John Roloff’s The Rising Sea

Catalog essay for The Rising Sea, Images and Constructions from South Florida and Other Selected Works, Lake Worth Museum of Contemporary Art, Lake Worth, FL. 1998
By Robert C. Morgan

In spite of the densely sophisticated research that goes into the work of California artist John Roloff, there is always the poetic and intuitive side that gives his art a special kind of grace and alacrity. To listen to the artist speak about this work is a pleasure. There is an ineluctable assurance about his vocabulary and a quick readiness to come to terms with the complexity of issues that enter into his research. Like many artists of his generation, Roloff is not easy to identify in terms of a particular medium. He has been called a sculptor and environmental artist, but he is much more than that. He functions on a conceptual level, meaning that he foregrounds the ideas that he is seeking to clarify through his art. By foregrounding the ideas, the medium or media becomes secondary to the extent that he uses what is necessary in order to express the idea.

Over the years Roloff has focused on nature and the problematic of natural phenomena. He is interested in those unseen realities that constitute the environment in which we live. We tend to see man-made things–the artifacts and signs of culture–but we ignore the natural infrastructure that ultimately supports our cultural framework, the planet on which we live. This relationship between nature and culture is structuralist anthropology as it was appropriated by artists – particularly conceptualists and earth artists – in the late sixties and early seventies. As the orientation toward a specific medium began to diminish, more attention was paid to the artist’s ideas; that is, what the artist was trying to say through photographs, natural objects, found objects, arrangements, site-specific installations. One might call John Roloff an earth artist with a strong conceptual leaning, yet this should not dissuade the viewer from the brilliance of his poetic insight and visual acuity as he explores structuralist paradigms.

There is, of course, a comment, even an ecological critique, in the environmental work of John Roloff, and this exhibition is no exception. His general comment is a site-specific inventory of the ecosystems that are currently extant in the state of Florida. According to Roloff, the topology of Florida exists in an extremely mutable state, meaning that the groundwater is pervasively active. One of the highest continental shelves in the Northern Hemisphere extends nearly two hundred miles off the West Coast of Florida. There are limestone and karst formations that are constantly eroding under the surface. As a result the sea is in a perpetual state of rinsing and falling.

Given the artist’s research, Roloff has decided to construct a series of installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art that could be viewed as an "analog of transmutation" – thereby suggesting the transitory nature of the Florida landscape with its abundant natural springs. In Reef/Field I, for example, the artist has constructed a bed of coral topped by a sheet of glass with oranges scattered on the surface.

Another, two-part installation consists of a dead orange tree, trimmed and wedged into a negative space in the corner of the gallery called Novum Organum III (Topiary), and a living orange tree covered in a shroud with grow lights, entitled Novum Organum II (Two Suns). The title is taken from the famous sixteenth-century British scientist Sir Francis Bacon who first brought empiricism into western science.

Another version of Roloff’s important work, entitled Oculus: Emerson/Beebe (de Leon/Osceola), originally from 1988, re-worked in 1996, and now given its current version in Lake Worth, again relates to the hydrologic/historical terrain of South Florida. Oculus, in its present manifestation, involves three aquaria – one filled with water and cypress chips, a second with limestone and oranges, and a third with pure "black water" (tannic and humic acids). All elements are, of course, indigenous to the area and carry nutrients that substantially impact the soil and water supply. The "black water" aquarium is connected by plastic tubing to the Oculus, into which its contents are pumped. Inside the Oculus the water is dispersed by a misting system, before draining back into the aquarium. The artist interprets this device as a "site reference" whereby nature operates as "its own critique of current conditions, man-made or else." The names in the subtitle refer to poets, explorers, or other personalities that are symbolically important to Roloff in his topological/ecological investigations. In this case, Ponce de Leon and the Seminole chief, Osceola, are both legendary figures with heroic stature associated with the terrain of Florida.

In addition to these installations, Roloff has again deployed photography not so much in terms of its documentary status but as a means to capture the landscape on a pictorial/metaphorical level. His new Landscape Projections (for an Unknown Window), nos. 2-5 are digitally manipulated landscapes that have been compressed to the periphery of the paper’s edge, thus creating "Baroque frames" around an aperture. Roloff sees these frames as symbolizing the Baroque era in western civilization from the perspective of both science and art. In science, he is interested in the period from the late Sixteenth Century, beginning with the empirical investigations of Sir Francis Bacon, and ending with Sir Isaac Newton in the late Seventeenth/early Eighteenth Century. Spanning this era was a concern for a philosophy of nature that did not exempt the presence of a divine equivalent. This led to the era of such poets and philosophers as Leibnitz, with his "monad" theory of the universe, the marine verse of Coleridge, and the Romantic explorations of Goethe, including his color theories. In general, Roloff sees the Baroque period as a compression of organic and crystalline concerns, the natural and the geometric measurements of natural phenomena, striking a kind of balance and uniformity.

In another digitized photo-installation, called Carbonate Falls (Marsh Lettuce), the image has been "stretched" vertically so as to suggest a falling cascade, situated in relation to the interior architecture of the exhibition space. Again, Roloff is searching for an "analog of transmutation" where gravity and compression operate in relation to the gradient of nature. He is searching for an order that transcends the order of science — an idea that has its basis in the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Gradient (Biscayne Giant), a large tree with sprawling roots is again stretched vertically through the deployment of digital processing. Here Roloff is interested in the effect of the groundwater, the Biscayne aquifer, that travels from Palm Beach to the southern tip of Florida. The installation of this huge three-part photograph suggests the slope of the gradient moving from a vertical to a lateral position. It becomes a hydrologic analog of nature’s reality hidden from view but essential to the environmental make-up of the terrain.

The larger point for Roloff in these site-specific installations is that nature is bigger than our understanding of it. The order of nature is more than any order we can impose upon it, and that it is a resilient force. The complex relationships within nature are greater than we can surmise. It is a time-based phenomena, a series of chain-reactions, that will continually surprise and nourish us. There are, of course, limits to what we can impose upon these natural systems. It is within this context that Roloff offers us a poetic view of what is, what can be, and what we need to understand about the territory we occupy. In the tradition of the philosopher Nietzsche, Roloff is a "yea-sayer" in the sense that he accepts the conditions that nature provides us and, at the same time, observes with great curiosity and amazement nature’s relationship to everything else.


Robert C. Morgan is an art critic, artist, and art historian who lives in New York. He is Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Adjunct Professor of Art at Pratt Institute. He is author of Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), and The End of the Art World (Allworth Press, 1998).