Sorting through the rubble of Modernism is a task that preoccupies a significant number of contemporary artists today, but rarely so tangibly as it does Steve Roden in his recent film and video works at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.
The show begins with "Everything She Left Behind That Fits in My Hand," a single-channel projection in which we see the artist’s hand opening and closing upon a series of small objects—seashells, mostly—that once belonged to Martha Graham. Rhythmic collaged animations unfold on several monitors nearby, based on a postcard drawn from the archive of Walter Benjamin, depicting the interior of a cathedral in Siena. In another work, we see Roden’s hand again, copying onto a sheet of paper elements of an idiosyncratic notation system taken from Benjamin’s journals. All of these works came about in a period, we’re told, when Roden had committed himself to performing John Cage’s infamous "4’33”" once a day for a year.
Graham, Benjamin and Cage all coalesce in "Shells, Bells, Steps and Silences," a mesmeric three-channel video that patches numerous short sound performances developed from Benjamin’s notations in a random and thus ever shifting sequence.
The unlikely pairing of the conceptual and the tactile is a frequent motif for Roden, whose systems-based work is characterized by an air of delicious imprecision. It is the tactic of an artist who, though very well read, thinks largely through his hands, and who is compelled to consider what interests him from every conceivable angle, even the peculiarly counterintuitive ones—e.g., Martha Graham as viewed through her collection of seashells. The result in this case feels less like an exhibition than an interior dialogue surreptitiously overheard.