Tim Roda | Reviews

The Seattle Times
Primal meets parody in Tim Roda photo show at Greg Kucera
by Michael Upchurch

Review in Modern Painter

Introducing Tim Roda by Dan Torop

Daniel Coney Fine Art
January, 2010

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-mache 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.

–– Emily Hall

Tim Roda, Untitled #141, 2007, 33 x 38" Gelatin Silver Print

Family participates in compelling images
By Gayle Clemans / Special to The Seattle Times
Friday, January 27, 2006

In your family photographs, there are probably lots of smiling faces, some vacation scenes, kids playing and important family events. In Tim Roda's photographs of his family, there are hints of danger, layers of meaning, fragmented narratives and a collision between fact and fiction. Roda's recent large-scale, black-and-white photographs, on view at Greg Kucera Gallery, are beautiful and alarming.

It's not always entirely clear what's going on in Roda's photographs. At first, some of them seem like enlarged, candid scenes from the Roda home - in one photograph, Roda's son, 7-year-old Ethan, sits on the floor of his room playing with little figures of knights and dinosaurs and castles and ... a crucifix? And whose big bare feet are hanging off the edge of the bunk bed? Incongruous elements fill Roda's images, making us aware that these are actually staged events - conceptual and visual installations, filled with props and symbols, constructed for the camera.

Usually Roda assembles his sets in a day, filling them with materials such as concrete blocks, scrap lumber and various household items - the interplay of these materials is visually engaging and often mysteriously symbolic. After the installations are ready, Roda's family members perform a generally preconceived event or moment, which is photographed by Roda's wife, Allison.

It's good that the sets and props are often very obviously artificial; otherwise, you might wonder how healthy it is for Ethan to participate in these quasiperformances. In one photograph, Ethan wields a pair of large hedge clippers as his dad holds out the grossly elongated neck of a very fake-looking clay bird. Even with the staginess, the suggestion of violence can be disturbing. None of the family members seems particularly happy in these weird and wonderful images. Roda has placed himself in similar territory as Sally Mann, who was criticized for years about her practice of photographing her children in seemingly inappropriate situations.

As with Mann's work, there is also a larger conceptual framework supporting these occasionally disturbing family images. Roda has written that his work is "filled with reverberations of [his] own memories of childhood and family traditions." Roda uses multiple, vaguely symbolic props and familiar settings to encourage you to connect with your own family memories. Like memories, the images are narrative but not completely so; they're filled with sharp visual moments and elusive, fragmented meanings.

Based on the immigrant background of Roda's grandfather, there is a strong current of working-class imagery and tone. Roda often takes on the role of laborer or hunter-provider; we see him with a shotgun, with welding tools, hauling things on his back. Seen in this light, the menacing image of Ethan poised to decapitate the fake bird suggests a tradition of a father passing skills of survival down to his son.

The works are also visually stunning. Roda makes very effective choices in composition, texture and lighting that both compliment the gritty character of the subject matter and that create pleasing, elegant effects. Even the more deliberately gritty scenes contain formal elements - such as a balanced composition or a pleasing repetition of cylindrical forms - that soothe the eye. One image in particular stands out as a stunner: Roda, in black formal attire, and Allison, in white, dance in a long, empty, run-down loft. Again, there is an undercurrent of potential danger - the graceful couple is barefoot and the wood floor is strewn with rough boards and debris.

Roda's technical process is appropriately slapdash and abrasive. He roughly cuts the borders of his images so that they look torn and abused and he allows or even creates chemical splashes and other technical flaws. This treatment of the pictures adds to the atmosphere of his working-class environments and handmade props. Much like the piling up of props and the multiplicity of narratives, the idea of labor is layered into the photographs.

But the overall allure of his images is their strangeness and their familiarity. You can identify with the household settings or familial moments, and you can begin to piece together meaning. But the symbolism seems personal to Roda and the possible meanings are endless and precarious.

