by Mark Bartlett, 1996


..Newman judged surrealism to be over-reliant on a pre-romantic or romantic approach to indeterminacy. Thus, when he seeks sublimity in the here-and-now he breaks with the eloquence of romantic art but he does not reject its fundamental task, that of bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible. The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another word, or another time, but in this: in that (something) happens. In the determination of pictorial art, the indeterminate, the 'it happens' is the paint, the picture. The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible, and it is to this that it has to witness.
Lyotard, "The Sublime and the Avant-Guard"

Lyotard's interpretation of Newman is half stop and half yield sign. Linguistically, it's a stutter or a skipped LP, cycling between history and theory. The inexpressible, in his terms, is not the surrealistic reach for a precondition, the infantile arche that unpredictably shapes the unthought (and therefore indeterminate) past event as the 'it happened,' a retrogressive constitution of the picture plane as an associative slip-of-the-brush; but it is the Greenbergian form that expresses, indeterminately, the noumenal paint in-and-of-itself and both constitutes, and is witness to, its present immediacy. Newman's painting, Lyotard claims, as representative of the modern avant-guard, is a witness, and as such yields to, the inexpressible, which as such, as an 'it did not happen' (because it cannot), is a negation, or a stop. "The avant-guardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation."

What Lyotard has not considered is examples of art in which the privation is not the privation of theory alone, of the speculative distance that abandons the positive moment as inexpressible; but in which the negative becomes historically actualized, in which the indeterminate does, concretely 'happen' and becomes an event in time, though not as that art which mistakes itself as expressing its time when in fact it expresses only the market. The work of the avant-guard that operates through being anti-market, anti-object, anti-representational, is indeed, work which can embrace only the negative affirmation of inexpressivity. Art of this genre is a form of autism.

The furnace and photo/process works of John Roloff are works that reverse the negative affirmation of inexpressivity of the modern avant-guard, and instead quite remarkably affirm aesthetics of negative expressivity. In the work, Metabolism Study (Falling Knight), one aesthetic principle at work is the elision of the elements of time. If Lyotard's Newman displaces the romantic sublime from standing before nature over there,' to the act of painting itself as event, then the sublime has been brought out of nature and within the human sphere; though in its specifically temporal dimension, opposed to its spatial, and in both the senses of immediacy and as a record (a witnessing) of the historical encounter between painter and the inexpressible. The elements of time Roloff engages in Metabolism Study (Falling Knight) are both the completed past event and an indeterminately continuous one. His work compresses the time of a cultural memory of medieval Europe and some complex and unpredictable future moment when the entropic processes completely efface the (impossible) photographic trace of the dying knight.

Metabolism Study (Falling Knight) is simultaneously an object and an event. On the material level, the work is an event in which the ordered photographic image, chemically fixed in silver, a negentropic process, is then chemically fused with the entropic process of oranges decaying. On the semiotic level, history and memory, as ephemeral textual episodes -- oranges as symbols of the Golden Horde, as portals into mortality and beyond, as subatomic events, as the star systems that fuel life and which will eventually exhaust themselves -- erode by the same material forces that generate them. Signs are embodied, (perhaps re-embodied), and empty themselves of meaning with the passage of time, as the image is destroyed by microbial events. Time is that which runs out, not merely psychically, but materially; not just individually, by cosmically. These metabolically expressed 'privations' are concretized events happening as long as the work happens. By literally embodying time and entropic forces, the literalization of the negative moment, Roloff affirms an aesthetics of negative expressivity.

Roloff expresses what indeed does happen, and does so positively. In his work the sublime has vanished, viewed finally as the dusty and crude old term depleted of semiotic potential that it is. The sublime has value only in the distance, the negative distance between the subject and the other. This distance has collapsed in Roloff's work. Metabolism, as a posthuman event, erases the borders between the organic and the human-as-autonomous. Roloff's work embodies as natural process the interaction between physical and semiotic systems; the artwork becomes an autonomous, autopoetic object/event. Anthropomorphism is the object of entropy.

The anti-anthropocentrism of Roloff's photo/process works can be interpreted further as modeled on his on-line tag, xroloffx. On-line pseudonyms are homologous to graffiti tags. Like tags, but unlike the nom-de-plume which intends to conceal, they are meant to reveal, to call into existence something of the future. They are assertions of the voiceless, names of new subjectivities in the making, that go unread because the thing they signify is out of sync with its time. At this historical juncture, little of what mainstream art culture considers significant will remain so; and what will prove significant retroactively is presently characterized by the fact that it goes unrecognized.

The tag -- xroloffx -- brackets roloff by an identity of unknowns, x = x, leaving the significance of roloff in suspense, and is thus a good candidate for future significance. It's not its technological 'nature' that makes it so; it is simply that the on-line medium calls for renaming, calls for an identity considered as a continuously shifting function of time. The identical variables however, perform different temporal functions. Prefix-x is a coefficient, and modifies by multiplying and scaling roloff along the abscissa. Suffix-x is time delayed, and transforms the linear xroloff into a product of the second degree, the implied x2roloff. A simple arithmetic series then becomes geometric. It's in this way that xroloffx functions as a comparison of time scales, much like comparing a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to a drive across it; or like observing the view of the geological spread by comparing a nine hundred foot high by one inch wide section of Headlands strata to a nine hundred foot high by one mile wide section of the same strata.

The form of the name is critical: x2roloff, the equation written in simplest form, loses the more complex, time-dependent relation of xroloffx, because though equivalent in terms of the abstracted solution, x2roloff suppresses the generative process; the operation, x times roloff occurs first and determines his bearing, from which roloff is displaced by the second operation of xroloff times x. We imagine roloff placed along a horizontal axis at some point x on the cliff between one inch and one mile, suspended, say 700 feet above the Pacific, and then again after the second multiplication of x, shifted the square of the distance toward the western horizon.

Rather than roloff scaling between xroloff and x2roloff, it is the viewer who is scaled between the medieval knight just falling in battle, and the entropic erosion of the temporal distance between epochs, and the spatial distance between atoms and suns. Roloff's work is epistemologically demanding in an algebraic sense. While the uncanny, the strange, characterizes most forcefully the immediate visual response to the Knights, it is the tension between the condensed meanings and the analytic required to release them that makes them either unrecognizable, or manifestos of a radically materialist interpretive aesthetic. It is the reversal of the directive from affirming the inexpressible as a negative moment, to affirming the negative as expressible, the equivalent of multiplying and equation through by -1, that vanquishes the sublime and allows us to dissolve the boundaries between the subjective and the objective. Roloff's Knights throw us, with equal force, into a genealogy of power, and into a genealogy of the collusion between physical and biochemical orders. It is in this collusion between the complex encounter of a non-anthropocentric system with an equally anthropocentric one, that a new protosubjectivity begins to emerge.

If, as Lyotard suggested, "The avant-guardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation." then, Roloff's work suggests a radical solution to 'undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time that not only undoes the sublime, but undoes the mind, and therefore its sense of time. The avant-guardist task is the invention, not the mere passive witnessing, of the emergent protosubjective.