If Robert Smithson and others excavated the built-up, geological matter of what is too casually called 'our' planet's surface, Tim Rogeberg moves skywards with Tropopause (An Empirical Approximation) (1997-98), placing the Earth in context as one of countless bodies spinning lonely in space. An octopoid, orrery-like contraption with each aluminium arm counterweighted by two globes, spheres made variously of fibreglass and resin, protected by layers of Vaseline, with skins of salt and tar, Tropopause is also an elaborate fountain - some of its 'planets' are hollow, gently spurting water. Grounded in a pool whose lunar base is pitted, mottled cement, the sculpture is surrounded by a boardwalk, either a dock or dry perch from which to wade into or circumnavigate the water. Equal parts astrophysicist, goofy tinkerer and environmental architect, Rogeberg accomplishes, despite the wild ambition of his piece, a calm meditation on the mess and formal beauty - mess as formal beauty and vice versa - to be made out of water, salt, fibreglass, aluminium, rubber, copper, tar, wood, plastic, plaster, cement, sediments and algae. Looking skywards there is hope and sadness: hope that there may be as many mortal possibilities as stars in the sky; sadness that we are too small to grasp the hugeness of it all.
Things fall apart, the world changes, shifts, erupts, crumbles, decays. Rogeberg's work acknowledges, even embraces, such disruptions, eruptions, crumblings and decaying. Like these on-going processes, Tropopause has altered: changing daylight skids on the water and the lunar landscape suddenly becomes Martian orange, mimicking the bright tubing of the waterworks; the globes' pits grow larger; colours of things dull or brighten; copper tubing goes verdigris; bits of things break off, drop into the pool with the erosion of trickling water and time - which may make the project sound more dour than it is. The declivities slowly reveal that their circumferences are borrowed from the various athletic balls which helped form them. On close inspection, a little toy sponge brain can be seen, engorged to sickly slickness, floating in the fountain's basin. A science-fair quality never dissipates, only adds charm. The surprisingly delicate bubbling water music is interrupted only by conversation or nearby vehicular rumbles.
So much of what passes for contemporary art relies on providing something which fits rather too snugly within the parameters of what 'contemporary art' is supposed to look like, usually by tediously 'riffing' (the most generous term I can think of) on art already historicised and situated - instead of testing the limits of what art could possibly be. (Witness the recent attention to, say, Californian neo-Colour Field formalists, for whose paintings there is already a discourse - 60s Colour Field painting and formalism via a redux of Michael Fried et. al. - already a predetermined audience, gallerist patter and, yes, market. These paintings are liked because you would actually have to work hard not to like them, since they are painted to be liked, not to question anything. No one is ever going to say 'What in the hell is this?' about the work these painters trot out, but it is always a good question to ask - meaning, can something that looks like this be taken for art?) I digress to point out that there is little or nothing about Rogeberg's projects - except that they sometimes end up in galleries - to suggest that in asking what the hell they are you would too quickly decide upon art; which is exactly what makes them exciting and, in the current scheme of things, brave.
For Assumptions Once and Subsequent (1997-98), a piece thematically and formally connected to Tropopause, exhibited at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, a huge, moulding ball of swiss, cheddar, mozzarella, jack, feta and blue cheeses fermented in a slightly larger Perspex sphere. It accomplished a strange asteroid verisimilitude by using the fictive material of nursery rhymes.
Shown in conjunction with Tropopause, Conjectural, Volume #3 (1997), a sphere constructed of longitudinal and latitudinal aluminium vectors, provided a structure for 'maps' of continent-like accumulations of salt. Whatever their geological and astronomical reach, Rogeberg's pieces achieve their daring and humble beauty because his interest in the vastness of galactic space and bodies is cantilevered by his use of materials, chosen as carefully as his homely, planetary structures are balanced. While the energies of Smithson, Noguchi, Celmins and Steven Hawking resonate around Tropopause, they never overshadow the fact that Rogeberg is embodying the poetics of astroscience by using materials which might be found in the well-stocked garage of any handyman. By suggesting, but eluding, any actual geography or astronomy in his enterprise, Rogeberg opens up the metaphorical, formal and conceptual elements of mapping and map-making as fundamental to aesthetics, one of the processes by which the imaginary is surveyed. He's a William Blake dazed and amazed by the Los Angeles sun.