Marking and Meaning: Reading the diagrams in texture

Textures in diagrams, maps, bar graphs, and charts are generally patterns used to separate elements. This is so a viewer does not confuse one thing for another. It is of enough critical importance that in 1939 The Journal of Geology published “Fabricated Diagrams,” a full technical guide to the use of texture, screens, and Ben Day patterns in the design of diagrams for photo-lithography printmaking.[1] Texture-in-diagram, however, is not diagrammatic texture. Instead, the following discussion is about texture as a diagram, the diagram in texture, in and of itself. Here I probe what texture is, the limits of its definition and its use, and I apply that, first, as an allegorical tool to better understanding contemporary commentary, and then as the essential nature of diagrammatic texture. With peeks at other artists and works, this is done through a survey of the work of contemporary LA artist Steve Roden who encodes all manner of information into his nonrepresentational art. By building an understanding of texture’s use and formal qualities and how to interpret texture in art and as art, you can read it as a diagrammatic artifact of its creation. But by looking at its use in the abstract art of Steve Roden, we can find the fundamental aspects of texture and apply it — truly as a diagram — to a larger context, beyond visual and tactile qualities, and we can understand the interplay between all manner of artwork and the social and societal contexts within and around them.

What is Texture

Texture is the label we ascribe to a form of our interactions with the world. They are the tactile qualities of objects we run our hands over, the food we savor, and the sights we take in. But textures aren’t the physical objects themselves, they are the perceptions of a material. They permit us to use one sense to feel-without-feeling how a different sense would understand the physical properties of a material. Rubbings and photographs contain such visual details, transcribed onto a flat surface, that we perceive tactilely. Through the transfer of surface details or the contrast of light in their captured visual field, we can understand at a distance the properties represented in each. In a drawing, we use the eye and mind to transform sights into renderings. The drawn marks and line work are used illustratively to convey physicality and dimension. The direction of lines in a sequence become indicators of the space, material, and surface detail being depicted.[2] And no matter their function, such marks contain aesthetic qualities which result from the hand, the tool, or the medium.[3] Mark-making is a fundamentally transformative act. It takes us from blank page to portrait or prose. But their creative use and generation insert even more transformative qualities into a work. We view and read these qualities kinesthetically and empathically. These are gestural marks; meaning that when we see them, they cause us to mentally mirror the motions or emotions that could create them.

Gesture translates into energy and behavior. It may be passive and delicate or bold and aggressive; it articulates directionality, rhythm, punctuation, and fluidity through repetition, variation, and pattern — clustering, dispersing, rising or falling, circulating, and so on. As marks accumulate, this gestural rhythm becomes an identifiable, fundamental part of the drawing’s form language. Further the specific nature of the gestural rhythm will contribute to the drawing’s narrative influencing the viewer’s emotional response to the message”[4] (Timothy Samara, Drawing for Graphic Design).

What is abstraction

As Samara suggests, gestural qualities can be understood as artifacts of motion and energy and as encodings of expression and non-semantic meaning; understanding these things is diagrammatic, deepening our view of art, artist, and context. To go any further, and to fully discuss textures as a diagram, we must have a discussion on the nature of abstraction. In philosopher James Flynn’s unfortunately-titled TED Talk, “Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’,” we find an explanation of why abstraction is both necessary and a natural result of complex thought. Flynn lays out the argument that an increasing affinity for abstract thought is the distinguishing characteristic between one generation and the generation of their grandparents or earlier. His case is that abstract thought is necessary for the difficult in-immediate, inanimate, and systemic problems that large, and especially digitally connected, societies face because concrete thinkers are limited by their individual experience and the immediate details of their environment.[5]

Being capable of abstract thought is to think about a thing — or a concept — in unreal ways, outside the confines of the ordinary. For example, fashioning tools from the environment requires abstract conceptualization of the materials around you and the problem to be solved. It is a fundamental aspect of the human process in understanding and describing the world. Language, for example, is inherently abstract. And it was concepts like zero, the absurdity of representing nothing as a quantity, that laid the foundation of algebraic mathematics. Similarly, “WYSIWYG” computer programs — What You See Is What You Get — allow users to create and place virtual objects effortlessly on, for example, a digital canvas rather than coding the object with commands, coordinates, and vertices. And coding in human-readable programming languages is, itself, several layers removed from the reality of a computer system’s binary switches and logic gates. It is this removal of reality that is the power of abstraction. Obvious once arrived at, but difficult to conceptualize before, abstraction is the complex made simple. As a process, it is filtering the innumerable and irrelevant details — shackles and constraints — so that focus and effort can be better directed.

