New York

Tim Roda

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 inventive 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 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 how to use it and being utterly perplexed by it. Roda captures the complex life of a child while still affording him his dignity and allowing him to be a real, singular child, rather than a symbol (which is how the images, although unsettling, avoid being exploitative): the child as the 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 Molière-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 record. This 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 lightbulb, 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