Nuts and Bolts

Last week saw the opening of Ken Kelly's show at the bright new Howard House, the opening of the library (oppressive with crowds, but still pretty magnificent), and the private opening of Bill and Ruth True's Western Bridge (see article right over there) at which I disgraced myself in about 30 different ways--but I'm not going to dwell on any of them.

Instead: I went to a slide presentation and exhibition by an artist about to graduate from the MFA program at UW. His name is Tim Roda, and his work is very weird: photographs of himself and often his young son inhabiting shadowy realms filled with piles of unidentifiable things: garbage, mirrors, masks, and sculpture. The images are dusky black-and-white, and moodily unstable; in one image taken in front of a grid of laths, Roda, bare-chested, wears a blond wig and an elephantine hand and his son, also bare-chested, an expression somewhere between delirious happiness and the beginning of tears.

The appearance of his son in his images is something Roda would rather not talk about. In his slide presentation the other night he noted preemptively that he's aware of the work of both Sally Mann (with her eroticized family) and Joel-Peter Witkin (with his tableaux of memento mori in extremis), which didn't stop an audience member from inquiring anyway (to which Roda responded, "It's intimate," and, "I don't make him do anything he doesn't want to do").

I encountered Roda's work first at Howard House's YSA!!! show this past January, for which he was nominated by Robert Yoder. And then a few months ago, I attended a midterm critique for the MFA ceramics students (a rather loose designation, by all definitions), and was captivated by Roda's indifference to any evidence of craft in his work. It was as if he'd gone out of his way to degrade the work as much as possible, which he admitted, but didn't seem to know, or want to tell me, why.

In his show last week, he had settled on a method of display: each photograph bolted to wood panels with big black screws, in some cases with the screws rather violently driven right through the body of the image. Roda told his audience he didn't care about craftsmanship, but that he cared about perfection. Which is an interesting proposition: that the perfection of the work lies elsewhere, literally outside the craft of the object, perhaps in the viewer. (You can see for yourself at the MFA show, which opens May 28 at the Henry.)

Among his influences, Roda counts Norman Rockwell, to be sure, in a rather twisted reading, but certainly one that's analogous. In Rockwell, family relations are played out over rituals that only seem familiar; Roda's work can be seen also as a series of father-and-son stories, and in the show's finest work, Roda prepares a sinister-looking operation for a man who turns out to be Doug Jeck, one of his teachers. Next to the operating table, with echoes of Richard Serra appearing in Cremaster 3, is Jeck's rather creepy sculpture Bodyguard. It left me quite rattled, although I could barely say why.

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