Abstraction frees from one context that which can be useful in another, but it can have a wider meaning in art. Just at the onset, all art is a form of abstraction, and Abstract Art[6] can exist on a spectrum of non-representation or be attempts at uncovering the fundamental aspects of visual forms. Stephen Vitiello, for example, is careful in the process of creating his abstract sound work when it exists alongside visual art because the secondary role they could take on undermines the intention of his abstractions.[7] He wants people to discover the fundamental aspects of sound and of listening — a process we are too caught up in to even notice. Vitiello’s abstractions bring the act of listening to the forefront of attention and use it to elicit joy in the peculiarities of human interpretations of sound. Right at the surface level, this is diagrammatic. Diagrams are categorically abstract, and a diagrammatic use of abstraction in the arts applies these types of atypical representation as the means to remove one thing from its context and apply it to another. They can then transform our understanding and appreciation of everyday things like listening, a process which never ceases[8] but which we rarely consciously examine as a process.

Textural compositions

In contrast to Kandinsky’s recommendation that “texture must not become an end in itself,”[9] contemporary artists create “field compositions”[10]—a term in limited use by printmakers, but whose use has descriptive value here — which are purely textural works with no clear subject-ground relationship. Textural compositions have the dual distinction of being technically representational and formally abstract.

Just as the line is an artifact that tracks the multiple vectors of a tool,[11] the forms and masses of textures encode information about surfaces, sights, and states-of-mind. In transforming from one medium to another, or from flat to spatial perception, or even from the ephemeral into an artifact, an artist’s work becomes interpretable as a diagram. Artist Steve Roden’s 2005 drawing series, Surface Shifts, are the result of several studies of such “recording” marks. To create them, he attached paper to a steering wheel and then held a pencil against the paper as he drove.[12] Roden explains that he “wanted to create a drawing through the combination of bumps in the road surface and turns of the steering wheel — a kind of graphic map of the movements of [his] vehicle along a particular area of road; and a different kind of topographical notation, or recording process.”[13] Not unlike the work of Agnes Martin,[14] Roden’s “7:30 – 7:58 am” drawing (Figure 1) for Surface Shifts brings forward the characteristics of their making as the primary subject matter. On their own, the cluster of janky arcs documents their creation, while the series together develops a reflection of modern life.

Steve Roden is a painter and sound artist, and like Surface Shifts, his artwork — visual and sound alike — bridges the concepts of recording and abstraction. In his work, he translates and transcodes signals, light, sounds, and feelings through an iterative process of abstraction. He builds from marks and lines his textures that can convey softness or fervor, but which contain remarkable consistency in the qualities of their randomness. Consistency resulting from his structural rules and translations of source material into textures. Or consistency resulting, as critic David Pagel sees them, from the intensity with which Roden returns, again and again, to a piece to probe his assumptions,[15] and both interpretations understand Roden’s work as a diagram of his process.

In describing Roden’s 2016 exhibition, A Year Without Painting, Pagel wrote, “Space is fractured, its fragments dangerous. […] Despite the whiplash decisions that his paintings make palpable, it’s impossible to take them in quickly. They don’t let you off the hook, and they don’t let you get lost in the pleasure of the moment.”[16] But to understand Roden as a painter, we should look at the results of his 2013 experiments. It was then, through happenstance, that Roden switched from linen to canvas, and in the material-shift he discovered ways that it influenced the textural results of his paintings.[17] He recognized that his earlier paintings had “artifacts of layering mistakes over mistakes;”[18] becoming the textures that aesthetically defined his other paintings. But, the ways in which canvas absorbed his paint mixtures changed, fundamentally and completely, the results of his layering.[19] These accidents inspired the work of his exhibit, Ragpicker, which featured a series of lattice-like abstract paintings arriving out of layered “graphical marks” whose interactions generated the anchors for the next layer.[20] In one of the paintings, “Black Extendable” (Figure 2), Roden’s large strokes and geometric structures are layered repetitively and, altogether, convey a dense textural non-land-landscape with shifts of light and shadow, atmospheric obfuscation, and peeks of bright and dominate clarity. Each line traces out an interlocking web of spatial suggestion. Whereas the brush strokes in “Everything Crushed Underfoot” (Figure 3) build over each other unevenly. These layers atmospherically distinguish the top of the painting from the opaque forms, forcing them forward as a coherent midground and structure-like subject before the painting’s bottom half turns to a ruin of lines — straight smears of color that, as the title suggests, have been crushed underfoot. Roden’s layers upon layers of marks suggest an atmospheric depth, but in the interaction between his works this technique suggests a depth of expressive content. Pagel describes Roden as “a master of nooks and crannies;” that in Ragpicker “his abstract images and objects are suffused with a kind of mongrel melancholy whose resonance grows as you meander from one body of work to another.”[21] Taken together, the repetition of technique in each painting provides a focus for understanding them individually, as Pagel’s read of “desperation and hope”[22] in the Ragpicker paintings. In a sense, the textures in these pieces are the narratives of their compositions, and from their varieties coming together and departing, we can gain some form of the information they encode,[23] be it an intangible suggestion, a tactile recording, or Roden’s own “sensitivity to those overlooked things that have fallen through the cracks.”[24]

