Sculpture April 2004
Andrew Rogers and the Rhythms of Life
By Ken Scarlett
To meet Andrew Rogers is to be immediately aware of his vitality and optimism-qualities that, combined with his drive and commitment, have led him to produce some 300 works in bronze since 1988. In addition, he possesses an admirable flexibility that has enabled him to move into parallel areas of sculptural practice: his oeuvre includes not only small- and large-scale bronzes, but also significant memorials and vast geoglyphs in the desert landscape.
A surprisingly large number of sculpture students who graduate from Australian art schools each year, swelling the considerable number of practicing sculptors, are optimistically hopeful of earning a living from sculpture, though in Australia, this is still extremely difficult. Rogers, who didn’t attend an art school and is essentially self-taught, has proven, however, that it is possible to earn a very good living from the profession. And whereas most Australian sculptors exhibit in their home cities and seek commissions within the country, Rogers has vigorously shown his work worldwide and secured commissions in Europe, Asia, the U.S., and South America. In addition, during the brief 16 years since he has devoted himself to sculpture, he has placed more of his bronzes in his home city of Melbourne than has any other local artist.
Rogers had concentrated primarily on a very successful business career, while producing a limited number of paintings in his spare time, until the late ’80s when he seriously turned his attention to sculpture. Having been a great admirer of Rodin, his earliest works were similar in style to those of the great French artist, with realist/impressionist depictions of both male and female nudes. Within a brief period his works became extremely ambitious in scale, theatrical in content, and Baroque in style. The culmination was City Living (1995), an assemblage of five over-life-sized nude figures. Then, feeling that he had proven his ability to work realistically, and regardless of current fashion which has seen a return to figuration in both painting and sculpture, he made a dramatic switch in 1995 to working in a completely abstract style.
One of his earliest abstract works, the bronze Rhythms of Life (1996), has all the linear freedom (and control) of Japanese calligraphy. One line, which cascades downward, is held up by a sweeping, curving diagonal on which a sphere balances precariously. The immaculate finish, the rich black patina, and the clarity of the forms make it all appear effortless, though, of course, the foundry workers would know the degree of difficulty in casting.
It is an elegant, joyous work. It is also traditional in that it is a single sculptural object sitting on a plinth; yet interestingly, three years later, it was to form the basis of a vast environmental work that explored new territory.
While Rogers was artist-in-residence at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, in 1998, the possibility of a work in the nearby Arava Desert was first discussed. On checking the site, Rogers was immediately aware that in order to cope with the vastness of the desert, the arid, treeless hills, and the all-encompassing dome of the sky, the sculpture needed to be a huge environmental work. He returned to the desert the following year and, with the help of an Israeli construction contractor, a Bedouin foreman, many Arab stonemasons, three architecture students, innumerable truckloads of water-washed stones, and a bulldozer, supervised the construction of his first geoglyph. At 4.5 meters high, 38 meters wide, and 38 meters long, it was far larger and more ambitious than anything he had previously attempted. The motif of this work, Chai, was both strikingly simple and appropriate; it was based on two letters from the Torah, the Hebrew characters for life. “To life” is a salutation frequently used to celebrate events in Jewish life, so its symbolism was immediately appreciated and understood by the local population.
Chai was so successful that in 2001 Rogers returned to an adjoining area of desert and began the construction of another equally large geoglyph, this time based on his early abstract sculpture Rhythms of Life. The pattern was marked our in the sand with steel stakes, massive rocks that had been dynamited from the desert were brought in by the truckload, and dry stone walls were constructed then back-filled with sand until the desired forms were obtained. In the same year, the original bronze of Rhythms of Life was enlarged and installed at Southbank, outside the Concert Hall of the Arts Centre on the bank of the Yarra River, Melbourne. The locations for the two versions of this work could not be more different-one in an inhospitable desert, the other in the center of a thriving modern city. At night, one is surrounded by glittering lights and hurrying urban crowds, the other completely deserted and illuminated only by the Stars. Rogers is immensely gratified that his Rhythms of Life are meaningful to farm settlers in Israel and office workers in Australia. This, surely, is one of the reasons for his extraordinary success. His works are accessible and life-affirming, conveying a sense of optimism-a wonderful antidote when the media overwhelms us daily with news of disasters.
His Third geoglyph, Slice (2003), is literally just that-a slice through a sea shell, a fascinating and easily recognizable pattern on a gigantic scale. Again, the imagery is readily understood, as the Arava Desert was once the sea bed of an ocean.
