Steve Roden: Artist
RUSTY TALK WITH STEVE RODEN
STEVE RODEN (Los Angeles,1964) lives and works in Pasadena, California. His work includes painting, drawing, sculpture, writing, sound, film/video and performance. Much of his work begins with something someone else has made: be it a postcard from Walter Benjamin’s archives, a 1964 Domus magazine or issue 85 of Green Lantern Comics. His working process includes both found and self-made systems that influences the process of making. Recent activities include: DAAD residency at the Walter Benjamin Archives in Berlin; group exhibition “Silence” at the Menil Collection, Houston; “Rag-Picker”, CRG Gallery, NY; “In-Between a 20 Year Retrospective” at The Armory Center for the arts, Pasadena, CA; Chinati Residency, Marfa, TX. Civitella Ranier residency, Italy. In 2008, Roden directed a re-visioned version of Alan Kaprow’s “18 happenings in 6 parts” at LACE in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (LACE). From 1978-1982, Roden was the singer for the LA punk band, “Seditionaries”. Since 1993, he has released over 40 solo recordings on various independent record labels. Rodenhas representation with gallery Susanne Vielmetter LA Projects, Los Angeles, and CRG Gallery, New York.
DAVID POOLMAN: You’ve been involved in a variety of projects since the early 1980s and were part of the LA punk scene in the late 1970s with your band, Seditionaries. How did you come to work in music, sound, and visual art?
Steve Roden: well, it’s hard to say. i mean as long as i can remember i have wanted to make things - be they images or sounds, etc. as a kid, i was always drawing, and my mom made stained glass windows with a friend in our garage, and my father was also very artistic. i was lucky that my parents gave me once for my birthday a small super 8 film camera and once also a small portable cassette recorder - so at a young age, i was working with machines and “technology". after getting the super 8 camera, my friends and i made a film about a time machine … it was a simple thing, but we spent a lot of time creating it. so overall there was some atmosphere of making things - being creative. my parents were relatively progressive, in that they let me follow my own path. when i became part of the punk scene, and started a band with some friends, there was no tension with my parents and no fights about my blue hair! a lot of my friends’ parents had fights with their kids because of how they dressed, etc. but i never had those kinds of fights with my parents.
certainly drawing and painting as a child was very important for me - and really i never wanted to do anything else … and truthfully my practice is just an extension of my childhood - with a need to have a lot of “play” and to roam (now more mentally than physically). i don’t think i was ever made for doing practical things. it is kind of a cliche’ but the punk scene resonated through my young life so richly because we weren’t looking for fame and “fortune”. we were, at age 14 or so, looking to have a voice. along with being immersed in an alternative culture, this was during a time the government was thinking about reinstating the draft, so we had songs (i wrote the lyrics and sang - i should say, shouted!), one about anti-religion, one about ronald reagan, etc. we weren’t super political, but we were aware of things … it was an accidental plunge into the early los angeles punk scene that got me and my friends starting a band. again ... we had no interest in perfection, we simply wanted to find our voices as young teenagers, trying to create something different than our parents, or popular music. for us, it was about finding ways to create without boundaries. we never worried if our music was good - it was more important that we experimented in many facets of our lives.
a lot of people look down at amateurs, but amateurs make decisions differently than someone trained. dubuffet’s ideas and his works come out of a similar place - with art brut - and i’ve always felt a resonance with things that have rough edges, as they feel, to me, more “real” so to speak than, schooled things. a big part of punk was anti-technique, more visceral, raw, etc.
in truth, over the six years i spent in art school, i never learned any real practical techniques, and i think the lack of practical techniques, helped me … it sounds funny, but i do think that my lack of “proper” painting, color wheels, etc. i never connected to it, because i felt i was using someone else’s method. a lot of people who make things are worried about whether a thing is a good thing or a bad thing, but the resonance for me is the process … what do i learn? how can i learn? and which is more important - the making or the made …? for me that is an ongoing conversation, and even now, i still don’t know how to mix colors based on color charts, etc. i’m an improviser in general, and also i am interested in chance (obviously john cage is a huge influence), and what i see in cage’s practice, is finding different ways to do some something … and a real deep inner conversation about how to create strategies to debunk one’s personal taste … but when people talk about personal taste, it tends to be about the objects (or words, or moving images, etc.), but for me, cage’s ideas are about how one can work with materials creatively - meaning to create situations for yourself, to do something in a different way … for example, every once in a while, i walk from my house to my studio backwards. it’s a stupid thing, but on those mornings, i am seeing the view backwards. it changes my perception, and i see things i don’t see when i walk to the studio “normal”.
