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Works Play With Dingbats, Decoration : Art: Steve Roden is image-conscious, but the meaning of his beautiful paintings isn't always apparent.


SANTA ANA — No one ever would accuse Steve Roden of taking the easy way out. For his graduate student show at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena five years ago, he made 125 paintings in 125 days. And he made himself conceptualize each work only during the few moments it took him to walk from the parking lot to his studio.

Despite his stubborn reliance on idiosyncratic conceptual systems, Roden is fully engaged in the traditional business of painting: manipulating form and color in intuitive ways. Speaking Monday at Rancho Santiago College, he remarked that art "needs to be balanced between purely visual inspiration and ideas."

Roden, who works under the far-reaching influence of the late composer John Cage, a purveyor of whimsically rule-bound musical notions, acknowledged that Cage's legacy is "most successful when it's listenable and you can hear the ideas."

Roden--who has shown his work at Food House, Domestic Setting and other Los Angeles galleries and at Griffin Fine Art in Costa Mesa earlier this year--makes small paintings that are rife with meaningful decoration and decorative lettering, allusive snatches of prose, game-playing and sheer painterly beauty.


Underlining all this is an element of intellectual playfulness. In recent paintings, he perversely transforms the tools of his day job as a graphic designer into a fruitful image bank. In his hands, pristine typefaces designed on a computer and meant to be used in computer-aided design turn into irregular handmade images, more akin to illuminated manuscripts than to pixels on a screen.

Quoting the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to the effect that artists have a way of seeing beauty in small, inconsequential things, Roden discussed his fascination with the way "dingbats" (decorative typographical marks) gain meaning by becoming the subject of a work. In "Inconsiderable Things," the word silent underneath each painted dingbat underscores the peculiarity of images that are not supposed to "say" anything.

But meaning can be elusive, even for Roden himself. He said it isn't until after he has looked at his finished paintings for some time that he begins to understand what they might be about.

"They are so open-ended," he said. "You're basically given a lot of information. If you try to deal with it from a logical standpoint or based on information in your head, it's harder than just dealing with the image."

For his part, he said, "It's easier to explain where (an image) comes from than what it means." Noting that a decorative device in one painting came from the border design on a coaster, he said his images are based on things "probably not many people notice. I'm giving them prominence and a poetic presence."

Having a studio in downtown Los Angeles doesn't allow for thoughtful strolls through the countryside to collect one's thoughts, he pointed out. Instead, he finds himself looking through books and art magazines for inspiration.

Like many postmodern artists, he frequently incorporates quotations from other periods of art (clouds in a drawing by the French 19th-Century artist Odilon Redon, arrows from a notebook doodle by abstract painter Ad Reinhardt).

But other sources of his imagery are more mysterious to the untutored eye. For example, after an artist friend died and issue after issue of Art in America carried no mention of him on the obituary page, Roden began to think about who makes the list and who doesn't. So he made a painting using the initials and ages of every artist in one issue's obituary column, together with abstract imagery "derived in an intuitive manner."

He also goes in for fairly obscure literary sources (English nature poet John Clare, Swedish poet Par Lagerqvist) and religious references (chosen because he liked the apocryphal stories, not as an expression of personal belief).

A quotation from Lagerqvist about the existence of God ("a riddle which is intended not to be solved but which exists") became the visual focus of a series of paintings.

For Roden, the quote does double duty as a statement about "what a painting could or should be."

The self-described "sound artist"--he plays several instruments and makes sound compilations but doesn't read or write music--also brought a conceptual approach to a new album, "in be tween noise" (Inverted Tree Projects).

The experimental project consists of live, sampled and electronically transmitted sounds made by various instruments, voices and objects. For each track--based on sources as diverse as a children's radio program from the '40s, a Navajo prayer and a Renaissance painting of the vision of St. Francis of Assisi--Roden developed a set of rules and improvised on them.


Music also plays into his art in curious and cryptic ways. To establish a "sound environment" for a series of paintings made on wood printing plates that contain the final four letters of the alphabet, he worked to a recording of Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs."

He made another painting by using the punched holes of an old player-piano roll as a stencil "until I played the whole song onto my painting"--thereby using a system for making sound to make something visual. With its layers of paint and a trailing notation of the sentimental final words of the song, the piece suggests the cumulative experience of listening to music.

"Once I have my conceptual parameters, things on the canvas inspire me," Roden said. "I just go to town."

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