My work is a examination of psychological and conceptual relationships between humanity and nature, materiality and process, often evoking a poetic interplay between primal and scientific conditions. This exploration was inspired in the work of 1970s through the early 1990s by qualities of the sublime evoked by the geology and natural dynamics of the North American landscape. Since the mid-1990s other, related issues, particularly structural and systemic relationships between landscape and architecture, have increasingly characterized the work.
Originating from my studies of geology and oceanography as a student in the late 1960s (this research is still very much ongoing) the materials of sculpture and ceramics are perceived and worked with from the viewpoint of natural origin, process and scale. This attitude first found its expression in a series of landscape tableaus and works of the early to late 1970's. These relationships were further expanded in the 1980s to early 1990s into a body of work utilizing site-generated kiln/furnaces as experimental instruments of transformation of natural materials in the landscape. An important and seminal property of the furnace/kiln projects is a partially restrained unleashing of natural force, where a visual, conceptual and emotional dialog is initiated between the artist/observer and that force. Regarding the firing of a kiln/furnace project I noted in an earlier essay:
"The kilns are designed from a knowledge of principals about heat flow, from conceptual ideas, and from an intuitive point of view. The kilns operation and results are only partially predictable and are allowed a mind of their own. When successful, a firing can approach an irrational point, the verge of losing control, a metaphor is suggested of the unconscious in a primitive or vulnerable state where time becomes emotion, chemistry spirit and matter theater." (Kiln Projects, Artery, Feb-Mar 1983, pg. 6)
More recent installations enlarge the inquiry and the observer/nature dialectic of the kiln projects into other materials and contexts. Deep Gradient/Suspect Terrain.., Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, CA, 1993, is a publicly sited glass observatory presenting sediment dredged from the ocean floor from which future landscapes will be made. Incidental plant growth occurring in the observatory is a product of dormant seeds in the sediment deposited by terrestrial rivers and nurtured by the greenhouse conditions within the structure. Similarly, Pitzer Project: a Prototype System for the Production and Distribution of Ancient Sunlight, Pitzer College, Claremont, CA, 1996, brings into view, through programmed (actually random) activations of the projects mechanical/electrical system, the idea that ancient sunlight is being released electrical illumination. In an unpublished essay from 1997, I wrote about this work:
"This project may be thought of as a time machine, summoning and revealing a form of the sunlight that fell on ancient forests or mats of algae floating on ancient seas which transformed atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis into energy laden organic materials, later deposited and further transformed geologically into what are now called fossil fuels. The ignition and transformation into electricity of these fuels in the generator of Pitzer Project... releases the ancient suns energy in the form of light in the streetlight. This process may also be seen as a possible analog to the metabolic systems of the human body with transformation of food into vision, the ability to see light."
Projects of the late 1990s until the present increasingly bring architecture into my work. The works, Holocene Terrace, Lance Fung Gallery, New York, NY, 1999 and Depositional Environment I, Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, CA, 2001, are comprised primarily of a structure containing natural materials integrated with the architecture of the gallery space and connected to the outside environment. In both cases the active natural system is dependent upon external conditions (weather and temperature) for its visual and vital condition. A series of digitally augmented photographs of landscape imagery wrapping a central window/void are installed with the living elements bringing an additional theoretical dimension to the exhibitions.
Architecture in the form of a drainage or irrigation system interfaced with the dynamics of a large geologic formation forms the conceptual basis for Devonian Shale: Aquifer I, 2000-01. This project was developed by working with a site in western New York State reflective of two related but distant time dimensions: recently as an abandoned surface mine for shale/clay to produce drainage pipe in the early 1900s and geologically as a cliff-like exposure of massive marine deposits of Devonian Era shale. The core structure of the piece is made of extruded Devonian shale, using similar technology to that of the drainage pipe factory. A process of coating and firing this armature with a slurry of indigenous shale or clay each time it is exhibited re-stratifies the structure in contemporary time. The modular, extensible and lateral configuration of this work refers to the original seafloors of Devonian time where the shale was deposited and the reiteration of that process through barely imaginable geologic time creating strata after broad horizontal strata. The immense surface area of the compiled formation approaches in concept the derivative of mathematics, where a function is "allowed to approach infinity" in order to calculate a theoretically impossible (in fractal terms) surface area. In contemporary time this fractal/infintesimal dimension is continued through the stratigraphic assemblages activity as an aquifer and living filter where hydrostatic pressure is driving water molecules through protracted and unimaginable passages along surfaces laid down almost 400 million years ago.
The interest in architecture in my work in largely informed by the concept of anthroturbation where cities, architecture, roads and other construction produced by mankind of earth materials (during our Epoch - the Holocene) are considered in a geologic context. This term describes the disturbance, dislocation and restructuring of geologic formations and materials by human agencies into new forms. These processes have analogies in the natural world, such as: quarrying as erosion, transport as flow and construction as sedimentation or other orogenic/tectonic processes. Likewise, the built topography of a city can be understood in geomorphic terms: streets as canyons, buildings as mesas, sewers as caves and plazas as playas.
John Roloff, 2001