i’m not very creative with total freedom, and i need rules to break, something to bounce off of. i think that’s why so much of my works tend to be a conversation with an object or a sound or an idea that is related to something in the world made by another human - i mean i am a total geek about certain artists’ works (and by the term artist i mean not just painters, but filmmakers, music makers, architects, etc.).
DP: In looking at the diverse range of work you have produced over the last 25 years, collage, sampling, and repurposing materials is paramount. How do you go about choosing source materials for your various projects? I’m thinking, for example, about your use of sheet music in your deconstruction-reconstruction collages (2013) and the use of Walter Benjamin’s notebooks in your 3-channel video installation, shells, bells, steps and silences (2012)?
SR: the truth is that i’m an art geek, and as such, a lot of my work has been inspired by other people’s work. i don’t mean that i make paintings about other paintings, but using something like walter benjamin’s notebooks, where i can sort of converse with the spirit of his works, or even with cage’s 4’33” i used the score to determine measurements of physical things, instead of times … and translating inches into seconds)
DP: Who are some of the artists, writers, and musicians that have influenced your work?
SR: whoa that is a large list … off the top of my head … arthur dove, john cage, myron stout, jess, wallace berman, robert bresson, guru dutt, alvin lucier, fluxus, rilke, alfred doblin, georges perec, yasujiro ozu, nick drake, brian eno, gego, can (the band), jack kirby, neal adams, stan brakhage, arvo part, r.m. schindler, john lautner, hans jenny, fred sandback, helen mirra, ruth asawa, hank aaron, vin scully, roscoe holcomb, par lagerkvist, frederick hammersley, oskar fischinger, harry bertoia, gary panter, joseph cornell, mary bauermeister, allan kaprow, john coltrane, my friends, my parents, and a lot of bands … a really lot of bands … ha!
DP: In your article beginning and ending with trains on a table (2008), you discuss the ability of certain images to remain in our minds unconsciously and continue to have an effect on us. In particular, you mention a photograph of toy trains you purchased at a flea market. Are there other images that have stuck with you and influence the work you produce?
SR: yes, of course. i’m a “picker”. for many many years with my friend dan goodsell, we would go to the flea market at 5 am, to look for things to re-sell, but also to pad our collections. it’s funny, because i started buying old photographs of people holding instruments or making music or sound, mostly from the early 1900s. for me there is always this weird moment where a single object or image opens a door. the first photo was a picture of a guy sitting next to a coyote, and i realized that while i was looking at it, i wanted to hear it. so i started collecting images, mostly from the early 1900s and this is a kind of way for me, to find a “nugget” and to see if it has “wheels” so that it might offer a conversation … hopefully long term. and my discovery of that one photo, was the beginning of a long gathering of photographs, and eventually that collection became a book, published by dust to digital, called i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces - in an attempt to create an atmosphere of sound in photos, and also with two discs of old 78 rpm records.
but this is how things happen for me. to be open to a possibility - to find an image, put it on my shelf for awhile and over time it suggests a move or a reading or an idea, and over time … it became a “thing”, in this case in book form, and a sharing of things that resonate for me, and to offer such things to others. i’ve been a collector of things my whole life, and again, i’m probably closer to most objects than most people …
DP: How does chance play a role in your work?
SR: it is always present ... in decision making, and also to recognize that any situations offers choices, no matter how “bland" or “stiff” or “empty" or “dry” … and so for me, chance is a way of reading or reacting to a situation that i did not set into motion. necessitating moves that would not have come to be without them … chance for me is about making decisions without knowing the outcome. in my practice, i have a hard time with 100% freedom, so chance offers me a kind of disruption - more like a problem, than a good fit … it is also about working with parts that don’t seem compatible, or resolvable. i guess, i’m trying to say that i don’t look for situations that are determined from the start … to create something in mind and execute it. for me, that is of no interest. i need a kind of struggle, and chance or using scores, or systems, they offer me different ways of engaging with materials (some that are friendly and others difficult).