Father Knows Best
Tim Roda Photographs His Family
By Jen Graves / THE STRANGER, Jan 19-25, 2006

Tim Roda's latest photographs are hot, muscular, witty, and can't be trusted. They push you around and then apologize. They promise you everything but keep the best of the secrets. Nearly every time they say something serious, they were only kidding. I don't like them. I do love them. And so do a lot of other people, because they're going like crazy at Greg Kucera Gallery, the little red "sold" dots piling up salaciously next to their untitled titles.

Roda is a 28-year-old graduate of the University of Washington's MFA program. He more or less stormed the scene in 2004 when he had his first solo show at the gallery, called Family Album. The current show, in a telling revision, is just called Photographs. It stars a young couple, which happens to be Roda and his wife, Allison, and their 7-year-old son, Ethan - photogenic all - in a series of black-and-white, grainy scenes that look part Blair Witch Project, part Grand Guignol. The stylistic resemblance to documentary imagery is unmistakable, yet the dingy, cluttered scenes are, upon closer inspection, meticulously arranged by the artist. And the action is absurd and surrealistic. Tim disinterestedly inspects a large toy camel with one hand and holds a shotgun in the other while Ethan stands under a bright light, ominously wielding a carrot, sharp end up. Or Tim, in a fat suit, chomps on a burger while Ethan explores a mound of dirt while wearing a scuba mask.

At first glance, it looks like Roda is exaggerating and perverting family life to reveal its malignancies, like picturing a raging domestic subconscious. If only his subversions were that simple. Instead, he is toying with the temptations of photography itself. He provides a mess of information - each scene looks like a construction zone, with scattered lamps, hidden objects and industrial detritus - but much of the information is distraction. Faced with the dense traffic of the imagery, it isn't possible to figure out which roads are dead ends - which details are artifice as artifice, and which are artifice as code. Ultimately, Roda's photographs promise, then withhold, knowledge. The realities of these relationships, identities, even these moments, are only seen in glimpses.

Roda, a native of Pennsylvania, doesn't live in Seattle anymore. He moved last fall to New York, where more of this series plus earlier works are on display at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Inc. in Chelsea. The earlier photographs are similarly gritty and brash, but smaller, and pinned brutally to plywood chunks, rather than tamed by thin black frames. Roda offsets the obedient framing in the latest series by hacking with scissors at the photographs' edges, double-casting the works as dusty, matte-paper superflats and sculpture, too. He is nothing if not devoted to dramatic tension.

An unfortunate drama presented itself in the place where he made these photographs, in and around the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. The Rodas spent nine months there in 2004 and 2005 for an artistic residency (Roda was once a ceramic sculptor). Ethan's playdates began falling through when the conservative community realized the Rodas were making unusual photographs instead of pottery and failing to attend church. Some of the darkness in the works can be seen as a representation of the sinister view the Montanans had of their interlopers. Social claustrophobia circumscribes the images, hunkering down around the question of whether Roda is exploiting his family by using them in his art. If at first it seems he is, look again. These three are a closed circle. Above all, the series can be seen as the work of a protective father obscuring his family as much as revealing them. (It also represents a successful breadwinner in action.)

Photographers such as Sally Mann and Diane Arbus come to mind in this context, but Roda's images are frozen performances - shot by pressing a button on a 10-second timer - and they have additional resonances in theater and music, especially the family business of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players and Fiery Furnaces.

The fact that these stagings are family events for the Rodas produces a hunger for the slightest sentimentality, which Roda mostly starves. A certain gravitas appears in its place. Tim kneels at Allison's parted bed curtains as Ethan is apparently leaving her side. Tim, wearing an apron, serves dinner to Ethan, whose eyes are closed and whose cute little tilted head is framed, angelically, by two lit candles.

