Sydney Morning Herald Column

James Rogers

Published September 22, 2020
James Rogers, 'Lotus' (2018)

Some artists make their best impression in a group exhibition, others need a showcase to themselves. James Rogers is a sculptor who always seems to have one of the standout pieces in Sculpture By the Sea every year. I felt I knew his work pretty well, but his mid-career survey at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra was a revelation.

Most surveys take a strictly chronological approach, charting the evolution of an artist’s career, or else concentrating on one particular period. The earliest piece in James Rogers: Tunnelvision – a wooden structure called Treachery (Don’t ask me why) – dates from 2007. The most recent pieces – metal sculptures, Summer and Squall – were made last year. This is a relatively brief span and includes only 27 works. Curator, Terence Maloon, says Rogers had very clear ideas about the show, and he let the artist have his way.

James Rogers, ‘Treachery’ (2007)

I can imagine some instances when this would be a recipe for disaster. Artists can be poor judges of their own work, displaying an irrational affection for pieces that should have stayed home – but not on this occasion. Upon entering the gallery one is confronted with three completely different kinds of sculpture: a piece made from bands of metal that twist, rise and fall in the way that bark peels off a gum tree; a tightly-constructed double column of metal mesh discs that creates an optical buzz when one walks past; and a busy assemblage of small, wooden discs, painted and unpainted, punctuated by horizontal lines that create a broken rhythm.

James Rogers, ‘Squall’ (2019)

With the exception of two free-standing metal abstracts – Cyclops (2011) and Parallaxis (2010)- that pay an oblique homage to the influental American sculptor, David Smith, all the elements of this exhibition are announced in the three works found at the entrance.

Those elements may be simple, but not even the most detailed description could convey what Rogers has achieved in these sculptures. While every piece is essentially abstract, the paradox of abstract art is that it can make us think of many more things than artworks that feature a recognisable image. There’s the instinctive tendency to read vertical works as figure and horizontal ones as landscape; and the constant temptation to see motifs such as trees, animals or buildings.

James Rogers, ‘Tableau’ (2014)

Then there are those intangible associations triggered by some part of the sculpture that taps into our own memories. Rogers says the sea is important to him, and it is indeed possible to look at his work and discern the movement of waves, the ripples of light on water, or even seaweed washed up on the shore. And yet, as I’ve already said, the same works made out of ribbon-like bands of metal reminded me of peeling bark. When we learn the artist studied music and used to play the drums, it seems to account for the rhythmic properties of his wooden sculptures.

Rogers lives in the country, so nature exerts an inevitable influence on his thinking. The play of shadows in his mesh sculptures suggests the dappled shadows of the bush. The many small, curved slices of metal pipe attached to a large piece such as Tableau (2014), are reminscent of leaves on densely clustered vines.

But if there is one aspect of this work that seems to stand out from the endless possible associations, it’s the way Rogers draws on qualities more readily aligned with painting. Maloon points out that Rogers is one of those artists who likes to “take a line for a walk”. This is usually done with a pencil or pen, a stick of charcoal or an ink-laden brush, but Rogers creates his lines from long shards of steel that have been carved with a blowtorch. Rather than “lines”, he prefers to think of these strips as “brushstrokes”. It’s a preference for fluidity over inscription.

James Rogers, ‘Skeleton Bay’ (2017)

What’s most remarkable are the delicate effects Rogers is able to create using industrial techniques. With lesser sculptors the joins between components are ugly scars that interrupt the way the eye travels around a piece, but Rogers makes each point of contact a point of departure, from which a new form seems to spring into life. In works such as Skeleton Bay or Swingband (both 2017), a ribbon of metal will snake its way upwards, halting when it touches another at an oblique angle. The junction may be defined by a small cut and twist, so precise it might have been snipped with a pair of scissors. The appropriate metaphor would be a synapse, by which nerve cells pass information to one another.

Small curved discs cut from metal pipes create intervals in the serpentine movement of steel bands. Rogers likes the way these discs have both an internal and external surface, changing the way light falls on a work.

One of the most important features of these sculptures is the fact that they touch the ground so lightly. There are no lumpen bases, no awkward struts holding a structure upright. In some cases they almost seem to float, which is quite a feat as we’re talking about hunks of metal that can only be lifted with extreme difficulty.

James Rogers, ‘Wave of Redemption’ (2015)

And finally, there is the debt to other art that Rogers barely seeks to disguise. Wave of Redemption (2015) conjures up thoughts of a Renaissance Madonna and child – not through any specific imagery, but in the way a jointed band of steel curves across the bottom part of the work, like an arm holding a baby. A semi-circle at the top suggests the cowled figure of the mother.

Lotus (2018) takes Henri Matisse’s late papiers collés as a source of inspiration, with a strip of steel at the base serving as the bent leg of a seated nude. It’s one playful gesture in a show bristling with visual wit and a bouyant energy that reflects the artist’s own enjoyment in making these works. When one pauses to reflect on the hours of hard labour that have gone into the cutting, welding and crafting of Rogers’s sculptures, it’s amazing how lively they feel. The pain has been burnt away, leaving only the pleasure, and that sensation is ours to share.



James Rogers: Tunnelvision

Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 31 July – 27 September, 2020


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September, 2020