JIM ROCHE: SENSE OF PLACE Known for his enthusiasm for outsider art, Roche has been an outsider himself—ironic, considering that in this ever-changing state of Florida, he is a native son. He is keenly aware of division lines between the privileged and the disenfranchised, the haves and the have-nots. Although the world is fast becoming a global village, Roche celebrates a southern heritage: his very specific sense of place is a homing beacon and it was the subject of the ‘background piece’ that catapulted him to initial stardom in the ’70s followed by international venues for his work, major press coverage and prestigious grants. Roche collects history, the poetic history of his region of America. He persistently, patiently, works in the idiom of cultural ephemera—vanity car plates emblazoned with folk philosophy and sassy comments, enameled advertising signs from country stores, farm equipment, Bible Belt detritus. Some of his assemblage sculptures are resonant with lives of people who have handled the objects, while other series of his sculpture can be aggressive, the way his rural road crosses are, with their dire warnings and dark gospel humor intended to warn souls from perdition. His honors include The National Endowment for the Arts in 1975 and 1982 and the Florida Arts Council Fellowship in 1980. He was invited to the Venice Biennial in 1976, and the Paris Biennale in 1977, and exhibitions including his work, such as Automobile and Culture (1984) and Made in Florida (1989) toured Europe.
Jim Roche at a ceramics wheel in January of 1967.
From the anonymity of his Texas studio, Roche’s ascension to the exalted heights of the Whitney Annual and later a solo show at the museum was a blueprint of early discovery and success. In relative isolation in the late sixties, he had created a body of work over several formative years of graduate study, clashing with the university art police from the very earliest days of his career; impelled by an unshakeable faith in his artistic decisions, he refused to capitulate on imagery. He delivered heroic-scaled hybrids—half flora, half fauna, wholly sexual.
Temporary exterior location of a Bust and Boom pot, precursor to the Potted Mama Plant.
Working in clay at the University of Dallas (1966-1970), Roche’s potted Mama plants were unprecedented in size and concept. For them to be fired, they had to be cut into sections, and the imagery rocked the Catholic university administration back on its heels. In the Mamas, the female breast and the domesticated monolithic cactus met and morphed into a steroid symphony of mammary forms. They were funny, they were intimidating, they were brazen. And for that reason, his thesis exhibition was displayed for only three hours before the Monsignor shut it down.
Jim Roche is no stranger to controversy: sometimes it has gone all the way to censorship when his work has actually been pulled from a show that has already opened. At other times his work has been withdrawn before the exhibition begins—too hot to handle. The range of ‘offences’ slides from the early supersexual Mamas to politics read by visitors both correctly and incorrectly.
A Loch Ness Mama in process. (Roche Photo Archives)
Meteoric Success. Roche’s coined fetishes—the phallic-shaped Mamas with crowning adornments of breasts and nipples—were to him as basic as prehistoric fertility figures, which are exaggeratedly voluptuous. Roche’s figures are also hermaphroditic with their surfaces finished in high-polish automotive enamels. Roche’s stardom was nearly an overnight phenomenon. He rocketed to fame due in part to the attention of such kingmakers as Dave Hickey (arts writer as well as gallery owner) and Marcia Tucker (founder of The New Museum in New York). Dave Hickey’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Space” in Dallas was the locus of Roche’s first solo exhibition and he and other artists were mainlined into New York through the movers and shakers who visited Dallas. The androgynous (“transvestite”) Mamas sparked the interest of Tucker, but having graduated, Roche could no longer afford to create objects that needed large university kilns and so he left ceramic sculpture behind.
Before it became known as right-thinking—as self-preservation of our worldwide well-being, if nothing else—Roche was a staunch environmentalist. This is a stance from which he has never wavered. His own exposure to hazardous materials is a sensitive topic because early in his career he used a variety of media, everything from naptha inks to asbestos powders, the dangerous properties of which weren’t labeled then as the biohazards they are known to be today. Roche’s unstable materials a function of the hard-scrabble life of a grad student and recent post-grad.
Jim Roche, Loch Ness Mama swimmin into NY harbor, 1970, ink on paper, 14.25 x 23 inches. Photo credit: Jon Nalon.
Fresh from his graduate career (where he had enjoyed financial support in the form of a full fellowship), he held an assortment of temporary positions, including one as a preparator for the Janie C. Lee Gallery in Dallas where he hung his share of Stellas, Flavins and Judds—minimalist paintings which meant nothing to Roche in terms of his narrative trajectory. In fact, it was from this experience and others that he constructed a critical iconography of the New York artworld as an assembly of closed transparent boxes.
