Project Series 17: Steve Roden
For over ten years, Steve Roden, who works in Pasadena, has been creating drawings, paintings, sculpture, film, and sound works that combine a sensuous materiality with intellectual rigor. The artist’s creative process reflects a homemade aesthetic realized through a painstaking methodology that indicates artistic influences as diverse as Folk and Outsider art, and Conceptual and Fluxus projects. In the work exhibited here, Roden uses conceptual and intuitive frameworks to translate obscure systems of literary reference into visual designs. For Roden, “translation” means literally fracturing words and images into pieces and transferring them from the printed page to a new context. Instead of simply recreating source material, he aims to understand it more fully. While the original inspirations, and the corresponding self-made rules of translation, have a physical impact on the visual qualities of the finished works, the final abstract object exists on its own, independent of the artist and the source.
In this exhibition, Roden presented new paintings, photographs, sculptures, and an audio work created for this occasion. Following are brief descriptions of each body of work.
In the digital photographs fallen/spoken, Roden translated into English a book of Swedish poems by Par Lagerkvist, the winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize for Literature, using only the sound of the spoken words and their visual qualities to suggest English language equivalents.
the silent world paintings were created using a system of visual translation that began with a simple letter-to-measured-line equivalence: a= 1 inch-long line, b= 2 inch-long line, etc. Each painting contains a visual translation of the title of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s first book The Silent World.
Roden based the letter forms sculptures on the waveform images created by speaking or singing the letters of the alphabet into a computer. The vowels were colored following Rimbaud’s The Alchemy of the Verb.
Roden made the another another green world sculptures with his eyes closed, listening to different pieces of music from Brian Eno’s LP Another Green World. He has made “blind” listening drawings for years, and, with this sculpture, expanded the audio reactions of his hands to include sculptural forms. The six shades of green glaze are based on a system of grouping “songs” (and sculpture sessions) by rounding their lengths up or down to the nearest half minute.
Outside, on the Museum’s facade, Roden installed the sound work speak no more about the leaves. Inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s The Book of the Hanging Garden—which references Stefan George’s work by the same name—Roden uses the vowel structure from George’s poem as a score. He equates a series of five tones with the five vowels as he encountered them in the text. The sound was generated acoustically and then processed electronically.
Steve Roden’s exhibition was the seventeenth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
"does the complete understanding of natural phenomenon strip away its miraculous qualities? it is certainly a risk. but it should at least maintain its poetry, for poetry subverts reason and is never dulled by repetition. besides, a few gaps in our knowledge will always allow for a joyous confusion of the mysterious, the unknown, and the miraculous." Jean Painleve
in 1997, i had a solo exhibition titled "translations & articulations." at the time, i was thinking about the idea of translation as a definition of the various paths of reconfiguration that occur as things move from one medium to another. translation, for me, was similar to the scene in willy wonka and the chocolate factory, where mike tv is broken up into little bits, then reconfigured differently so that he fit inside a tv set. translation meant simply breaking words and images into little pieces and transporting them from the printed page to a new context. my interest in abstraction was fueled by mixing up the fragments in the process.
"as if a man can give a name to everything... until you know that all names are false, you know nothing." Hermann Broch
5 years later, i am still working with translation although my recent focus has been on the actual systems of translation themselves. i am less interested in simply moving things from one context to another as i am in the various ways in which words or sounds can be translated into images and objects. i want my original inspirations, and a set of self-made rules of translation, to have a physical impact on the visual qualities of the finished works. the translation systems have been birthed both from logic (such as numerical or color systems based on the placement of letters in the alphabet), as well as more idiosyncratic methods (such as the work fallen/spoken, where i translated a book of swedish poems by par lagarkvist into english, using only the sound of the words spoken and their visual qualities to trigger their english language equivalents).
"everything is architecture." Wolf Vostell
the silent world paintings were created using a system of visual translation that began with a simple letter-to-measured line equivalence: a= 1 inch line, b= 2 inch line, etc. each painting contains a visual translation of the title of jacques cousteau¹s first book the silent world. over the past year, the systems have become more elaborate, and each painting is built from the intuitive collisions of several different translation methods and rules.
"works of art are not purposely conceived." Agnes Martin
the another another green world sculptures were made with eyes closed, listening to different pieces of music from brian eno¹s LP another green world, which i received as a gift when i was in grammar school. i have been making blind listening drawings for years, and wanted to expand the possible audio reactions of my hands to include sculptural forms. the six shades of green glaze are based on a system of grouping ³songs² (and sculpture sessions) by rounding up or down their lengths to the nearest half minute.
"have you ever seen an inchworm crawl up a leaf or a twig, and there clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach for something? that is like me. i am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which i have a footing." Albert Pinkham Ryder
the sculptures in the series letter forms are based on the waveform images created by speaking or singing the letters of the alphabet into a computer. the vowels are colored in relation to rimbaud¹s the alchemy of the verb.
"without actually using silence, i should like to praise it." John Cage
the audio work speak no more about the leaves was created for the facade of the museum. it uses the vowel structure of a poem from stefan george¹s the book of the hanging garden as a score. a series of 5 tones are equated with the 5 vowels and struck as one encounters them in the text. the sound was generated acoustically and then processed electronically. the work was inspired by arnold schoenberg¹s the book of the hanging garden, which also uses george's text.
"enthusiasm for anything other than abstractions is a sign of weakness and sickness. " Charles Baudelaire
i placed j. painleve's quote at the beginning of this statement to suggest to the viewer/reader that these words are not complete in their explanation of my works. the words simply render visible a single skeletal aspect of my process. they are written without the intention of definition, nor specifics of meaning they are meant to allow for a "few gaps" so that the works themselves are able to maintain their own inherent "poetry."
"conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, and the truth out of everything i think." Franz Kafka
i concede that a description of the process can add to one's knowledge of the "how," but i remain uncomfortable with the feeling that these words also have the ability to lessen one's openness to the actual works themselves and to the larger concerns of my overall project. in this regard, i have taken the liberty of using the words of others as another point of departure. i don't mean to be so bold as to contextualize myself alongside the speakers i place their words here with the intention of allowing some of my deeper inspirations to float to the surface.
steve roden, january 2003