Tim Roda: Family Album
Baer Ridgway Exhibitions
San Francisco, CA
By David Hunt
"Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain."
- Martin Mull
Tim Roda’s home-schooling his 10-year-old son Ethan, and quite frankly, I’m a little concerned. The kid’s been asking about this whole “intelligent design” business, wondering aloud about the Crucifixion. Roda tells him Via Dolorosa, means the “the way of suffering” and that Golgotha is Aramaic for “the place of the skull,” but the pint-sized spitting-image of his pops knows when he’s being conned, and he’s not buying the water-into-wine, loaves-into-fish, ghoulish rising from the grave sermon that his father – barely concealing his own skepticism -- is trying to throw at him. Nope, not hardly. Budding empiricist that he is, the pigeon-chested disciple of his dad’s own lapsed Catholicism is getting busy in their dimly-lit, exposed-brick basement landscaping his own miniature back-lot Calvary, restaging his own Stations of the Cross. The prevailing mood is “tenement-chic” circa 1910 Lower East Side, a subdued Atlantis, Pompeii post-eruption.
Head bowed prayerfully, legs crossed Indian-style, Ethan’s clutching some igneous rock like it was a Magic 8-Ball, a baby Buddha in the lotus position shaking the talismanic orb for answers. None, as you might have guessed, are forthcoming. But that doesn’t stop our fledgling utopian starchitect from laying out a Persian rug like it was an open-air mosque, scattering his toys on the diamond patterns in an improvised Gethsemane. Talk about folly garden: Thundarr the Barbarian is rearing up on his Battle Cat next to the Roda clan’s own feline sentry; He-Man, Skeletor, She-Ra and the rest of the polypropylene flock is storming a dashboard Jesus literally nailed to the wall; Castle Grayskull flanks the Son of God amid various emblems of dino-kitsch: brontasouri, wooly mammoths, and a lone stegasaurus with a bad case of scoliosis. Jurassic Park, indeed.
You know China’s doing brisk business in injection-molded pacifiers when a 5th-grader channels the ghost of Cecille B. Demille and choreographs his own intergalactic, cross-species, non-denominational Ten Commandments. While most kids this age are glassy eyed and twitchy from hours playing World of Warcraft, Ethan’s making like Major Mandrake in a Strangelovian war room, arraying his thermoplastic resin battle-bots in gleeful anticipation of his own cosmic Rapture. “Ookla, Ariel, we ride,” our shirtless little martinet commands his ranks, except he can’t differentiate between Apostles and Centurions. In his prelapsarian mind they’re all drawn to a single plaster figurine like moths to a white dwarf. The feng shui of the joint, needless to say, with its bunk bed hovering above Ethan like a plywood sweet hereafter and a single utility lamp dangling from brass chains in a nod to Galileo’s heliocentric model, is – to put it mildly -- fairly humming. In a typical Roda photograph (though I challenge you to find a more egregious oxymoron), a Super 8 Motel becomes – through b&w transubstantiation – the Suppurate Hotel, fairly leaking with all manner of noirish shenanigans, mock-sinister and otherwise.
Way before Michel Gondry popularized the cardboard and duct-tape aesthetic in Be Kind Rewind, Roda was grabbing floral patterned bedsheets and draping them over cinderblock interiors, propping up sawhorses and turning them into dingy M*A*S*H units all in a burlesque of Eakins’s Gross Clinic or perhaps Nip & Tuck’s clinical sitcom sheen; in some cases operating on himself, no less, just a humble striver trying to inject some new life into a DIY aesthetic that, lately, is starting to smack of IKEA’s dumpstered remains, the Lego modularity in pressed fiber-board that dovetails neatly with the artworld’s Cartesian mania for all things retro-moderne. Think: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in formica veneer. Think: critical boilerplate that namechecks global capitalism, homogeneous mono-culture, the standardization and consequent franchising of indigenous ethnographic exoticism. Now take two aspirin, massage your temples and concentrate on the notion that Roda is leading the culture’s rebellion against its own images of perfection.
While Gursky’s arguing with his personal photo technician in a digital lab in Dusseldorf, Photoshopping out unsightly blemishes and upping the color saturation in perfectly manicured, billboard-sized odes to Late-Capitalism’s industrial hubris, Roda’s developing his photos on fiber-matte paper in his own bathtub, cutting their borders in jagged, expressionistic swaths. The formalism, in other words -- or what we currently understand in photographic practice as “good composition” -- is never simply bounded by, or within, the picture plane. And it certainly doesn’t stop with the print itself. For Roda, this would embalm the image and consign it to the sentimental realm of the static snapshot frozen in time – a nostalgic, sepia-toned genre whose preciousness he clearly wants to avoid.
