by Renny Pritikin
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explains how trees communicate through chemical messaging below ground and through the air. John Roloff makes a similarly audacious assertion. For the past 50 years, he’s made art about how our planet is a network that transcends the dichotomy between living and non-living things. Our world, he writes, is “a symbiotic merging of physical matter and living systems across geologic time.” Sentient Terrains, his current exhibition, manifests those ideas in sculptural form. Roloff, it’s worth noting, majored in geology and ceramics at UC Davis, and like another Bay Area geologist/artist, Trevor Paglen, has built a career based on his scientific training.
In his 1980 piece Land Monitor/Fired Volcanic Boulder, Roloff built a large outdoor kiln in the shape of the Civil War ironclad ship, the Monitor. At the peak temperature inside the kiln, at night, he removed the outer skin of the oven, revealing the molten iron and magnesium basalt inside. The intense heat and glowing magma enabled viewers to physically encounter the conditions that created the earth. The event took place outside Albuquerque in sight of an extinct volcano. The cooled remnants of that event form a public artwork in Roloff’s signature shape: a ship seen from above. He has made dozens of permanent and temporary works throughout the U.S. and Europe investigating vulcanism, site-specificity, history, geology and environmentalism. It’s a heady cocktail that Roloff has mastered, evidenced by the presence of his work in the collections of the National Museum of American Art and SFMOMA.
This exhibition features another kiln work, Deluge Radiant Sleep/Helium Ash (1994), represented by a video. It dominates the gallery with the roaring sound of its flame emerging from the large spherical object. I take this to be a central icon of Roloff’s practice, analogous to the sun’s burning of hydrogen which sustains life on earth: All the elements in the world and our bodies come from the sun’s exploding hydrogen, whose heat and light, in combination with those elements, keep us alive. Roloff’s practice encapsulates that sublime power, at once overwhelming and hypnotic.
For Roloff, the ship embodies human culture in that it represents a transformation of natural materials into functional tools — an essential human activity whose byproducts – industry, resource extraction, oil spills, labor exploitation – also happen to be killing us. A dramatic triptych titled Sediment Ship (Internal Wake/Migration Study (2023) stands as a simple but moving evocation of this theme. It consists of three 4 x 8-foot glass panels leaning against a wall. Each carries a ship made of unglazed clay, angled diagonally to imply movement seen from an aerial perspective. What might it represent? Here, the work of Alan Sekula (1951-2013) and that of the team of Newton and Helen Harrison provide relevant analogies. Sekula used photography and text in the 1980s and 1990s to describe how geography and capitalism determined the industrialization of shipping and its impact on labor and the oceans. Newton (1932-1922) and Harrison (1927–2018) studied how social practices impacted the land and shaped communities in information-dense installations. Roloff, working with the same material, draws out its inherent poetry. He argues for an aesthetic understanding of commerce within the context of a planetary history, stretching back in time and far into the future. All these artists recognize the contradiction between that essential activity and its devastating environmental toll.
Biotic Knight Witness (1996-2023) depicts a life-sized photograph of a suit of armor set between two leaning glass sheets; it calls to mind Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, which sandwiched a variety of objects between glass panes, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s functioning robot (1495), which a NASA scientist called the first programable analog computer. Given Roloff’s interest in the parallel evolution of humans and animals, it may also be analogous to the exoskeletons of insects.
Roloff extends this idea of a conjunction between humans, animals and minerals in a series of large satin flags, each containing enlarged images, to point out the nearly identical appearance at the microscopic level between, for example, human hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll and hematite (an iron oxide mineral) and hemoglobin, among others. Turban/Coal/Witness/Séance (1966-2023), a large diptych, shows a photo of a woman’s painted face next to an image of a lump of coal that resembles a human countenance, demonstrating the correspondence between flesh and mineral. In Meta-site Flag: Cascular Facies Lava/Orchid (2023), the artist places a photo of cooled lava side-by-side with an image of an orchid, drawing an unexpected visual connection between flora and stone by the way they reflect light similarly.
Roloff has great facility with clay, and unlike some artists, he willingly embraces the beauty it can deliver. The contents of six horizontal glass cases (each six feet wide) from the Vector Ship (2023) series steal the show. These clay sculptures suggest an underwater tableau of abandoned shells, starfish, anemone-like towers and vestiges of shipwrecks. The combination of shapes, angles, passageways and surface textures recalls those seen in the works of Ron Nagle. Like Nagle, Roloff creates unusual surface textures and invests them with nuanced, multi-hued earth tones that engage the eye. Looking at them, you can easily imagine yourself navigating underwater, engrossed but fearful of what lurks in those nooks and crannies.
Roloff’s dilemma rests with the fact that he conceives much of his work as public art commissions designed to be installed out-of-doors at a large scale. Consequently, what we see of them in an exhibition like this are the written proposals. Cite Study I, II and III: Expanded Ceramics (2021) — a proposal for the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis — includes detailed plans and computer mock-ups. It makes for dry reading, like an environmental impact report. Nevertheless, his ideas are engaging, invoking as they do the legacy of Robert Arneson, who created the ceramic sculpture program at UCD’s art department. Roloff proposed a piece of land art in the shape of a huge ship in open fields near the museum, reiterating that earthen clay forms the basis of human habitats and art. Another project, San Francisco Wharf Complex: Coral Orchid Seamount (2012), is described in a computer animation depicting the geology of the Bay Area. Roloff proposed a two-story sculpture as a warehouse made solely from the region’s limestone, forming a unity between the terrain and architecture.
Understanding the world as a metabolism of interconnected organisms and inanimate things, John Roloff was ahead of his time when he began. That the world is just now catching up to him is a testament to the importance of his impressive body of work.
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John Roloff: “Sentient Terrains” @ Anglim/Trimble Gallery through June 30, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.