Winding through a studio filled with collections of curious objects — midcentury ceramics, vintage design magazines, Victorian-era photographs — Steve Roden pauses before a small, rather plain architectural drawing: his most prized possession, he says, by a man he considers "probably the largest influence on me of any artist," modernist architect Rudolf Schindler.
It is a surprising statement from an artist who, though deeply indebted to modernism philosophically, would seem to share none of its fastidious aesthetic, nor architecture's tendency toward stable, monumental forms. But then Schindler was not, perhaps, your classic modernist, and when Roden speaks of him — comparing him, initially, with his peer Richard Neutra — the affinity is clear. Indeed, he might as well be talking about himself.
With Neutra, he says, "there's a crispness to everything. It's like theater, in a way. With Schindler, there's wonk. There's tactility. There are things that don't work. There's a strange use of color at times. I don't think he was ever struggling toward a signature. Architecture seems like such a rigid job, and yet he would literally change plans in construction. There's something I find unremarkable about the work — in a positive way. It's never trying to show off, and it exploits the formal qualities of the medium to such an interesting degree."
One might say the same of Roden's work, though he would likely shy from the comparison. This tension between architecture and "wonk," rigidity and experimentation, is a defining feature of his broad and rigorous oeuvre, which spans painting, drawing, sculpture, film and sound art. Building on artists such as John Cage and Sol Lewitt, he works from predetermined systems that generally involve the translation of information from a source material into another medium: translating the notes of a musical score into colors and patterns for a painting, for instance, or using the visual dynamics of a painting as a score for generating sound.
The systems are cannily derived and sometimes bafflingly complex, but the effect is far from dry. Intuition enters in, as well as subjective aesthetic judgments. Rules are broken, mistakes are made and embraced. Roden's surfaces, whether physical or sonic, are engagingly tactile. His sound works are quiet and intimate investigations of the textures and dimensions of sound, typically undertaken with minimal technology (he doesn't read music or play an instrument). His paintings — all abstract — flirt with architectural structure, but with a handmade character that leaves them feeling wobbly, dynamic and exuberant.
"I want to have these pieces formed from three different things: my own intuition, the information and the thing that's being made," he says. "So all three of us are kind of conversing at the same time. My voice is clearly present, but the other two things have a voice as well."
With a 20-year survey opening at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena on Sept. 12 and a major installation — his largest to date — up simultaneously at Pomona College, it is a season of unusual visibility for Roden, an artist who's maintained a relatively low profile over the years, highly respected by peers and critics but conspicuously underrepresented in some of the glossier regions of the art world. The roots of this disparity lie partly in the work, which is thoughtful and understated — not the sort to make a spectacle of itself at an art fair — and partly in the 46-year-old artist's reserved nature. Speaking in his Pasadena studio adjacent to the home he shares with his wife, Sari, he is modest yet voluble, conversant with art world histories and hierarchies but fervent in his protection of "the making," as his puts it, and quietly insistent on setting his own terms.
The Armory show, organized by former LACMA curator Howard Fox, offers a balanced, if abbreviated survey of Roden's multifaceted practice over the last two decades, with an insightful (and affectionate) catalog essay by Fox. The Pomona show counters this backward glance with two new bodies of work: a massive architectural installation made from wood, string, hand-drawn film projections and sound elements, based on a notational drawing of Buckminster Fuller's from the 1960s; and a series of paintings derived from a collection of postcards once belonging to the late painter Frederick Hammersley, whom Roden has long admired.