When Roda casts a sideways glance at Ethan rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with balled fists -- a look that says “what the *#%+?” -- he’s focussing on the pattern in his son’s ridiculous Freddie Kruger pajamas, not levelling his gaze directly at the camera in the style of classic portraiture. The reason? Roda simply wants us to join him in staring at the clusterfuck of horizontals on Ethan’s clothes as if they were line drawings or Barnett Newman zips. A formal, rather than emotive strategy. Sure, it’s hilariously over the top that his son has morphed into both Bert and Ernie, but Roda’s not performing for us, he’s breaking the 4th wall Zelig-like and asking us to jump up on the stage. Necessarily, then, he must finesse a kinesthetic world that we glimpse in arrested motion, and our mission -- should we choose to accept it -- is to fulfill that ambiguous narrative’s destiny. Ok, so yeah, I agree: Baroque wrought-iron bedposts conscripted into duty for their similarity to Chartres’s gothic curves next to Reverend Roda at a beer keg lectern, preaching the Good News with a paper halo taped to his head is an exceedingly partial, cryptically elusive -- and I’ll admit -- gut-busting visual non-sequitar to be sure, but one whose very indeterminacy is consciously designed to be picked up on in further images. Always to be continued; ever in medias res.
His stripped down, lo-fi aesthetic is reminiscent of your grammar school attempt at a shoebox diorama depicting a perfectly enclosed, self-sustaining Arctic Biosphere rendered in carved sugarcubes and stretched cotton balls – provisionally collaged together, yes, but never hermetically sealed. This is key. Roda plumbs his own memories as an Italian-American kid growing up Catholic in an eccentric family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where his father built their house in the same way that he cobbled together their chicken coop: like Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau, but held together with staples and glue. Entropic. Sad-sack. Absurdly ramshackle. Basically making a virtue out of the readily available and hoping for the best. A suburban bedouin miles from Home Depot. Roda casts his son Ethan and occasionally his wife Allison (when she’s not manning the camera’s 10 second timer), because, in the ethical wisdom of the Talmud, “When you teach your son, you teach your son’s son.” This is the generational passing of batons that is at the core of a Roda photo: a Swiss Family Robinson on a deserted island adventure that practically begs the viewer to step into the tableau. Self-enclosed enough, that is, so that the Sigmund Fruits can parse the dysfunctional psychoanalytic backstory, but never a vacuum-sealed bell jar that would stop any of us from cueing up our own family dynamics, however horrific or heartbreaking they may be.
Remember Mel Brooks’s Space Balls? Spaceball One, a Millennium Falcon-cum-Starship Enterprise in B-movie drag, ranged across the universe at four different speeds: sub-light speed, light speed, ridiculous speed and ludicrous speed. At ludicrous speed, then -- its flux capacitator redlining, if not smoking -- the ship’s afterburners left a vapor-trail of plaid. Yes, you heard right: escape velocity as depicted in the casual fashion-forward loungewear of a Scottish lowland shepherd. Proletarian plaid, the symbolic ne plus ultra of Grunge, doubling as cheeky dimensional wormhole, which in turn hearkens back to Roda’s own Seattle roots, his days as an undergrad ceramist at the University of Washington.
You laugh, but by stringing up ropes, cables, and extension cords like bereft clotheslines, sporting conical party hats and/or trading blond wigs with his wife and son, or just simply rigging a pulley system with rococo table legs, a tuba, some mirrors, and cut-out photos plastered on picket signs, Roda invites us to step into – and then through -- a psychic romper room not seen since Alice tumbled into the looking glass. In lieu of digital wire-frame graphics, Roda concocts his own metamatic fantasy machines and estranges them further in the warped, fish-eye manner of Pee-wee’s hallucinated Playhouse. Call it, The Un-Elegant Universe. Not surreal, hyper-real, or the return of the real – pace Hal Foster – nor a simulation, simulacrum, or derivation of same. Just plaid.
