause you do what you love
And you love what you do?