JOHN ROLOFF: Sentient Terrains
Anglim Trimble Gallery
Ecological concerns, once disparaged as the alarmism of elitist’ scientists, are now accepted as legitimate, as we edge closer to climatic tipping points. The Bay Area artist John Roloff has made environmentalism one of the cornerstones of his diverse art practice since the mid-1970s, when he finished his studies in art and geology and the University of California in Davis. “Ecology in an expanded frame,” i.e., an understanding of the interrelationship between human and natural processes. the “global metabolism,” has informed Roloff’s multifarious practice in sculpture, site-specific installations, and visionary conceptual works, which draw upon the fine-art ceramic tradition established in the Bay Area, its longtime political progressivism, and its aesthetic embrace of sociopolitical content(with and without overt polemics). The new show at Anglim Trimble, Sentient Terrains, showcases the artist’s considerable breadth and depth, even as it reminds us that late-Anthropocene-Era humans can no longer believe that dominating nature autocratically is our prime objective.
Modernist abstraction abandoned illusionism in order to create new realities arising from the relationships between shapes, forms and color. Conceptual art makes s similar claim on the viewer: to find meaning in material that may not be explicitly related, visually. This show, which is a kind of miniature museum retrospective, assembles four types of artwork: nine long vertical-format Meta-Site flags, digitally printed on satin; digital inkjet print assemblages and videos depicting various site studies and proposals, resembling scientific or architectural presentations; images on glass panels, set atop against wooden blocks, and leaning on the gallery walls; and ceramic sculptures set in long vitrines that depict wedges of seemingly excised landscapes, ruined and ravaged, but possibly regenerating.
If the exact content of the works is ambiguous to science or geology novices, the works are nonetheless visually compelling. The Meta-Site Flags, depicting the vascular facies between chemical substances— lava, orchid, chlorophyll, hemoglobin, hematite and ancient earth’s iron rain—have a heraldic banner look, due to the tall vertical format, with the elements grafted together by a spiky sawtooth cut suggestive of dovetail wood joinery. The site studies and proposals for the Great Valley Complex of California, a San Francisco Wharf Complex, and even the old Geary Street location of Gallery Paule Anglim (in 2001) situate specific regional locations within the wider context of vast natural forces and immense time scales. More immediately appealing are Roloff’s more pictorial works, including two large glass panels, both dated 1996-2023, bearing digitally printed black ad white images of historical or art-historical motifs .urban/Coal (Witness/Seance) conjoins and juxtaposes the face of a man in a red turban (by Jan Van Eyck?) with what appears to be semi-liquid coal slurry: carbon to carbon, dust to dust? Equally enigmatic and fascinating is Biotic Knight (Witness). featuring the full-sized image of a slenderly built knight in armor who, printed onto glass as he is, appears to hover in space, awaiting commands. Roloff’s geological tableaux—composed of ceramic, glass, silicone, and wood—are decidedly Romantic and surrealist evocations of blasted landscapes—and, with their shattered wedge shapes, fracture ship hulls. Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1823-4)—also known as The Wreck of The Hesperus, or The Wreck of Hope, comes to mind as an artistic predecessor, but so do the war-torn landscapes of the English war artist, Paul Nash (especially Totes Meer, Dead Sea). Roloff’s Vector Ship: Vascular Sea sculptures, set within plexiglass boxes like relics or artifacts, depict fragmented forms—both architectural and biological/botanical/human—arrayed along exposed wedge-shaped ridges that are here and there bisected by glass shards, and half-buried by snow or ash that has been sprayed red or black by explosions. They depict the horror of war and desolation, as well as its terrible beauty, dramatically, without melodrama.