MODERN PAINTERS, 2008
INTRODUCING Tim Roda
Text Dan Torop
A ceramic gremlin, replete with long lashes, antlers, and legs like sides of raw beef, sits in the center of a couch. e apparition’s right arm embraces a child in a superhero out t, who rests one hand firmly on the gremlin’s thigh. e creature’s left hand reaches behind the back of an Ali G–style gangsta wrapped in a fur coat. is outrageous threesome sits in what appears to be a suburban living room. Tim Roda, then a ceramics student at Penn State, made a postcard of this image and sent it o as an application to the University of Washington’s interdisciplinary art graduate school.
The next year Roda found himself enrolled as a ceramics student at UW. With the encouragement of a faculty member, Doug Jeck (a ceramist known for his technically accomplished yet disturbingly raw gurative work), and others, Roda made more photo- graphs and spent less time by the kiln. As his photographic practice ourished, it continued to embrace the iconography of that postcard: a slyly skewed domesticity, which though blatantly constructed, evoked urgently autobiographical—yet increasingly surreal—family scenarios.
In the years since, the New York– based Roda has established himself as a photographer adept at making large-scale black-and-white images that are theatrical yet hermetic. These invariably star the artist himself, tend to include his son Ethan as a somewhat spontaneous supporting actor, and occasionally feature appearances by his wife Allison. e tone is generally sinister, verging on the claustrophobic. For example, Untitled #152 (2007), is described by Roda as “Mirrors... Shadows ... Generations ... Good and evil.” Lit from below, his limbs emaciated by darkness, a boy pours water into the upturned mouth of a murky swaddled gure. Thee participants in the image are ritual actors in a distorted temple built of harsh shadows. The mirrored floor refects the patterned wall above, creating another lost zone. Thee artist spent weeks folding the tiled cards that make up the background, the pattern inspired by M. C. Escher’s famously complex tessellations.
Roda points out that in the 1930s, Escher made three landscape prints— a lithograph and two woodcuts—of Pentedattilo, a now-abandoned southern Italian village that was the birthplace of Roda’s paternal grandfather. Recently, Roda traveled back to Pentedattilo, where he photographed Ethan on a nearby beach, a long stick in his hand, running toward the waves. Roda says that he brought a print of this image (Untitled #121, 2006) to his grandfather’s deathbed. “After I hung up the picture, he asked how I got ahold of that picture of him,” the photographer remembers. In this, and other works, Roda—as father and grandson both—directs his gaze to the psychic strands of himself and his family. In doing so, he contrasts with the Israeli video artist Guy Ben-Ner, whose recent Films (... Self Portrait as a Family Man and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) use his family as an intimate vessel with which to navigate the language of a wider, equivocal culture.
This insistence on the intimate and the familial—not as stand-ins for larger issues, but as the focus itself— is paramount in Roda’s oeuvre. “I make my own language and metaphor, which I understand; absolutely everything is a metaphor,” Roda asserts. He foregrounds his atavistic upbringing, and mentions that his father, at their Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home, slaughtered cows and chickens to feed the family. In images such as Untitled #63 (2005), Roda reenacts that paternal/ filial scene, with his own son now learning to use the butcher knife.
After a foray to Italy and stays at far-fung artist residencies, Roda now usually makes his photographs in his Harlem workspace. He arrives early at the studio, and with the aid of a thermos of coffee spends the day constructing and lighting a set. Sometimes he positions his camera to work out the composition, other times he leaves it at home in order to focus on the construction. Late in the day, Allison and Ethan arrive. Roda and Ethan pose themselves, and Allison takes a photograph. e family sits down to dinner, often in the studio, and discusses the day’s scenario. “ This is the way I can open up,” Roda says. en Roda tears down the set.
“We all feel comfortable with ourselves,” says Roda, “It’s safe, we can talk freely, we trust each other.” Roda suggests that his work with son and wife lies somewhere between therapy and an odd sort of family business endeavor. This framing of his practice seems aimed at preempting the hysterical accusations of irresponsibility surrounding the work of an artist such as Sally Mann: that explorations of familial dream life expose pre-age-of-consent children to an improperly sexualized public gaze. Nevertheless, it is this very tension, that of a potentially inappropriate revelation, that gives Roda’s images some of their dark and discom ting qualities.
In his self-made world, Roda explicitly creates every aspect of his photographs, from his sets to, arguably, even his sidekick, Ethan. He says that when he was a student at the University of Washington, Doug Jeck teased him that the one thing Roda couldn’t control was the image’s rectangular frame. Roda says that the angled Untitled #102 (2006) was a delayed response to Jeck’s observation. It is one of Roda’s most elaborate constructions, in which books merge into a mosaic of lines, and the figures seem to oat on mirrors. It is a hand-built dream— one that underlines his ability to craft illusionistic space while showing his hand as an artifice maker.
