John Roloff

The 2nd Newport Biennial: The Bay Area, Exhibition Catalog, Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1986.
By Constance Lewallen

John Roloff’s Night Ship/The Frozen Sea series dating from 1983 is the culmination of a ten-year preoccupation with ceramic sculptures based on the shape of a ship. To create these evocative works, Roloff draws on diverse influences — his longstanding interest in marine geology, a love for nineteenth-century romantic landscape painting and the innovations of the American Earth Work artists.

The basic structure of the twelve Night Ship/The Frozen Sea sculptures is a 50-inch hull, cast from a single mold. Unmanned, and coated with fused silica resembling snow and ice, the dark and ghostly Night Ships suggest both the terror inherent in being adrift on frozen seas and images of once-submerged ships on whose surfaces trees, branches and other organic detritus have accumulated. Roloff also sees these works as landscapes, the black hulls floating beneath the surface of the land and the ornate superstructures as islands or reefs floating across the land.

Night Ship/Haystack (for Martin Heade) is a fanciful adaptation of landscape paintings by the nineteenth-century American artist. Many of Heade’s paintings portray haystacks along a winding river; in Roloff’s sculptural version it is as if the field had been flooded, leaving a haystack sitting precariously on a slender sand bar that has been carried off by a wrecked hull. As in all of the works in the series, this traveling landscape appears to have been transported from a warmer climate to a nocturnal, arctic state of spiritual despair.

Some of the processes used in making the Night Ship/Frozen Sea sculptures mimic natural fossilization. Roloff created the haystack, for example, by dipping hundreds of pine needles in slip clay. During the firing, the organic material is turned to ash, leaving only the clay shell. In a similar fashion, organic material (twigs, leaves) is used as an armature to create structure, form and texture in Night Ship/Storm Reef (one of the most densely encrusted pieces in the series) and Night Ship/Dark Current. The latter includes among its branches a small, overturned rowboat that emphasizes a sense of vulnerability and desolation. Disaster is even more strongly suggested in the simplest of the series, Night Ship/Wind Reef. The hull of this ship is thrust at a diagonal to the ground plane, as if the bow of the doomed vessel had become frozen in a snow-covered island.

Roloff’s fascination with the sea dates from his childhood and manifested itself in an ambition to become a marine geologist. Exposure to the freewheeling and intellectual atmosphere of the ceramics studio at U. C. Davis and introduction to nineteenth-century painting combined to convince Roloff that he was drawn more to the imagery and emotions he experienced in nature than by its scientific study. It quickly became evident to him, furthermore, that a close relationship existed between ceramic and geological materials and processes and that he could fulfill his fascination with geology through the ceramic medium. The materials used in ceramic glazing, such a feldspar, dolomite and kaolin, were the same materials, in a refined state, Roloff had learned about in geology classes and seen during extensive travels through the wilderness areas of the western United States. By the time Roloff had completed his graduate studies, the ship had become the central motif of his work. Of the myriad associations the ship brings to mind, none is more potent or relevant to Roloff’s work than the exhilaration and dangers of exploration into uncharted realms. Roloff recognized in the ceramic process of from-making and firing an apt analogue for his own artistic adventures. The intense heat of the kiln, comparable to conditions at the earth’s core, transforms the clay object into a state of permanence, but the final result carries with it a degree of unpredictability that Roloff, like Zen artists, chose to exploit rather than control.

The darkly poetic Night Ships, redolent with morbid associations, evoke in the viewer the same kind of emotions awakened by the most profoundly romantic of the American landscape painters, Albert Pinkham Ryder. The black encrusted hulls of Roloff’s ships echo the thickly painted and textured surfaces of Ryder’s paintings of lonely boats under moonlit skies. Indeed the discoloration and cracking of the Ryder paintings that have occurred over time are analogous to the artificial aging of Roloff’s ships caused by the firing process. For both artists, each work is not so much a record of nature as an introspective and emotional journey.

I was an example of Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and other Earth Work artists of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that reinforced Roloff’s need to move beyond the object and into the landscape. In an unprecedented series of large outdoor works begun in 1979, Roloff carried explorations of the geological processes he had been using to create his miniature landscape into large-scale environmental works. In Mountain Kiln/Black Orchid (1982), Roloff constructed a 28-foot-long bottomless ceramic fiber kiln in the shape of a mountain. He lined the earth underneath, formed as an immense five-petaled orchid, with glaze materials. After the firing — a spectacular event in itself — and the removal of the steel armatured kiln, the flower image remained scorched into the earth.

If Roloff’s ship objects deal with historic time, his environmental works deal with geologic time and raise questions about nature in art and man’s intervention into nature. Smithson’s interest in the relationship of art and the world, as opposed to art isolated by its internal relationships, acted as a catalyst for many artists who wanted to create public work that would related not only to the physical environment but to cultural and historical factors of the site as well. Roloff addresses such issues in his current projects for Candlestick Park, San Francisco. In one proposal, Red Wake/Ghost Ship, the ship image is formed by a 120-foot-long grove of white trees, recalls the nineteenth century ships long buried beneath the site. Another proposal involves the creation of a 90-foot-diameter, 35-foot-high volcano-like mound made of rubble from the site. White shells would cascade from the peak to the shoreline, enveloping a concrete version of a typical boat used by the Ohlone Indians (the original inhabitants of the site). The mound would contain a working fire pit for public use.

Although for several years now, Roloff as regarded the ceramic ships a miniature, floating landscapes that served as small-scale laboratories for more ambitious projects, his current thinking goes beyond the scale and scope of the ceramic medium. He recognizes that working only in the confines of a studio can trap and artist "within the limits of ‘craft,’" as Smithson once wrote. Roloff recently destroyed the 50-inch hull mold to prevent its becoming a limiting factor in future explorations.


Constance Lewallen is a curator at the University Art Museum, U. C. Berkeley.