Ethan is our stand-in. Both as the subject in an artist's photograph and as a 7-year-old in his parents' family, there are things he doesn't, and can't, know. It's still good to be a part of it. Recommended

Tim Roda Photographs
By Suzanne Beal / The Seattle Weekly, Jan 25-31, 2006

Talk to a sibling about an event from your childhood, and you are likely to be surprised. Memory, even within the same clan, is subject to myriad interpretations. One way to forever fix a family's history is to take plenty of pictures. Tim Roda has re-created the past with a series of large-scale photographs in which he, his wife, and their young son are protagonists in scenes inspired by Roda's forebears. Although fictionalized, the photographer's imagery reads like cinema verité - right down to the gritty texture of randomly taken snapshots. Closer examination, however, reveals masterfully composed images made up of deeply symbolic elements. Oftentimes ceramic structures pose as body doubles for hard-to-find props: in Untitled #39, for example, the artist appears riding on the back of a life-size, hand-crafted camel, a biblical allusion to the artist's Catholic upbringing. Untitled #63, in which the artist readies to slit the improbably long elongated neck of a clay chicken, hearkens back to his childhood memories of raising (and slaughtering) fowl. The star of Roda's productions, however, is his son, now age 7, who for the past three years has appeared either centrally or clandestinely in Roda's photographs. Think he's missing from Untitled #41, a work that refers to the artist's ailing grandfather? Look again. Small hands appear from behind a large-scale image of the elder man's face, where they cling to two-dimensional jowls. This picture also incorporates an outline of a body that frames a hanging stopwatch - a droll allusion to the passing of time, family heirlooms, and the grandfather's faulty "ticker." Spanning generations with a single flash, Roda makes his own history.

Portrait of a Family Snapshot
by Carrie E.A. Scott

The photograph is of a family. A child is in the corner and a man, presumably his father, rests at his wife's bedside. A cat sits on the bed cleaning itself. The scene is not unusual. It might be a cliche, a typically sad family portrait wherein something is going terribly wrong.

Untitled #60

But despite this, despite the long tradition of demoralizing family portraiture in American Art, in this particular photograph the subtleties overpower the formulaic. The man's skin stretches hungrily across his back, exposing every rib and vertebra. The wife is lost, her body so small you can hardly see its shape under the bedcovers, her face so delicate it's hard to tell if her eyes are closed or open. And the child faces us, his audience, but his shaded expression is ambiguous like every other detail in the photograph, all dangling in front of us without fully exposing a straightforward narrative.

Such is the nature of Tim Roda's artwork. From his successful debut show at Greg Kucera Gallery in 2004, to the work now hanging in both Manhattan's Gasser & Grunert Gallery and again at Kucera until the 11th of February, Roda's been constructing portraits of his own family for several years.

In one shot you see Roda serving his son breakfast, in another he's dancing with his wife. Somewhat like Norman Rockwell's eerily still dinner tables or Diane Arbus' disconnected photographs of family life in the 1960s, these black and white prints are delicately hovering between total fabrication and heartbreaking honesty.

The scenes themselves are easy enough to describe, but the narrative that is strung across the work which is both vividly playful and painfully dark is not nearly as straightforward. The stories are blurred and seem set in another era. Some evoke the turn of the last century. Others are pregnant with symbols from the 1980s. In one shot, Roda's son plays with HeMan figures. In another, Roda uses some sort of an industrial-age machine.

That the era is ambiguous makes perfect sense; Roda uses his wife and son to reenact moments from a childhood he is still trying to make sense of.

Appropriately, details in the photographs are exaggerated as built from the memory of a child. Untitled #63, for example, shows Roda and son about to cut the grossly elongated neck of a fabricated goose. The image, lifted from memory, references Roda's interaction with his father at the slaughter. In the photographic re-enactement, the artist's long unfulfilled desire to assist comes across in the form of the son, who holds garden shears, at the ready to cut the animal's neck while his father performs the procedure alone. The son, like Roda was, is seemingly ignored.

