John Roloff: Landscape Furnace Projects, 1980-1992
Time present and time past
Art both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, "Burn Norton" (1935)
Between 1980 and 1992 John Roloff created an extraordinary series of works in which he took sculpture materials and processes that involved fire, fusion and an interdisciplinary synthesis out of the studio and into the landscape on a scale never before attempted. Roloff incorporated into his enterprise ideas and influences from many disciplines and time periods including geology, nineteenth-century American landscape painting and philosophy, twentieth-century science and late 1960' process, earth and performance art. Time, in fact, is perhaps the most potent and poetic aspect of this era of Roloff's landscape works.
Roloff's furnace/performance works recreate processes that go back to the very formation of the earth. Geology and nature, particularly the sea, have fascinated Roloff since his childhood near the Oregon coast. In fact his first ambition was to be a marine geologist, until he realized as a student at the University of California, Davis that it was not the science but the "imagery of the sea and the processes of life, death, evolution and transformation that occur at its depths"1 that attracted him and finally led him to take art classes. In Davis's art department he studied with the funk artists Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley. They emphasized an open, exploratory and idiosyncratic attitude about art and its practice. During these studies Roloff a critical associations between art and science, he recognized that certain sculptural processes and materials were replicating geologic processes such as sedimentation, erosion, evaporation and volcanic action.
Often Roloff refers to geology in choosing the forms for his landscape/furnace works. Many of the earliest site works were begun with extensive research into the geologic history of the landscape where the piece was to be built. The flues of Humboldt Ship, 1989, resemble Jurassic trees in reference to the fuel used by the furnace's activation, and are meant to evoke "the original nature of the material in plant form in an ancient forest before it fell into the swamp and became transformed into fuel;"2 its hollowed-out hull suggests a sinking ship, representing "descent and geologic deposition of sedimentary materials like pre-metamorphic silts, a source of rock of the refractory concrete"3 used in the construction of the sculpture. Metabolism and Mortality/O2, 1992, one of Roloff's more complex works of this series, comprised of two elements: "Furnace Element" and "Greenhouse Element," directly references geologic as well as metabolic/energy cycles of respiration, photosynthesis, the deposition of materials later to become fossil fuels and their subsequent ignition in activating the sculpture.
History - Nineteenth-Century Art and Philosophy
Besides geology, art and philosophy of the previous century have played important parts in Roloff's artistic development. Roloff admires nineteenth-century American landscape painters, like Martin Johnson Heade and Frederick Church, who painted scenes of their native East Coast but also traveled widely to find more exotic subjects. The orchid of Roloff's Mountain Kiln/Black Orchid and Untitled (Earth Orchid) was inspired by works of Heade depicting the lush flora of South America and with its elegant reference to the primal systems of life and death found in the jungle.
Other nineteenth-century painters like Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder portrayed the sea to evoke the awesome forces of nature, or metaphorically, humanity's lonely and difficult journey, a small boat on a vast ocean. Boats, submarines, waves, starfish and other images related to the sea have haunted Roloff. They appear in his tabletop ship sculpture of the 1970's to several later landscape works: Prairie Starfish/Glacial Epoch, 1980; Wave Kilns I, II III, 1981-2; Humboldt Ship, 1989; Wave Ship (of Fire)/Ice Ship (of Glass), 1984; Collision/Lava Ship/Trellis Ship, 1984; Ancient Shoreline/Island for Lake Lahontan, 1985; and in other large-scale, non-furnace sculptures such as Vanishing Ship (Greenhouse for Lake Lahontan), 1987 and Metafossil/Metabolism and Mortality (Pinus: ponderosa, radiata, balfouriana), 1992.
In Emersonian transcendental philosophy, natural phenomena are viewed as symbolic of one's inner life. Roloff manifests a similar belief. For example, Oculus: Dead Sea/Oil Field, 1989, an elaborate fire/event tableau, composed of two spherical elements located around a small lake. One, the "Virgin Bathysphere," referred to Ralph Waldo Emerson's expression in Nature of unity with the universe: "I became a transparent eyeball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."4 What could be a more spectacular physical analog to Emerson's ocular simile than Roloff's circular ceramic fiber furnace made translucent by the fire that circulated within it? The other orb in Oculus, the "Ancient Bathysphere," was made of earth materials that ossified during its activation by fire and referred to William Beebe's deep-sea diving bathysphere designed to explore the depths of the ocean. Roloff's idea in Oculus, by depicting the two devices as symbolically seeking their origin or "life-blood" in a sub-sea-floor oil reservoir, was to establish an "emotive relationship to the organic fuels from the depths of the earth."5
Roloff's landscape process works have several lives. Initially they are monumental sculptures in the landscape--flora or fauna, ships or waves--constructed of steel frames suspending ceramic fiber blankets or steel-reinforced cast refractory cement. when the furnaces are ignited, especially as they continue into the night, they are most alive. Over a period of several hours they glow in the night sky as flames leap from their flues, while their very materials--fuel, cement, silicates and carbonates return to earlier, unrefined states permanently transformed by the intense over 2000-degree heat.
As works, which focus on process rather than final product, Roloff's furnace/performance pieces relate to the process-oriented sculptural movements that came into international currency during the late sixties when Roloff was still a student. American artists like Eva Hesse, Barry LeVa, Richard Serra along with their counterparts in Europe like the Arte Povera group in Italy (Jannis Kounellis, Guiseppe Penone, Gilberto Zorio, et al), redefined sculpture, deeming any material appropriate of making art--polyurethane, felt, dirt, lead castings, plant matter, fire--and caring little for their commercial viability. At the same time American earth artists were turning their backs on studio-or factory-made sculpture and venturing into the wide open spaces of the western United States to make their mark. It is noteworthy that several of the pioneering earth artists--Michael Heizer, Walter DeMaria and Dennis Oppenheim--grew up near San Francisco. Roloff's work is never as casual as that of the process artists, and strictly speaking is both too romantic and referential to be part of the earth art movement. but these developments suggested new cross-disciplinary and material possibilities, which Roloff absorbed and combined with his innate fascination with natural science and his training in different forms of sculptural practice.
