John Roloff

Arts Magazine, April, 1992
By Jennifer R. Crohn

The psychological resonance in Oakland-based artist John Roloff’s sculptures and plans for site-specific sculptural events has to do in part with his exploitation of the power of fire, but it is history, as a nearly eternal tale of transformation by oxidation (in combustion, decomposition and carbon fixation), which he elucidates via examples in human as well as geologic time. In one branch of his work, large, hollow, refractory cement sculptures are fired at night outdoors using propane gas. This results in artifacts analogous to those made by naturally occurring events, specifically in that they are transformed at a molecular level by a force (inconceivably hot fire) that is literally fundamental to existence as we know it.

If the titanic aspect of his work initially seems somewhat Wagnerian, it may be because Roloff tangentially shares certain mythological referents with the composer of Der Ring des Nibelungen. He does not however, share Wagner’s accession to the mythological constant in which all things are framed in human terms. Instead of anthropomorphizing nature, Roloff allows it some distance from human importance, placing human industry, life, and death in the same category as the evolution and extinction of species of flora or bodies of water and land.

Several big, mixed-media-on-photograph depictions of projects for as-yet-unrealized firings, a triptych of oxidized images of sailing ships, and two sculpture installations comprise Roloff’s exhibition at Paule Anglim. Among the two-dimensional works are images of burial and (implied) emergence: Study mit Max Taut: Wissinger Tomb Furnace Underground/Orchard shows a subterranean vault with flues extending above the ground into a cluster of trees. Study mit Grünwald: Falling Knight Furnace/Forest depicts a similar construction; however, an enormous figure lies suspended by flues and gas lines face down in the sepulchral space, its skin alight with the glow of fire coursing through its body. Knight confronts the subject of death and interment by violating a canon of adjectives commonly associated with the cessation of life. The "cold earth" is here blazing hot; the "suffocating darkness," replaced by a raging yellow glow, is hardly quiescent. One can imagine the roar of combustion as a kind of incubation or as an indicator of metamorphosis, but not as an absolute ending.

A triptych, Study: Orchid Eclipse, similarly life-affirming, to the extent that "life" can be characterized as a succession of formal transfigurations, of geologic processes inseparable from organic ones: in a swamp, Roloff imagines, is a small island from which whose center rises an orb flanked by pinnate petals suspended in the act of opening. This orb — evidently derives from the bathysphere, or "oculus" employed elsewhere in his work — is tinted yellow to indicate the glow of combustion, as gas lines would apparently be run to its interior, the "orchid," to be baked from within.

Roloff’s events and artifacts are made whole and connected to mortal concerns in the act of witnessing — hence the bathysphere/eyeball associations to be drawn from Abyss#2 (plain), an orb embedded with tufts of pine needles and blackened with carbon suspended on a blackened cord a few inches above a blackened substrate inside a vitrine. Time is incorporated into some pieces, which are designed to change as they age. Metafossil (metabolism and mortality) Pinus: ponderosa, balfouriana, radiata, for instance, is a triad of sculptures comprising needles and cones from three species of pine tree embedded in sooty refractory cement molded into shapes of ships’ prows. These are poised in such a way as to suggest the works are sinking into the floor. But they don’t immediately or irrevocably read as ships — they also look distinctly like strata being forced up and out of surrounding rock, or like enormous webworm pupae. As the works endure the forces of light, air, and presumably erosion, the organic bits will break down, leaving a "metafossil" for a remainder; here, decomposition substitutes for ignition, both processes involving oxidation.

Roloff once studied to be a marine biologist before becoming a ceramist, so it may not be suprising that in reasserting art’s capacity to inspire awe, he draws its power to do so most heavily from scientific rather than traditional mythological sources. In the new "mythology" his work proposes, discovery subverts dogma and poetry replaces faith. Instead of dully resigning his imagination to the assumption that understanding of natural phenomena depletes the world of magic; Roloff stages demonstrations in which the inverse is shown to be true, leaving behind events and objects whose associative qualities span or leap, magically suspended, between the need to know and the need to believe (Paule Anglim, San Francisco, January 7-February 1)