In Untitled #78 Roda is bent over. His wife is holding a huge tube, dressed in sanitary gowns, and poised to violate him. Roda is the first to admit to this boyish memory of a time when worms were pervasive in his family. The routine examinations are embroidered here, the tube enormous, the son's face shocked as he watches.

While the photographs rework a personal history, the conditions of Roda's modern family also bleed into the images. Last year they lived in Helena, Montana while Roda did a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. Though this famous ceramic center is located in one of the more progressive towns in Montana, the Roda's were somewhat ostracized once the artist's work was shown there. His son's isolation comes across in every image from that series. Though always photographed with at least one of his parents, the boy is repeatedly secluded from the action; no one ever touches him and his glance is usually away from the camera lens.

That Roda's images pivot back and forth between salient truths garnered from the memory of a child and the life his family is now living is testament to his fearless subject. Using a truly universal theme "the family" Roda captures a painful but poignant truth: We all spend a great deal our adult lives trying to make sense of what happened in our youth and, indeed, we use the families we make as adults to reprocess the things we went through as children. In short, Roda's work uses the family he has made to sort through the undigested moments of a family that made him.

In Seattle Galleries: Roda's pictures move the heart and soul

If Tim Roda were a horse, he'd be the favorite. His roughly scissored, black-and-white photos featuring himself, his wife and small son made him an instant notable after graduating from the University of Washington with a master's of fine arts degree in 2004.

Ceramics was his academic focus, and sometimes ceramics pop up in his prints: elephant trunks, kiln rubble, figurine curios. His photos are stage sets that imply a play. I resisted their appeal. The roughing-up-your-photos strategy seemed like a ploy, not crucial to the product, as with the Starn Twins. And as for staged photos that explore personal identities, let's say the field is crowded.

Resolving to cast a cold eye on his second solo show at the Greg Kucera Gallery, I changed my mind midway through the viewing experience, finally realizing that Roda's burlesques are true to themselves, powerfully staged and inhabited.

The print of himself dancing with his wife in a construction site with their child blurry amid the house beams, and the image of the three of them slumped together asleep in their traveling clothes, say volumes about intimate relationships without saying a word. His work's about love, and family love in daily life's tough grind is rare content in contemporary art.

Hell Is for Children: Tim Roda's Family Matters
Tim Roda Greg Kucera Gallery by Nate Lippens
The Stranger, August 12 - August 18, 2004

Childhood is a narcotic for artists, especially traumatic childhoods. Cut wrong or mixed in ill-advised combinations, the stuff can be deadly. But in the right dose it's powerful, transcendent, and frightening. Tim Roda, a recent MFA graduate from the University of Washington, in his potent and fully formed debut exhibition at Greg Kucera Gallery, knows exactly how much is enough. His black-and-white photos are gritty, tough, and a little shocking; there's a visceral punch and immediacy to them that subsides into deep unease. He's also judicious and smart enough in his distribution of the hard stuff to keep us wanting more.

TIM RODA Powerful, transcendent, and frightening.
Photo by Alice Wheeler

His work draws on his eccentric childhood as the youngest of four children in an Italian family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who raised and slaughtered their own food, and on his current family life as a young married father. The untitled photographs feature Roda, his wife, and his son, but they aren't rotely diaristic snapshots. The installations are meticulously composed in his studio with the deliberate symbolic weight of Old Masters' paintings, a traditionalism off-balanced by a thrown-together feel that recalls the thrift-store sets of Jack Smith's experimental films, such as Flaming Creatures. Roda uses mirrors, doubles, pictures within pictures, geometric constructions, and lighting to create a world that is part indelible childhood memory and part claustrophobic parallel universe. The presentation of the work eschews any preciousness. The black-and-white photographs on fiber matte paper are mounted to plywood with screws, some strategically placed to appear to pierce a hand or suspend a prop in an image.

