Review: Steve Roden music with Rothko painting exhibit at MOCA, Pacific Design Center, 1/21/07.

Big rectangles of layered color. Spaces your mind can fall into. You know: Mark Rothko. If you want music with that, Steve Roden is the perfect choice. Installations are his sphere.

Eight Rothko paintings from the ‘40s and ‘50s were mounted in MOCA’s flower-pot mini-tower at the Pacific Design Center through January 21; visiting them was a churchlike experience, as you could tell from visitors’ meditative gaze, the opposite of what you’d see at a big-exhibit circus. On the last two days only, Roden’s loop of spare sound kept company.

The quiet music, fading in as you climbed the stairs to the gallery, prepared your mood for chapel entry. Standing before each canvas was like traversing the stations of the cross; as your breath deepened and regularized according to the unstated physical motivations Rothko tapped, you were aware (but not too aware) of Roden’s complementary sound art. There were drones, such as a single sustained piano note processed so that its timbres slowly mutated as it faded. A violin played a simple melody line and went away. Sensual electronic pings made subtle impact, like tonal drips of water. Sounds overlapped and melted into each other. Subliminal beauty.

The paintings themselves proved that flat surfaces and armless images can beckon. The ones with the darker bands at the top, which should have seemed more oppressive, actually stimulated lightness and liberation, while the nether-weighted Purple Brown made the heart skip and the head spin. These two basic forms stood as solid evidence of two human conditions Rothko marked as essential to art: ecstasy and tragedy. His third essential, destiny, was present as well. He made you feel it, even if you couldn’t know it. (Greg Burk)