DP: You have collaborated with artists such as Steven Vitiello, Frank Bretschneider, and Steve Peters. Can you comment on some of your collaborations and the collaborative process?
SR: collaboration can be symbiotic or very tense. with the three folks you mentioned, well, the three you mentioned were full of ease. and many of those works seemed to kind of evolve on their own. of course, all three of us are improvisers, so there never really was no need to protect territories or who is in charge. certainly i’d rather work with folks who don’t have huge egos, but tension in collaboration can be really powerful as well. i would say that my aesthetic, certainly with stephen and steve peters, it was like an extension of family … and with frank it was the same … i think stephen and steve and i actually move in a similar pace, our work, our humanness, etc.
even though frank’s music tends more towards beats and electronics, and my own tools are more analog and object based, there was, as always, an openness, and when we started playing (without talking much), it was the same … i mean it isn’t about who is using what language or what tools, but how do we find a place within our works and to respond to each other. i’ve had some bad collaborations, but that was mostly because of ego, rather than the actual works. that’s why i’ve worked with stephen and steve peters, several times, and if i lived in berlin, i would certainly want to work with frank more often as well. the process of improvising with friends is incredible, as if we speak our own languages and they start to morph into each other’s. again, it tends for me it works if everyone leaves their ego at the doorstep.
DP: What was your motivation/interest in returning to painting?
SR: really the motivation came out of a feeling that i was on top of my game, and felt that if i stopped painting for at least a year that things might change and my work might change. i know a lot of artist’s protect their brand or their visual language etc. for me, i didn’t want to feel like i knew what i was doing, and, i needed more difficulty … to feel more like an amateur, trying to find my way. i joke with friends a lot about “pulling a guston”, which is what i hope to manage to do at some point. i love the stories of when morton feldman saw philip guston’s late works, feldman felt that guston had betrayed feldman … i mean if you look at guston’s early paintings you can literally hear feldman’s work while looking at those canvases, but when you see giant heads with clan hoods, and cigars, and eyes, and flashlights, etc. the shift was so strong, that people were pissed off. what’s super great is that the uproar wasn’t about language or pornography or various “edgy” materials, but guston wanted or needed to say something that would shatter what he had been doing. it was pretty darn brave …
so my motivation is to attempt to climb a similar mountain where the work can feel visceral and human but at the same time, to remain an improviser and to follow a thread … no matter how thin it might seem - especially at the beginning. so i’m trying to make paintings differently. i feel that if i disrupt the process, the works will change.
DP: What are you currently working on?
SR: two things: one is that over the past three years or so, i have been making sound with a modular analog synthesizer. it came to me through some friends, who suggested i play around with it. what’s great about it is that after three years of puttering, i still have very little knowledge of what i’m doing. but also, it’s complicated enough that i regularly have to watch demos on youtube or ask friends, what a such and such will do … stephen vitiello and i started around the same time, and we did a gig together in france, and as we started the gig, we both plugged in cables and turned knobs, and at one point stephen tapped me on the shoulder and quietly let me know that my synth was not making a sound!!!!! and it took me a while to get it running, and i was petrified, but it was proof that this seemingly “stiff” machine could offer some serious accidents. and so, the use of new tools, without much learning, there’s a lot of frustration, but there are also moments of great understanding. in some ways, my earlier works were a bit precious, certainly intimate, but always quiet … so i’m also making loud things … as it is the nature of the machine.
as for painting, i’m just beginning again. my last show of the first paintings made over a year and a half away from painting, i’m slowly trying to push some of the ideas of those first paintings without a year of painting, and so it is slow going, which is great, and every time i feel something that is familiar, i push it back. and i hope in some way people will find them different, hopefully quite different, so that i can use these works as evidence as a human attempting to grow through the ins and outs of a medium that continually kicks my butt.
David Poolman is the Visual Art Editor for The Rusty Toque.
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