Diagrams of Dissonance: Texture in complicated roles

The interplay of texture and narrative in Life is Strange

Of a wholly different scope than Roden’s paintings, textures in video games come in the form of small files with repeatable patterns. There can be several types — supplying color, reflectivity, glare, translucency, and height maps of surface details — that are used by a rendering program to display a 3-D model and environment. They are typically in service of photorealism; however, in the 2015 video game Life is Strange, French developer DONTNOD used texture as part of an interplay between aesthetic and narrative. Each texture in the game is hand painted[25], an art style that contrasts with the game’s attempts to accurately portray contemporary youth subcultures.

While it was distributed by a major publisher, the game’s indie origins remain intact. It is a fascinating investigation of Hipster and Millennial culture, music, and mannerisms, and as a work the game serves as a marker of the issues that these groups care about. Players are saddled with meaningful decisions related to issues that are difficult for mass media to appropriately address. Topics like bullying, suicide, right-to-die, drug use, guns, rape, and murder — and not killing of faceless villains, but of emotionally connected characters. Most strikingly, an investigation of the characters and the plot reveals that the creator’s intention is to set-up and then subvert the personality archetypes that invade the real lives of media consumers through lazy writing and heavy reuse.

The game’s visual art style is developed along with these themes and goals, and it utilizes an impressionistic aesthetic in a way that reflects what authenticity means for the subcultures depicted in the story. By revealing brush and pen strokes from the hands of the game’s visual artists in everything from the environmental textures to the lettering in the game’s menus, the flaws and oddities of humans supplant digital and machine aesthetics. Which is to say that flawed representations can feel more real — authentic — than ones that look real. Co-director, Michel Koch, explains that “Life is Strange is heavily anchored in reality; the down to earth elements like isolation, social issues, friendship, family issues, [a] missing student… are keys to Life is Strange; it is our starting point and we are not telling a sci-fi story, but a realistic story with supernatural elements on top of it.”[26]

The impressionistic use of texture in Life is Strange denotes, not the physicality of the characters and stories, but the duality of the story’s narrative and the intervention of those trying to tell a story through the subversion and inversion of one-dimensional character tropes. The “soft” and “nostalgic”[27] textures are as equally counter-posed to the narrative’s discussion of contemporary issues as they are in support of their authentic portrayal. They create a stage on which to project ourselves, and one from which the story and the player’s own decisions can evoke an emotional connection between heavily politicized topics and our apolitical selves. And this is narrative texture; storytelling with a figurative tactility that harnesses our experiences and leads us to a new one. But the full diagrammatic picture of Life is Strange is not yet described.

Steve Roden’s silent obsession

To do that, we turn back to the work of Steve Roden. Specifically, his audiovisual work, like I Listen to the Wind that Obliterates my Traces, which also uses something unrealistic as a device for accuracy. I Listen to the Wind, takes Roden’s found photographs of Victorian and Edwardian life,[28] many with instruments, and plays alongside them sounds[29] that one may imagine — or that Roden imagines, or that no one could otherwise imagine — as the sounds that filled those photographed moments. In an interview with Randall Roberts, Roden muses that “there’s something very absurd about collecting images of something that’s not present in the photograph — which is the sound,”[30] but in doing so he anchors his “ode to silence”[31] in the reality of our experiences.

