San Rafael

John Roloff

Falkirk Community Cultural Center

The long process of generating John Roloff’s large-scale outdoor sculpture has substantially stabilized, though it will never be finished, since it incorporates the slow crawl of flowering vines over the latticework of one of its two “ships.” But it is more complete than in May last year, when, during a public gathering at sunset on a bare slope in the grounds of the Victorian mansion that houses this Marin County arts center, Roloff dramatically catalyzed the second, ceramic ship through his characteristic procedure of a lengthy and nocturnal firing in a correspondingly shaped on-site kiln. The completed piece, Collision/Lava Ship/Trellis Ship, sites the clay and the lattice forms in an X shape whose elliptical shafts, up to 40 feet long, Roloff likens in the work’s title to overturned hulls.

The Bay Area artist’s reference to the work’s two long lozenges as ships seems to connect with his concurrent tabletop ceramics—forms like ancient vessels, with encrusted surfaces, as if they had been retrieved after centuries at the bottom of the sea. Calling the Falkirk pieces “ships” may also relate to the site’s proximity to the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, but it is too literal an identity for these abstract forms, which display archaisms of other sorts. A more fascinating and timely element is the synthesis (more than “collision”) between the technology employed in Roloffs temporary kiln—a metal armature and ceramic-fiber blanket, heated to 2000°F by propane-powered burners—and the primitivist aspect of a nocturnal gathering around the glowing structure, to observe if not join in the teamwork activity of the firing. This communal, ritualistic component both symbolically evoked the traditionally transformative power of fire and more pragmatically encouraged local affiliation with the work, which is “public” most obviously in site and funding.

But Roloff’s elaborate process piece is also successful on an immediate level for those who did not participate in its ceremonial genesis. The X formed by the two ellipses, in contrasting but natural materials—the roughly clumped and furrowed deep brown or black clay intersecting with the vines supported by the steel trellises—presents a striking textural juxtaposition, suggesting a coalesced free flow of “lava” opposing a mechanically defined structure, albeit one now being irregularly covered by growth and returning to a more primal state.

Suzaan Boettger