University Art Museum
By Bill Berkson
John Roloff is known for his site-collaborative ceramic installations, including the many forms of the "ship" his inclusive symbol that frame them. Roloff grew up on the Oregon coast and attended the University of California at Davis with the idea of becoming a marine geologist. Engaged with what geologists call the Picture (or Big Picture) of metamorphic planetary events within "deep-time" millennia, he explores that larger reality of piecemeal, vertiginous timescapes in a contemplative mood, not as a would-be scientist but sensibly, with an eye to its human and emotional implications. One aspect of his sculptural installation Vanishing Ship (Greenhouse for Lake Lahontan), 1987, was that of an observatory for glimpsing temporal activities in nature, a kind of tableau vivant of geologic process. Vanishing Ship expressed in a limpid image the slipperiness and vulnerability that inform both short- and long-term life on earth.
Conceived doubly along the lines of 19th-century English greenhouses and simpler lineaments of ancient seagoing vessels, the framework of the piece was a precipitous, mostly transparent glass and white-painted steel enclosure in the shape of the forward half of a sinking ship, mounted and sealed flush to the gallery floor. The ship tilted as it sank, pitched along the keel line at an angle like that of steeply dipped geologic strata. (It is the same angle taken by the upper-most ice floes in Caspar David Friedrichs painting Polar Sea, 1823-24.) Early on, the white metal struts showed orangish signs of corrosion, and those, together with the overall sense of glass seeming to tighten visibly between bent steel constraints, gave off a melancholic tingle.
Inside were silt, water, algae, rocks, and a gull feather, all gathered from Pyramid Lake new Reno, Nevada, a remnant of the Ice Age inland sea known as Lake Lahontan. (What is a gull feather doing amid this inland aggregate? An island in Pyramid Lake is an ancestral breeding ground for seabirds.) The rocks are tufa, a knobby calcareous deposit from the Pleistocene epoch. From a small cistern below floor level, up through two spray nozzles at different points along the keep, the water circulated; it dribbled down the inner faces of the glass panes, carrying silt to the muddy bottom where it pooled to a 1-inch depth. Interestingly, of all the parts of the piece, this mechanical drip system appeared the most improvised as well as the most immediately fragile.
Robert Smithson once wrote, apropos of monumental sculpture, "A million years is contained in a second, yet tend to forget the second as soon as it happens." Though the earth, with its intraconnections, maybe the center of everything that is our actuality, we tend to misremember actuality and concentrate instead on the culture that overlays it. Such a cultural solipsism causes us to forget that nature makes sense. In those terms, Vanishing Ship had a force of a pristine reminder, a compact hymn to actuality as much as a clear-eyed lament for humankinds stunted or otherwise waylaid, physiographic imagination.