Conversely, Roden’s 4’33” paintings, which are paintings of John Cage’s silent musical score of the same name,[32] use an oppositional duality as a pause for introspection. “Listen (433)” (Figure 4) is a weaved grid of map-like lines that Roden painted as a depiction of the interpretive, participatory, and personal score of silence that is Cage’s 4’33”. What “Listen (433)” prompts us to ask is how such a structure can derive from 4’33”. Given what we know of Roden’s paintings, how he portrays artifacts and recordings, how can one view and understand the 4’33” paintings as such? Is the structure he presents arbitrary, or rooted in something of the experience of hearing or performing 4’33”, or rather is it rooted in reading the score instructions themselves?[33] In interpreting 4’33”, Roden presents a space for these types of musings and debate on abstract art. From them, we can probe if such concepts as the texture of silence — or even the texture of sound — are anything but useful allegories.

Acoustic textures

Both Steve Roden’s sound installations and Life is Strange make intentional choices to use sound texturally. Life is Strange incorporates licensed tracks and composer Jonathan Morali’s original score (and Morali’s own licensed music, as part of the band Syd Matters)[34] to provide acoustic textures. The “indie folk”[35] sound and music function as narrative exposition, dramatic reprieve, and as a footing within the cultural setting of the story. Unlike Life is Strange, Roden says “I’m not trying to build a narrative. I’m building a space.”[36] Which he does through reverb, hum, whistle, noise, and sometimes purely through awareness.

In collaboration with Stephen Vitiello and Jacob Kirkegaard, Roden brought “As If They Were Not There,” a performance of silent recordings­ including John Cage’s 4’33” —which, it is important to note, are not the same thing as nothing at all — to the Rothko Chapel in Houston.[37] In a conversation, transcribed and published in BOMB magazine, Vitiello said, “That was a case of listening to a building, listening to paintings, and also listening to each other. […] We were also very aware of how the physical presence of the paintings alters one’s emotional interaction with anything that goes on in that space.”[38]

If differences in contrast or surface height are visual and tactile texture, then acoustics are, demonstrably, the textures of sound. They convey a remarkable depth of information to a listener. Reverberations don’t just speak mathematically of the spatial and material qualities of an environment, we feel those qualities, and by listening we are grounded in that environment. Furthermore, architectural and electronic manipulations of acoustics transform a space from one variety to another, and so too is the spatial and functional context of a room transformed.[39] In the first few minutes of Life is Strange, when the main character puts on headphones to isolate herself from stress and bullies (and exposition), players aren’t just treated to Syd Matter’s To All of You, the feeling of their acoustic environment is transformed into hers. Through sound and music together, we are grounded spatially in the muffled environment of a fictional high school and emotionally in the trauma and confusion of the story’s protagonist. Without its music, Life is Strange would be disconnected from the culture it portrays and the cinematic story that unfolds at the behest of — and, as with life, in spite of — the player’s decisions. Not only disconnected, but truly lacking in the emotional color, dramatic reprieve, and unvoiced thoughts of the characters. The tight interaction of narrative, art style, and soundtrack informs the player with the complete, diagrammatic, function of the game. Roden also uses acoustic texture for world building. But instead of placing us in a narrative environment, he prefers to upset our own. For Roden, noises and sounds are like color palettes. “My process is really about interpretation — I am constantly reinterpreting seemingly finite information,” he explains.[40] His sound art mixes noise and rhythm in abstract compositions, forcing the listener into a mode of “reduced listening” — hearing sound only for its qualities as a sound, disconnected from any causal relationships.[41] With this understanding of acoustics, silence is like Bender and Marrinan’s concept of white space, a diagram that transposes elements into isolation so that they may be understood separate from their contexts.[42] In both his silent and not-silent sound art, Roden uses these inherent properties of sound perception to build spaces and mirror histories. In his installation, OTR, Roden’s process transformed a vinyl record’s “surface scuffs from repeated listenings and years of wear and tear”[43] into a score of noise and nostalgia.

What you are hearing are the processed sounds of the surface noise at the beginning and end of the record […] I was inspired by the noise as a kind of physical history of the object. […] I like the idea that this quiet, repetitive music is a kind of aesthetic mirror for all those nights my mother fell asleep listening to these records, the dark room humming with the minimalist rhythmic sound of a needle stuck in the last groove, endlessly circling the record label until morning.”[44]

His sound art, paintings, and sculptures bend our perceptions into a synesthesia; where anyone not paying attention sees a series of non-sequiturs and non-starters, we can have an existential experience born out of Roden’s curiosity of sense perception. Even in total silence, we hear our heartbeats, the rush of blood through our vascular system, and a peculiar hum from errant electrochemical signals in our auditory nerve and brain.[45] But what is truly diagrammatic of his acoustic textures — or anything that functions to represent the experience of reality — is that they prompt us to hear sound as sound. Which is, for a moment, peering outside Plato’s Cave, observing the filter between perception and reality and noting the fleeting nature of both.