But Roloff was perhaps most influenced by the work and writings of Robert Smithson with whom he felt a special affinity because of their common background in geology. The study of geology informed Smithson's thinking about art and offered an avenue by which he could extend it into the real world. Smithson found beauty and fascination in the post-industrial, entropic landscape; Roloff explored correspondences between sculptural and geologic processes and adapted those principles to large-scale, outdoor site works. Also important to Roloff were his long and fruitful discussions with Dennis Oppenheim in the seventies when Roloff was teaching at the University of Kentucky and Oppenheim was a visiting artist. Oppenheim had made a number of pieces such as Branded Mountain and Directed Seeding--Canceled Crop, both 1969, in which, through burning and crop harvesting respectively, he stamped an image onto the landscape. Roloff's procedures were too much more complex and the results more long-lasting, but in his furnace works he also would impose a pictorial image on the land.
Real Time: Performance/Event/Action
The activation by fire of one of Roloff's structures takes the better part of the day and late into the night. The visual intensity of these ritualistic events stays in the mind, an indelible, luminous memory. The emergence of art performance as a genre was one outcome of the explosive changes that took place in the art world during the late sixties and seventies. Roloff prefers the word "event" to "performance" to describe these works. Roloff's events have something in common with the actions (the term Beuys preferred to "performance"). Beuys' shamanistic, solo performances and installations often included an alchemical element, a transmutation. albeit symbolic, of one substance to another (Beuys who like Roloff had a background in science, felt modern science had become too positivistic). Roloff likewise was alert to the emotional and spiritual aspects of his events, which are always to some degree unpredictable, and in that sense irrational. He has referred to the experience of the fire's activation of Prairie Starfish/Glacial Epoch as "a conjuring," where the image of the starfish had become "alive" in some sense by the filling and animation of the structure by fire. Roloff likens this uncontrolled and alchemical part of the process to the "unconscious in a primitive or vulnerable state where time becomes emotion, chemistry spirit and matter theater."6
Past and Future Time: Memory and Entropy
The final temporal association of Roloff's landscape/furnace works is reached in the aftermath of their activation by fire. In direct linkage to observations and research by Roloff into geologic processes where rock is made or transformed by volcanic and similar activities, earth materials in the performance works were melted and fused with each other and the ground into new formulations and structures. These ghostly traces from the earlier works such as Land Monitor/Fired Volcanic Boulder, and Prairie Starfish/Glacial Epoch, both 1980, have entered into an entropic phase, to deteriorate and disappear over time. Later pieces, such as Untitled (Earth Orchid), 1988 and Humboldt Ship, 1989, which Roloff built with steel-reinforced refractory cement, have a more permanent after-life because of their greater structural and material--partially lava-like--integrity. In two cases, Collision/Lava Ship/Trellis Ship, 1984 and Talking Tree, 1987, a later extension to Ancient Shoreline: Island for Lake Lahontan, 1985, Roloff added a botanical element to the project. This addition subjects, fossilized remains in the case of Collision and the concept in the case of Ancient Shoreline (the furnace/event element is no longer extant), the works to further, if more gentle transformation. In Collision/Lava Ship/Trellis Ship, for example, he intersected the fused earthen hull with a steel trellis planted with ivy that eventually overtook it. In either case, Roloff has little control over his furnace works after the activation stage. In the end, it is the passage of time and natural or human forces that determine their future.
Roloff's landscape/furnace/event works engage the basic elements of fire, water, air and the earth and in so doing connected with the ages, with history and myth. For all the research, scientific and engineering know how Roloff brings to their construction and activation, he conceives of these works intuitively and poetically. Consequently, their effect on the viewer is more visceral and evocative than intellectual. In each successive piece, Roloff asked different questions and created new challenges. Roloff now views the kiln series as complete, but does not cut-off the possibility of its evolving.
These projects were never Roloff's sole occupation; he has l made many other site installations and more recently a series of wall and leaning objects that combine photography and organic processes. Roloff's work has always resisted definition within a movement or style. He goes where his curiosity leads, circling back to earlier concerns, crossing disciplines, exploring tangents, trying new materials. Like the furnace works themselves, and perhaps if any comparison is possible, most like the diverse explorations of the artists of the Arte Povera movement, Roloff's trajectory is unpredictable.
Curator of Contemporary Art
University Art Museum, Berkeley, CA
with with the artist.
2. Artist in interview with Nan Hill, 1990, published in the catalog 51 Million BTUs : Humboldt Ship (Oakland, Fractal Terror Press, 1990)
3. Conversation with with the artist.
4, 5. Artists Statement, 51 Million BTUs: Oculus: Dead Sea/Oil Field. op. cit.
6. Artists writing, published as Kiln Projects, Artery, Feb.-Mar. 1983, pg. 6.
John. Earthworks and Beyond (NY; Abbeville, 1989)
Burnham, Jack. Great Western Salt Works (NY: George Braziller, 1974).
Celant, Germano. The Knot: Arte Povera at P.S.1., (NY: P.S. I The Institute for Art and Urban Resources, 1985)
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature, 1836
Flam, Jack, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996)
Lewallen, Constance. John Roloff: Matrix 110 (Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1987)
Pincus-Witten, Robert. Entries (Maximilism) (NY: Out of London Press, 1983)
Roloff, John. 51 Million BTUs (Oakland, Fractal Terror Press, 1990)