In spite of this bent for surreal embroidery, Roda turns away from comparisons to kin visual eccentrics such as Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Guy Maddin, who are moved by similar impulses. Not that Roda denies all infuences: “I look at Norman Rockwell a lot. He speaks a universal language, but has a perverted side.” Rockwell’s self- conception as an artist also bears comparison with Roda’s. Rockwell worked outside the mainstream artworld, and although Roda is given regular shows by galleries in both North America and Europe, the photographer portrays himself as a similar outsider. When I asked whether he was thinking about Matthew Barney’s early “Drawing Restraint” work when he made Untitled #153 (2007)—an image of Roda hanging from a banister over some crudely built steps—he quickly rebuked me, replying that he had been thinking of relatives who had recently died, and how tenuously we cling to our lives. Beyond quibbling about sources, the image holds interest because of a more basic photographic appeal: the depiction of a muscular man suspended above an odd broken-down chandelier, face strained, and toes pointed balletically.
Although Roda does give a shout- out to the staged photographs of definitive artworld insider Sam Taylor-Wood—“I like the formal- ism”—he articulates little interest in Taylor-Wood’s talented peers. Recall that, during the ’90s, photographers found their high-art tradition irrelevant until infused with the vitality of pop imagery. Roda appears to see that union as moribund, and stresses direct engage- ment with an urgently personal subject. He takes pains to reject what he sees as a style of conceptually cool banality. (“Sometimes it’s 15 pictures of someone riding a lawn mower. It’s thoughtless.”) In turn, his work can annoy contemporary photographers, accumulating the vitriol reserved for images that bypass the fundamental tenets of the craft yet are viable in the medium. “Technical criteria,” says Roda, “are a way to distance.” To that end, Roda seeks a profundity that does not depend on a dialogue with the recent history of his medium.
“Everything has to make sense,” he says. “Everything has to have a reason, even the hook on the back.”
To build the proper special city into his images, he has sculpted chickens out of paper towels (in Untitled #113 and Untitled #127, both 2006), and has carried the most innocuous props with him for years, even toting certain two-by-fours from Seattle to Montana to New York in order to buttress his sets. is formal emphasis on materiality may be one key to unlocking Roda’s evocative yet somewhat abstruse body of work. “I think that you need to be smart and you need to understand why you’re working with the materials in a certain way. That’s being smart. To be intellectual is like being middle class. Everyone says they’re middle class in some way.” By using his family as a type of raw material—a prop, even—Roda supersedes pedantic constructs in order to elucidate a basic pathos found in its mystifying workings.
Daniel Cooney Fine Art
The black in Tim Roda’s black and white photographs is inky, saturated, and absolute, and the whites are moony, stark, and often, although not always, provided by intense spotlights. Within these atmospheric extremes Roda stages tableaux reminiscent of myths, fables, fairy tales, and parables, often starring his son Ethan, and using a mixture of intensive props, costumes, and prosthetics to create a whatever’s-at–hand aesthetic--so that his stage is cluttered with bits of wood, wire, string, and wallpaper, a sort of art-studio noir. The images in his recent exhibition “Family Matters” (all titled Untitled followed by a number, and made within the past four years) are echoes of tales of ill-favored fathers and sons, of antiheroes and their sidekicks: the father slaughtering a papier-mâché cow while the son, wearing a crown and cradling a lamb in his arms, calls to someone off to the side; the father seemingly suspended from the wall in some sort of full body breathing apparatus while the son lounges, bored, in a chair; the two of them in serene silhouette, under the translucent wings of a windmill.
Ethan’s presence--as Icarus, Isaac, Sancho Panza- gives the images the frisson of uneasiness that frequently arises from depictions of children in artworks. Certainly some of Roda’s earlier images have trod edgy emotional ground, showing, for example, the boy in tears. But the constant back and forth between playfulness and darkness here seems truthful, as a father and son enact the process by which adults transmit to children their knowledge of the world and by which they are, in turn, changed by doing the transmitting. Children may be innocent, but they are also wily, passionate and destructive; they have a particular power and vacillate between knowing and how to use it and being utterly perplexed by it. Roda captures the complex life of a child while still affording his dignity and allowing him to be real, singular child, rather than a symbol (which is how the images, although unsettling, avoid being exploitative); the child as an angry slayer of a mythical beast, the child as triumphant hero, the child as initiate into mysteries he doesn’t yet understand (as in an image in which they regard each other with a kind of mutual bafflement, the artist in shadow, in long prosthetic legs and goggles, the child bathed in light). And they have a great deal of fun together, as Moliere-ish buffoons, as intrepid inventors of crackpot machines, as vaudeville actors in a real-life skit.
