Paint by numbers

Love these colors!

Steve Roden’s paintings are, at first glance, a cacophonus explosion of exuberant color, radical geometry and abstract conception. But if you know Roden’s work, you know that a green line is not just a green line, and a pink triangle is never just a pink triangle. Each twirl of the brush is directed by a note in a song, a line in a poem, translated into an intricate visual vocabulary that makes up Roden’s piece.


Roden’s work takes the invisible—sounds, vowels—and makes it physical. These little sculptures in the foreground, for example, are 3D versions of the soundwaves created by John Glenn’s first transmission from space. He also translates it back, creating sound installations based on visuals. You can see these and dozens more pieces of Roden’s work at In Betweeen, a 20 year survey, which is up through January 9 at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.

Great colors

Roden might be chopping up and visualizing data through his delightfully analog process but these aren’t necessarily infographics, he said, because they were never meant to be decoded and understood. In fact, he wishes that his audience would never know the information behind each piece, and instead come to their own conclusions about what it means. “If it was up to me,” he said, “none of it would be available.”

Demonstrating codes

But to me, that was an equally-fascinating part of the experience, as we witnessed when we got to visit Roden’s studio. There, we saw how Roden created the amazingly intricate codes, pairing characters—numbers, letters, musical notes—with their corresponding colors, line-lengths, shapes. Literally translating one language to another.

Mo' codes

The codes are jotted on every available surface, littered on the floor, tacked to walls, tucked under dropcloths. It reminded me of that scene in A Christmas Story, where the Ralphie gets his decoder ring and begins excitedly jotting down the secret message announced on the radio.

Wheel of fortune

“The letter A keeps meaning different things to me,” Roden said.

The key

The effect of this tumble of letters and numbers throughout the space is not very much like a visual artist’s studio at all. It’s more like a mathematician studying chaos theory or a chemist trying to crack a molecular code.

Jotted down numbers

For someone who creates art so meticulously, you might expect Roden to be organizing his socks or silverware drawers with similar rigor. But for the most part he seemed to live a normal life. Except for the fact that he lives in a Bubble House.

Bubble House!

The Bubble House, in fact, designed by architect Wallace Neff in 1945 out of inflated concrete made by pumping air into the cemented shell of a leftover Goodyear blimp. As much as he loved living there, he said he didn’t think the house, in a place with no corners and no ceiling, explicitly affected his process.

Rounded forms

But I saw where they could be connected. Roden’s work feels like he’s building little worlds with numbers and letters, which is more like architecture than art—in fact, it could be called information architecture. The form is bound by the rules that hold it together. And I glanced through the press clippings at the gallery, I noticed why in an LA Times preview: Roden says he’s more inspired by the architect Rudolf Schindler than he is by any other artist.

More about the USC/Annenberg Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship. More photos here.

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  • Tau-Mu Yi

    Terrific article GB! I plan to see Roden’s exhibit; his artistic approach is quite interesting.