Alexandra Grant and Steve Roden: These Carnations Defy Language
Pasadena Museum of California Art – June 14 to November 1, 2015
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, OCT. 2015
Accept the challenge things offer to language.
These carnations, for instance, defy language.
I won’t rest till I have drawn together a few words
that will compel anyone reading or hearing them to
say: this has to do with something like a carnation.
- Francis Ponge
Using words as catalyst, motif and inspiration, Alexandra Grant and Steve Roden have produced a pair of thematically related series of mixed media paintings in a visually sumptuous sort of homage to 20th Century French writer Francis Ponge. When the two Los Angeles artists, longtime friends, found out they both owned a copy of, Mute Objects of Expression, Ponge’s 1938-1944 book of hybrid prose/poems – or proems – it seemed a fitting point of embarkation for collaborative exploration.
Ponge’s writing is characterized by varied arrangements of themes. Called, the poet of things, Ponge restated phrases, slightly altering the wording to produce subtle shifts of nuance, in a quest to effectively express the essence of everyday things. In a similar way, Grant and Roden have composed visual variations derived from this underlying concept combined with their own individual and deeply personal influences. During the course of the exhibit, the artists spoke about the motivation behind their work in a conversation with Leslie Jones, LA County Museum of Art curator of prints and drawings. While discussing the genesis of the series, Grant mentioned her tendency, throughout much of her career, to focus on the visual interpretation of text. In the past, her work has referenced contemporary writers. This recent series of abstract mixed media works was a departure. As she remarked, “I took a break from working with living writers… there’s something about collaborating with the dead that makes life a lot easier.” Pointedly, in these works, not only does Grant indirectly channel Ponge, who died in 1988, but her series is also based on the classic Greek tragedy Antigone, with each painting alluding to the story from a different perspective. For Grant, the Antigone of Sophocles’ drama represents a higher law, relevant today as a symbolic role model for our troubled era. One particular line from the play resonated with Grant in a profound way. A tragic heroine, Antigone stands up to her uncle, when she states, “I was born to love not to hate.” The artist integrated this phrase into her paintings, making the text a driving force of the composition.
The resulting paintings are an allegorical way of representing the tale of Antigone. In the process of creating these dynamic images, Grant said, she was, “thinking of composition, line and color as narrative elements.” In addition to text, Grant incorporates parallel stripes, predominantly in black, forming chevrons and other interacting shapes and areas of contrast, defining the compositions in a dramatic way. The paintings also feature repeated colorful symmetrical stains – motifs derived from Rorschach tests – representing Antigone’s character. The adjacent ruled lines are meant to connote the rule of law into which Antigone comes in conflict. “I get so much pleasure being able to tell a story through the language of painting itself,” Grant said.
In his corresponding series, Roden has continued his customary practice of finding inspiration from borrowed imagery. Consistent with this approach, and harmonizing with Grant, the artist extrapolated his series of mixed media works from a photograph on the cover of the April 1964 issue of Domus, which belonged to his father. As a starting off point, that issue of the architecture magazine had special significance for the artist, who was born in the same month and year. The focal point of the cover photo is a section of roof in the shape of a triangle, which Roden adopted as a central motif. He also chose to limit his palette to the restricted selection of colors on the magazine cover: black, brown, green, orange, and pink.
“Everything in the show is based on one photograph and I’m continually going back to the photo for information to help me make decisions,” said Roden. He compared the process to that of Ponge, who in a similar way would take a thing apart, roll it around and put it back together. “It’s mundane but it’s really interesting,” Roden said. “How many different points of view can you have for something?” The resulting series of abstract works go a long way towards answering that question. As variations of an idea, they are connected by a repeated motif, harmony of palette and sequences of line. In addition, the works are steeped in layered, textural elements that comprise a rich collaged surface. Lines of text interplay with embroidery thread, cardboard cutouts, drips of paint and ruled parallel lines, superimposed by the dominant triangle shape.
Although Roden and Grant created a number of small collaborative pieces as part of this project, each developed the bulk of their work independently, using Ponge’s writing as a construct. While the two artists considered the theme independently, from their own distinct perspectives, in an interesting coincidence, similar visual elements emerge across all the finished pieces. As Grant said, “It’s almost as though the invisible architecture of Ponge is what influenced us, and yet what you see as the viewer is absolutely similar visual lexicons.” Aside from scale – overall Grant’s pieces were considerably larger than most of Roden’s - there is a striking balance and continuity among the works the artists created apart. Both used black lines, which could be seen as analogous to text, to delineate areas of composition. The works also share surprising consistencies in palette. Most noticeably, hot pink leaps off images by both artists. Acknowledging their fearless use of color, Grant said, “We’re not chromaphobes.”
These are moody, complex, layered works with intense symbolic meaning. Although rooted in words, the images are not tethered to words. As Grant said, “We gave ourselves permission to start with the text, but abandon the text.” Irrespective of the multiple strata of embedded meaning and symbolism, theses works are visually compelling even without probing beneath the surface, permeated as they are with vivid color and unpredictable interactions between angle, form and space. While some of the pieces may stem from a place of somber reflection, the collaboration is not all dark and serious. Interspersed are contrasting elements and entire pieces that embody a lightness of spirit, as in Roden’s, Sunshine Machine, (2015, Paper, sumi ink, embroidery thread, mirror, crayon, cardboard and collage, 75 x 10 inches), a long vertical rectangular piece that exudes a sense of playfulness. In the center is a small, mirrored disc, clearly included with the literal intention to reflect subtle variations of surrounding light. WM
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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