I was invited by the artist to write this essay earlier in the year, it will be published in the catalogue accompanying his survey show at the Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra from 31st July to 27th September 2020.
Plunged in the years
James Rogers references the sea in his sculptures. The sea is present as the subject of titles and its fluxing energy is evident in the lines and rhythms of particular works, yet it never appears as seascape. His sculpture belongs to a tradition in which the body is a conduit, experiencing the environment and registering its effect by means of gestures. The sea, its currents, rips, frothing and languid tidal movements might register in the form of a turned profile cut from a steel tube, with the light polishing convex glints and cavernous shadows. To make hard, grainy steel approximate to the fluid smoothness of water requires an attitude that conceives inner and outer realms of experienceas linked by a permeable space.
My first memory of James was of him performing a work which had evolved from a domestic improvisation in his kitchen.1 Broom in hand, we see him sweeping a dot of light across a darkened floor with great physical attention, pushing the handle, gathering, turning and pulling towards the body. It was a kind of instructional piece enacting many of the directives of Richard Serra’s Verblist of 1968: to bend, to lift, to gather, to arrange, to encircle, to scatter, to collect. The emphasis on bodily action and scale in relation to the immediate environment was an awareness keenly promoted in the sculpture department in Toowoomba, where the performance took place.
As with many artists of his generation, Richard Serra was inspired by the traces of ancient civilizations ravaged by time and worn into the natural world, suggesting relationships with nature that are lost to contemporary society.
James recently sent me a book on the Polynesian seafarers, a history that segues into our own, with a common 18th-century moment of English naval involvement.2 There’s a sea chart discussed in the book, drawn by a Tahitian polymath on board the Endeavour, which presented a riddle to the European navigators. It confronted them with an alien conception of being-in-the-sea. Unlike European cartography which conceives a map from a bird’s-eye view, the ancient seafaring culture of the Polynesians saw a nuanced topography across the ocean, one relating to an environment of wind and water acting on bodily sensations.
A ceaseless rhythm of the waves, a rising convection of swell, a breaking wave hollows into a tube section formed by a sliding water surface, dissipating in the churning sand, the leg of the surfer stands amid aqueous sand dragging back out to sea.
I met James the year he graduated, when I’d freshly arrived at the then-new art college in Toowoomba. He played drums in a band, the Sad Cases. He was reserved, yet with the contained energy which was, in part, attributable to the coastal surf culture he’d grown up with. I’d gone to school with boys who chased surf on weekends, distracting from the dullness of the school classroom with dramatic grazes down their arms, eyes looking across the teacher’s table and through the blackboard for the contour of a wave, conjuring its swell with the slow rocking of a school chair. His interests in music were diverse, from simple punk rock to the polyrhythms of Indonesian Gamelan which were then all-pervasive in the college’s music department. The sharp-edged brightly coloured sculpture he was making at the time gave off a conspicuous, somewhat abrasive energy while rewarding the longer view with the thoughtfulness of its construction.
Soon James was making sculpture in his spare time while employed as a welder. Since then he’s constructed a journeyman identity that combines sophisticated artistry with a workmanlike attitude. He seems to have understood, since early days, the relationship between labour and the market. His work ethic hinges on an equation between effort and its return, and on an implicit contract between an artist and his public.
Moiré Bay 2013
Over time the artist moves through a series of iterations as the sculpture grows: a series of selves circulating around a central void, or binaries switching reflexively. Movements and transformations continually revolve the attributes of things and feelings. In concerted practice the sculpture and the space it circumscribes unite, becoming a talisman, an emblem of feeling decisively positioned and shaped … in the world.
Moiré Bay is a sculpture weaving and blinking, emitting the sensation it creates via a pair of opposing elements. Two woven steel mining sieves, cut round and placed upright like two blank charts facing each other, are held up by a table-like structure which has a make-do quality, reminiscent of a furriner – a clandestine object made by a worker using his skills, tools, materials and workspace surreptitiously, for idiosyncratic personal ends.
The sculpture presents the woven elements in a seemingly straightforward manner, yet there is a subtle artistry which confers a kind of ceremonial quality to the physical relationship between the viewer and the artwork –suggesting a kind of altar, elevating the wondrous visual rhythms generated by thin vertical planes lyrically interacting in space. Remembering the riddle of the Tahitian chart –which was the flagrant opposite of the European geographer’s map – the moiré effect in this sculpture has a visceral immediacy and behaves like a living thing. It is a staged view, an invention across a classroom table, navigating through sea and air – a reality effect that hazes/separates itself from its surrounds.
Inside Reef 2016
A beacon, the uncertain shadowy afterimage in relation to its lights, searching vectors across the sky its beam delineates the position of source and destination, a cone of vision – then a meltdown of glinting, angled moments.
The sculpture’s armature, which was once a core of rods and wire buried inside a mass of modelled clay or plaster, was laid bare during the modernist era, and it became, for some, the essential architecture of the sculpted figure. This emergent figure was always in the process of turning towards or away from compelling vision, oblique as the glance to a face, the glimpse of a person’s gait, experienced for a moment, unreliably remembered –as if one were searching to sum up the impression of bodily form from scratch.
The calligraphic presence in James Rogers’ cylinder sections comes by way of shaping empty space.The pitched angles are established by the use of scaffolds and platforms which are now absent but might still be implied, defining the relation to gravity in Lotus, or determining the hang of elements in Tableau or Sage. Fluid lines burnt through steel plate follow the arc of an arm movement and the motion of a body. They yield long, sharply ripped lines, gently elongated and turned fingers of steel, dished circles, dots and dashes – simple coded groups that make up a graphic vocabulary. And like a well designed font these elements hold and pass on attention to the next in line, as repetitive rhythms which encourage a reading of pattern through a series of exchanges between shapes and the spaces they interact with. These shell-like constructions do not strive for spatial unity, but call themselves into being through flow and interruption.
James Rogers’ sculpture relates to the flow of water as a temporal entity, a glinting wave constantly changing shape; it bends, lifts, gathers and arranges, encircles, collects and scatters. I feel the sculpture presents, as a measure of Time rather than a spatial entity, the body woven in water – like the being-in of the Tahitian chart. As such, the sculptor is in accord with Proust’s notion of those who live, “occupying in Time a much greater place than so sparingly conceded to them in Space, a place extended beyond measure, because, like giants plunged in the years, they touch at once those periods of their lives – separated by so many days – so far apart in Time.”3
- John Gillies: Sweepings, 13 minute video loop, 1980.
- Christina Thompson: Sea People, William Collins, London, 2019.
- Samuel Beckett: Proust, Grove Press, New York, 1931.