The pictures embody the heightened art of balancing everyday domestic clutter over a pit of existential darkness, conjuring a tension that operates on levels big and small: You experience the discomfort of being a guest at another family's dinner table, where you suddenly sense barbs beneath coded banter. It's life mediated by art's inherent artificiality--its self-awareness--but retaining the ineffability of both.

One photo depicts a makeshift table made of a board suspended between sawhorses. Roda sits in black underwear looking at the camera; at the knees, his legs turn into clay that's stretched the length of the table, ending in misshapen feet with crooked toes. The boy stands beside the table looking at his father with a mixture of petulance and curiosity. Another photo has Roda's son yelling into a giant cone that functions as a megaphone, with Roda sitting in a cone hat that resembles a dunce cap, looking unruffled and uninterested in what his son is saying. It's the perfect, surreal exaggeration of a son's unheard story, being ignored by a father.

The relationships between boy and man, and father and son, and their relationships to their shared history, are at the heart of the work. Roda appears shirtless, in wigs, in a cowboy hat, never quite in control, always a bit disempowered, adrift and sad alongside his son whose big brown eyes make him the viewer's entry point to the work; he is the soul of the pictures. Yet Roda evades cheap horrors or exploitation as well as sentimentality. By maintaining its enigmatic quality and shifting emotional alliances--no one is having an easy time of it--the diary is larger than his life and his family. It's also more startling than any realist presentation could be because the viewer can't switch over into social-worker burnout mode: I've seen this before a hundred times; I just can't feel it anymore. We are engaged in decoding the pictures and open ourselves up in the process.

While the easiest reference point may be the photography of Sally Mann, who infamously used her sometimes naked children in her work, Roda's photographs couldn't be more different. He is, first and foremost, an installation artist who uses performative techniques to create tableaux. What is most striking, especially in one photograph where he wears a blond wig and a blank yet slightly sinister expression while his son stands beside him crying, is how the people in the photographs don't appear posed; it's as if they have been snapped--documented--while in the process of their lives. Except the lives depicted in the scenes are not real life; they are heightened memories, personal my thologies slightly perverted, that are part diaristic, part fantastic: The images are frozen and distorted over time. They seem to be becoming something else. They are coded and corrosive. In other words, they are a lot like family life.

by Matthew Kangas, special to The Seattle Times
The Seattle Times: Visual Arts Friday, August 20, 2004

Two young artists, Mark Newport and Tim Roda, have sensational new shows at Greg Kucera Gallery this month. Although both interpret the human figure, they are very different.

Newport hand-knits larger-than-life costumes of comic-book superheroes and meticulously beads and embroiders comic-book covers. Roda creates ominous black-and-white photographs of adults and children in bizarre, cluttered interiors. Together, they present two of the most thought-provoking and visually compelling exhibits of the summer.

Astoundingly, Roda, 27, just finished at the University of Washington graduate school of art. Already a mature artist with a complex, deepening vision of parent-child relationships and the artificially constructed nature of photography, Roda's solo debut is a major event. His completely original talent slyly draws in the viewer with oddly lit scenes of people in cramped and crowded domestic environments. Cheesy patterned wallpaper, skewed corners with deep perspectives and facial expressions of fear and confusion combine to disturb and unbalance the unsuspecting viewer.

What is going on in these pictures? Dream worlds of animals, toys and garage-sale remnants are the theatrical props for the people Roda situates in confining sites. Using family members and friends like actors, the photos distantly recall Sally Mann and Diane Arbus, famous black-and-white photographers whose work seems to prey upon the innocent models as much as on the viewer.

As a result, the stories implied within each shot are enigmatic and multi-layered, like a Faulkner short story. Roda's artistry is such, however, that precise titles like "The Last Italian Supper with My Mother" or "The Farmer, the Wife, My Mom and Me" (both 2004) deceive us into thinking these are part of real life. Far from it, the complicated compositions with diagonal wood scraps, windows and doors, and draped cloth make up a completely imaginary world that one wants to observe but is afraid to enter.
- Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company