The Silence Unnerved Me”

For several reasons, even beyond the themes of this discussion, I visited the Rothko Chapel. Sitting in that space, observing the subtle textures of Mark Rothko’s murals, I could hear every movement and breath of the other three people there. And I could hear my wife’s uncomfortable shifting — she would later remark that the silence unnerved her. As I listened, I noticed that stillness amplified everything — I noticed even the movement of air reverberated endlessly, becoming a pressure enveloping me from all sides. I have an unusual relationship with stillness, noise, and sound. When doing tedious work, I fill my senses with ambient noise, podcasts, and fidgeting as coping mechanisms against distraction. I also loathe being bored because all my life I have found silent moments to be torturous stretches of distorted time perception — a symptom called time blindness. But in trying to rid my life of such discomfort, I have found that boredom provides powerful moments for creativity and introspection — moments that will instead, should I not provide time for them, become unproductive restlessness and insomnia. Rothko Chapel’s sensory deprivation — and amplified perception — is a reminder that we all need to observe the nuance in the world around us and within ourselves. In Roden’s obsession with silence and abstraction, I see a call for us all to become more sensitive “to those overlooked”[46] and a cognitive map guiding us in the process of understanding the unappreciated, ignored, and metaphysical qualities of reality as it is presented and perceived by us. I see a guide I can use in my own life to practice and habituate self-awareness, and a means of consciously transforming the subjective quality of my experience as it unfolds.


  • [1] Ives, “Fabricated Diagrams.”
  • [2] Samara, Drawing for Graphic Design, 26.
  • [3] Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, 50; Samara, Drawing for Graphic Design, 26.
  • [4] Samara, Drawing for Graphic Design, 30.
  • [5] Flynn, Why Our IQ Levels Are Higher than Our Grandparents’.
  • [6] Art that is colloquially identified as Abstract Art.
  • [7] Roden and Vitiello, “Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello,” 37.
  • [8] Chion, Gorbman, and Murch, “The Three Listening Modes,” 25.
  • [9] Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, 53.
  • [10] Deutsch, “Printmaking, Lecture on Field Composition.”
  • [11] Samara, Drawing for Graphic Design, 26.
  • [12] Roden, Surface Shifts.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Martin, The Peach.
  • [15] Pagel, “With Cardboard, Tape and Hands, Steve Roden Paints ‘A Year Without Painting,’” para. 3.
  • [16] Ibid., para. 6.
  • [17] Roden, Rag Picker Paintings.
  • [18] Ibid., para. 3.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid., para. 6.
  • [21] Pagel, “Review,” paras. 4 – 5.
  • [22] Ibid., para. 7.
  • [23] Knight, “Encoded Creations.”
  • [24] Pagel, “Review,” para. 6.
  • [25] Baghadoust et al., Life Is Strange Reddit AMA with the DONTNOD team.
  • [26] Ibid.
  • [27] Ibid.
  • [28] Roden, I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces; Roberts, “Artist Steve Roden Blends Old Photos, Recordings on New CD.”
  • [29] Roden, I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces [DTD-20].
  • [30] Roberts, “Artist Steve Roden Blends Old Photos, Recordings on New CD,” paras. 11 – 12.
  • [31] Ibid., para. 12.
  • [32] Roden, 4’33” Paintings.
  • [33] It’s the last one, but one may still ask. It’s the philosophical questions that matter.
  • [34] Baghadoust et al., Life Is Strange Reddit AMA with the DONTNOD team.
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] Miranda, “Pull It Together, Take It Apart,” para. 5.
  • [37] Kamps, “Silence.”
  • [38] Roden and Vitiello, “Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello,” 35.
  • [39] Mars, “Reverb.”
  • [40] Roden and Vitiello, “Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello,” 35.
  • [41] Chion, Gorbman, and Murch, “The Three Listening Modes,” 24 – 34.
  • [42] Bender and Marrinan, The Culture of Diagram.
  • [43] AGF et al., “‘Splitting Bits, Closing Loops: Sound on Sound’: Contributors’ Notes.”
  • [44] Ibid.
  • [45] Muller, Can Silence Actually Drive You Crazy?; Mars, “Reverb.”
  • [46] Pagel, “Review.”