These Carnations Defy Language: Alexandra Grant and Steve Roden
Only cheesy romance-novel vocabulary could possibly describe them. They were two exquisite specimens running in-place together, their perfectly chiseled bodies glistening in the 90-degree heat, curly locks bouncing sensually just above their heavenly faces. They were replicas of one another, not only in their physique, glimmer and (very little) wardrobe selection; but also in the way they moved—synchronized to perfection even as they waved to passersby with a left-handed flutter of the pinky-ring-middle-and-pointer. They practically danced in the middle of a four-way intersection, their location choice nowhere short of an accident. All lanes stopped; though clearly one of us had a green light. Red cheeks reflecting off windshields, slowly we’d have to pull ourselves away, but it was a standoff, and no one was quick to draw.
Funny, I have met bodybuilder identical twins before. “Excuse me…” It was the summer I worked at a hostel in Venice Beach. “Excuse me!” They came here from Spain solely to work out at Muscle Beach; I remember cleaning their room and it smelling like meat… “Excusery, yuwu cawnt take pictuwres of the art.” I turned, “Excuse me?” “You can’t take pictures of the art,” the young woman repeated, shouting toward me. Realizing my daydream of the boys had taken me from the room, I responded, “Oh sorry, would you like me to erase this one?” “No, no,” she said, “Just don’t take anymore. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the art in here.” “But it’s my friend’s, I thought it was OK.” “What?” I explained once again, “It is my friend’s painting—I thought it would be OK if I took a picture of my friend’s painting.” “No,” she jolted, “Under no circumstances is it OK to take pictures of the artwork.” “Again I am sorry, I can erase it if you want me to. Here, see, here’s the picture I took; I can erase this. No problem. I hadn’t seen any signs stating ‘No Photography’ when I’d walked in.” “You don’t have to erase it,” she repeated, “You just can’t take pictures in here, of the art. You can keep the image you took. Just don’t take anymore.”
Later that night I looked at the image I had shot of the twins. From the distance and the angle I had snapped it, the photo did them no justice. It didn’t take much research online to find out they are somewhat of an Internet sensation and that my awe was commonplace—“the ladies love them.” There was no need to hold onto and look closer at the unfocused photograph on my phone; the more I zoomed in, the less clear it all became.
My image didn’t get me as close as I wanted to anyway; not because the ordinarily dressed guard asked me to step back, but because the small framed works lay on their backs inside a wood-and-glass vitrine. Two sets of glass separating us.
Alexandra Grant and Steve Roden’s exhibition These Carnations Defy Language, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, was conceptualized with the artists musing over Francis Ponge’s Mute Objects of Expression, a collection of prose-poetry written between 1938 and 1944. In a time of inescapable war that threatened the existence of the entire human race, Ponge’s poems are contemplative and humorous; almost taxonomical in that their struggle with language while defining and situating the object portends trauma without disclosure, allowing for an undisturbed, located act of preservation. Ponge safeguards the simplest parts of life for future generations (this is soap), as if his voracious dedication to and understanding of the object could teach (this is a cigarette) what the everyday meant, describing what once existed (a frog) because surely everything was about to be destroyed. Yet, life did go on: charred buildings coated in grey dust and muted ash blended with the sky until the smoke went elsewhere, allowing light to hit the mangled debris and unbelievable new configurations of rubble. These spaces we stood in, we now stood on top of, and among; they were once planned, painted and constructed; they had to be stuck back together, placed upright and considered once more.
I had already spent some time resisting the didactics on the walls, curious if I could guess whose work was whose; trying to bypass the similarities and focus on the differences. Why, outside of obvious aesthetic commonalities, was this work, their collaboration, and conversation, relevant? Not just to viewers but to themselves? I compared particular gestures and marks taken from the much larger pieces of Grant’s with the thicker paint application of Roden’s. I tracked each artist in the room throughout the opening, both not surprisingly surrounded by people for the duration of the evening. Alexandra, a head taller than most, with a horizontal waxing-crescent smile that hovered above visitors’ temples, sleek grey hair tied back behind her ears, arms moving between embraces of multigenerational friends and colleagues with a subtle elegance. Steve, more reserved, hands hidden underneath his elbows, lip tucked in, saving his grin for introductions; a would-be anonymous figure, overlooked by a room full of familiar patrons suffering from prosopagnosia, waiting to be tipped off by the continuous and congratulatory waves and mouthed hellos of the in the know patrons, pointing to where this enigmatic flower rested against the wall.
The room, low-lit and saturated with work, allowed the game of who did what to only last for so long and at this point nobody wanted to play anymore. And so, I found myself back in front of the vitrines staring down at the small synergetic painting asking myself, Who did what?
The pink splotch seemed to be a good starting point. I had seen Alexandra’s paintings in her Antigone series a week earlier at the C.O.L.A. exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and this splotch seemed to match my memory of her mark; although a splotch is a splotch, and one may assume that anyone’s attempt at making such a splotch may result in an irregular-looking spot similar to the one I am carrying on about. However, if Roden assumed that Grant would eventually end with her signature pink splotch, perhaps he would, in order to take hold of the situation, intervene while it was his turn, and add this to the piece. He could mix-and-match some of Grant’s fluorescent paint when she wasn’t looking, and throw down a viscous glob of pink matter, victoriously deeming it not only finished but also renaming the splotch, a blotch! Not wanting to assume Roden to be the conniving type, I disregarded it as an unlikely scenario.
The small paintings consist of multiple parts glued to one another and since the lines do not bleed off of the separate pieces of paper, perhaps each artist created small works privately and then combined them when they were finished, presenting each other with individual scraps to be melded together. But then the question is, whose goes on top? The answer lies in the splotch, since it is where the eye rests; yet that seems too obvious (that is, if we concluded it was Alexandra). If the pieces were created apart from one another, then that would mean whoever’s contribution lay underneath was willing to cover almost half of what they had created; what would that artist gain by losing so much? Unless of course, they both worked on the same piece of paper, at the same time—yes! Sitting across from one another watching each other’s every move, passing the materials back and forth, exchanging just one brush, since the strokes are comparable in size. When the lines get a little quirkier, I attribute it to Roden; but at this point who knows. Perhaps the collaborative and soft nature of it all loosened Grant up; or is it Roden, who is a little more precise in his compositions, was it he who needed to be nudged a little? Still, it is hard to tell, as there is music on and things have gotten a little silly. “Is this your music?” she asks as she spins the tip of the bristles ever so slightly, creating an even thinner line, then hands over the brush, as he quickly dips it in the water and washes out her entire pattern—touché! That’s my move! You can have it! They dare each other more, but never interrupt each other’s turn. The brush always returns, giving the other one the chance to eradicate what it is that was just made. You covered my mark! You took my character! My heart! Don’t you dare go over that one! And he does. Oh yeah! She yells triumphantly, SPLOTCH!!!
But in actuality, when my mind is not wandering, I notice that the work of Alexandra Grant and Steve Roden is not aggressive or argumentative. Like Ponge’s writing during nearly apocalyptic times, their work mutually envelops one another while remaining inclusively gratifying for an audience that is in the midst of major social and political crisis and change. Their gestures admire, their accents comfort and I draw conclusions and spawn potential through contemplation. Although the majority of the work in the exhibition is not jointly created, it remains lusciously collaborative and installationally rich. The fluctuations in color and form charge the conversation rather than wear it out, making each of the two stars shine brighter than before.
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 something like a carnation.
Alexandra Grant and Steve Roden: “These Carnations defy Language” will be on display until Novemeber 1st at PMCA.