Roda takes great care with the formal aspects of his photographs-despite the scavenged and taped-together aesthetic, and despite making a point of de-emphasizing finish (for a past exhibition his photographs were mounted on plywood with screws, in some cases with the screws driven right through the image itself)---in order to balance the transience of the moments the works depict with the permanence of their records. The idea of balance extends to Roda’s management of the staged and the natural, so that the viewer sifts through layers of artifice and stagecraft- fake legs attached to a human body, cartoonish brightness lines emanating from a real light bulb, all manner of lo-fi optical trickery, including mirrors, shadows, and not-quite-illusionistic lines taped to a wall---to arrive at a real family pursuing its own particular versions of universal tales.
The New York Times
January 27th, 2006, p. E26.
A Boschian madness seems to have descended upon the young family of three featured in grainy, low-tech black-and-white photographs staged by the father, 28 year-old Mr. Roda, in old barns and dark industrial spaces. Grotesque prosthetic limbs, Freudian visual puns, foolish ceremonies, cross-dressing and moods of dour absurdity and cosmic mystery recur in these comical and creepy, dreamlike tableaus. Gasser & Grunert, 524 West 19th Street.
Available through Amazon, Printed Matter or Tim Roda The Butcher's Block
Edited by Nasim Weiler Contemporary, texts by Kimberly Roda Moorhead, Urseula Panhans-Buhler, and Dagrun Hintze, English/German 23 x 24.6cm,176 pages, 84 black & white photographs, hardcover Kodoji Press, Baden 2012
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Castaneda, K. (2006, October 10). Exhibit highlights new form of contemporary photography. The University Star
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The New Yorker
The subject of family has absorbed photographers, from Julia Margaret Cameron to Sally Mann, as a way of combining the personal and the universal. Roda, who is the father of four young sons, takes a theatrical approach to the subject, constructing playful tableaux in domestic interiors. He underscores the slapdash air by burning or splicing his negatives, but the most special effect isn’t technical: like the mothers one can often detect in nineteenth-century portraits of children, Roda often hides himself under a blanket, supporting his boys like a friendly ghost.
Art in America
Tim Roda at Greg Kucera.
Tim Roda's second solo show in Seattle (which coincided with his New York debut at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert) was another step forward for the 29-year-old photographer, whose 2004 M.F.A. at the University of Washington is in ceramic sculpture. Clay still plays a discreet role in his large black-and-white set-up photographs, usually as the building material for some of the props incongruously present: a birthday cake, bricks, chickens, toys.
Otherwise, the cluttered, baroque vignettes in these 19 prints featuring Roda, his wife and his seven-year-old son are filled with building-site detritus, dangerous-looking dangling electric wires, kitchen and bedroom furniture. Roda's large prints (42 by 32 inches to 35 by 52 inches) appear to be the result of competent but informal darkroom procedures.
In these works, figures are actively engaged with one another in each environment , involved in bizarre tasks such as climbing up a ladder with a window frame strapped on their backs, riding a bicycle in an enclosed room or slaughtering a fake turkey. False beards, faux food, cross-dressing, masks, interiors shot outdoors and exteriors constructed inside rooms - all these employ subtle humor to confound the viewer's expectations of domestic tranquility.
In the new works, Roda has enlarged small photographs he has taken of older people's faces and used those as masks-on-sticks for some of his "actors," suggesting hidden psychological dimensions. The tensions between parents, or between parents and child, are present in most of the works and lead to limitless family dramas.
Other works set the artist under a glaring light at the center of the composition, as if awaiting an interrogation, or place a masked woman beside a child poking a long steel pipe out a window. The persistent sense of awkward communication between father and son in two other works remains ambiguous . When they are seated at the breakfast table together or when the father stands in the child's bedroom above the boy surrounded by toys, the implication vacillates between the imminent expression of affection and an impending scolding.
In other poses, it appears the the father and child were caught off-guard by a surprise visitor who is about to take their picture together. In these works, the child's curiosity about the world is equated with the parent's befuddlement over his duties. Ultimately, the power relationships between family members are distorted, challenged or reversed. - Matthew Kangas