Another early bronze, Flora Exemplar (1996), also proved to be extremely popular, and it has been issued in two larger editions, examples of which have been placed in various collections: in Vienna; in Kobe; in the Arava Desert; in the U.S. at Grounds for Sculpture, a Napa Valley vineyard, and Stonebriar Office Park; in the garden of a residential development in Melbourne; and in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. The director of this major Australian gallery, Edmund Capon, said of this work: “_Flora Exemplar_ is, arguably, Andrew Rogers’s most distinctive and characteristic work. In its elegant and attenuated form, which reaches up then twists and peers down, it does vaguely resemble a stem and a bud. But it is, I believe, much more than mere imitation of a natural feature, for its sheet expressiveness evokes in us emotions of human striving and introspection”.1
More recent works, while retaining the feeling of organic growth, become rougher, less obviously decorative, and more aggressive. A one-person exhibition in 2000 displayed a range of works that, while still mainly linear and retaining a sense of organic structure, are more reminiscent of geometric and mechanical forms. Living and Growth (both 1999), for instance, look as though they were assembled from industrial off-cuts, even including the pins and rods holding the various parts together. The feeling of graceful serenity that imbues many of Rogers’s earlier sculptures is frequently supplanted by short staccato forms, irregular compositions, and a more precarious sense of balance. There is also a much greater freedom in these structures, even a feeling of intuitive improvisation- Balanced (1999) is just balanced, with an extra piece pinned on top and a wedge placed under the base. And Organic (1999), in spite of its impressive size, retains the feeling of the artist’s direct involvement in twisting, folding, and compressing the original material before it was cast in bronze. Again, one has only to look at Coil (1999) to realize that Rogers also has the ability to convey his fascination with the manipulation of materials. It is very easy to envisage him in his studio exploratively tying knots with a flexible piece of rubber or styrene which, when enlarged and cast in rigid bronze, will present a visual conundrum.
These later bronzes also show a more adventurous approach to the use of color. The early works tended to be treated with a uniform patina of golden brown or lustrous black, but more recent works, particularly when enlarged, lend themselves to a range of patinas. The artist uses blue, green, brown, and even off-white to unify or, alternatively, to isolate forms. Rogers believes that his lack of formal training has given him a freedom to experiment, since he is not restricted by what is known to be possible or impossible; he certainly has presented the foundry with some challenges while achieving a very high level of craftsmanship.
In a group of small-scale works produced in 2002, Rogers experimented with the idea of combining bronze and found rocks. Leaf-like shapes are burst apart by penetrating rock; other enfolding bronzes hold rocks within their cloak-like forms; and, in some cases, thin protruding strips of bronze hold the rocks protectively. These works present a strange and unexpected combination of fragility and strength. In Mother Earth (2003), a large version of one of these curious works, the fertile earth mother is represented by the organic symbol of the leaf and the rocks appear as her progeny. One large rock (now cast in bronze) is clutched protectively to her body, while smaller rocks appear to be growing within the skin of the leaf.
In contradiction to the general elegance of his sculpture, these and some other works have an underlying Surrealist quality. Growing (1996), in spite of its obviously organic title and lily-like shape, can also be read as a strange detached ear, a listening device not only sensitive to sound bur also visually watchful.
Essentially Rogers wishes to establish a positive and open relationship with viewers, but if the occasion demands he is willing to confront them with unpalatable facts. His very moving Pillars of Witness (1999) for the facade of the Holocaust Research Centre in Melbourne is a combination of documentary panels realistically depicting the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and symbolic pillars representing the imprisonment of Jews and the eventual birth of the new Jewish nation. Likewise, his Buchenwald Memorial (2000) is a disturbing structure, “a fractured, floating, falling form-a contrast to the perpendicular, solidly embedded gravestones that surround it.”2 It reads as a massive brick chimney, while the incised shapes on the sides appear as smoke from the incinerators of Auschwitz.
Rogers has frequently used the phrase “rhythms of life”-it serves as the title of several sculptures, the title of two exhibitions, and the title of a recently published book. It is an apt choice, for his work encompasses life and death, growth and destruction, love and hate. In this age of globalization, the rhythms of life are no longer limited to our own small circle of friends and relatives, no longer restricted to our own town or country- we are all part of a complex global pattern.
Since the first convict settlement in Sydney in ’1788, Australians have been very much aware of the tyranny of distance. In the 19th century, sailing ships rook three months to arrive from Europe; by the 1950s, the trip by sea was still six long weeks; and even now Europe is a boring 24 hours flying time away, and New York 22 hours. Australian sculptors in particular have suffered because of the distance and the cost of transporting their work to exhibition centers in Europe and America. In most cases they are not known outside Australia or even outside their home cities. It is noteworthy, then, that Rogers has broken this pattern of isolation and is helping to make Australian sculpture known throughout the world.
At the time of writing he was finalizing an agreement to construct a huge geoglyph in the Atacama Desert in Chile, based on the outline of a rock petroglyph found in the desert. This is one of the driest areas in the world (it hasn’t rained for 200 years), and the ancient rock carving has survived since approximately 800 BCE. As he has done in the Arava Desert, Rogers will build a stone structure related to the environment and capable of surviving the harshness of the weather. His work will be known in yet another country outside Australia.
Ken Scarlett’s extensive writing on contemporary sculpture includes the book Australian Sculptors.
1 Edmund Capon. “Andrew Rogers Flora exemplar,” in Rhythms of Life The Art of Andrew Rogers (Melbourne Macmillan. 2003). P. 49.
2 Andrew Rogers, 26 November 2000. quoted in ibid. p 210