He made sly drawings of innocent-looking creatures in a crayon-book technique, outlined in black, in-filled with primary colors; yet beneath the surface lurked the subversive intent to circumvent the establishment point of view where vigorous eroticism was excluded from the public space and confined to the walls of the private studio. In rebellion against the inflexibility of the academic art world, Roche discovered the role of the anarchist and he had a good time launching covert salvos and glorying in his own artistic freedom.
Jim Roche, Search for Roots, 1967 [6 - 6 - 67], assemblage, 29 inches high x 113 inches wide x 24 inches deep. (Roche Photo Archives)
A ’70s obsession with “the search for roots” in family backgrounds and ethnic histories became Roche’s literal sculpture—half branch and half shovel (1977). The work had a personal symbolism for him, commemorating the death of a close friend. Roche, it would seem, is a channel for the temporal philosophies and pop-culture lingo that he sometimes incarnates in three dimensions and as often satirizes. Folklore, truisms, epithets and occasionally brutal humor are his domain. He isn’t particular about his sources and he doesn’t actually care whom he offends, though it is never actually his intention to offend anyone, it is just his intention to always get it right—to capture a sense of place, the essence of a time.
Jim Roche, The Mama Pigeon Nestle Down And Feather Shed; “Blow and Stick” Grid Line Piece, 1972, graphite on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Photo credit: Jon Nalon.
While Jim had begun his career as a master thrower absorbed in the tactile and reflective preoccupations of clay, the early courtship by the art world (and the milieu of the graduate school experience, in general) struck a chord, appealing to the raconteur in his personality and he began to create proposals, many never meant to be anything other than amusing drawings with references to an entity in his storytelling known as The Major Museum. In the midst of the fun he was having—he did have fun as surely as he also maintained a seriousness of purpose—he was self-possessed and knowledgeable. As he would construct the work of art he would address the needs of the project, but every once in awhile, like a whispered aside in stage directions, he would also address the art world directly.
Jim Roche, Formalism at rest / formalism goin up / formalism levelin out, 1973, 4-component photo drawing, each panel 14 x 11.25 inches. Photo credit: Jon Nalon.
When Roche was a student, assemblage sculpture and conceptual and performance art were hot commodities. There were new directions like Kienholz’s complicated room-sized tableau Roxy’s, (1961, titled after an L.A. brothel and premiered at Ferus Gallery). It was a heady time for experimentation although the minimalists seemed to be the heroes of academe.
Jim Roche at the Walker Art Center; installation of Life Symbols, Human Condition Packets and the Animal Ascension Plot; detail of the set-up. (Roche Photo Archives)
As he has written in the liner notes to his double-record album Learning to Count (Jim Roche: Early Works, 1982, Morgan Gallery), he is attracted to the wrought-up harangues of tent-revivalist or evangelical preachers on the “low-watt stations of rural America.” There are two photographs on the cover of this LP: on the back is Human Condition Packets—a massive assemblage of trashed objects, and broadsides, posters, and stories ripped from reputable news sources as well as scuzzy supermarket tabloids; the installation recycles the debris of society sewn into polyvinyl packets, everything from political candidate stickers to the cardboard containers for hygiene products, from a street flier with the post box address for the Klan to a broadside of Black protest against Dallas police treatment. On the record album front is the artist in a performance of The Icepick Release Piece, where he took on the sixties artworld that was boxing him in with its love of minimalist work. Attacking a crude outline on the wall (zoned from “possible death” to markers for “certain death,” and “ultra-certain death”) Roche exercised the demons of minimalism with piercing insistence on content and narrative. Whenever he realizes that the elite of the artworld are looking over his shoulder, there’s a definite chip there; in cases of friendlier encounter, his humor is less cynical.
Human Condition Packets were exhibited at the museum in Tyler, Texas, as well as at the Walker Art Center.
Jim Roche with Governor Fuller Warren’s 1949 Cadillac. (Roche Photo Archives)
Preceding his solo New York show in 1974, Roche was lured back to Florida State University for what he assumed would be the appointment of a single academic year. The Whitney had given him eighteen months to prepare for his installation, and Roche made a trial-run in the university museum with a work over thirty feet in diameter which his students nicknamed “swamp pizza.” Like the real thing over a year later, Roche wanted an “ecological piece in a pagan format about the natural world and what was occurring in it.”
Jim Roche, All in My Background Piece: “The Sand, Rock, Shell and Seed, Power Pole and Money Treed, Dual Catenary X Ascension, Eagle Lite and Spirit Retention,” 1974, mixed media installation floor to ceiling, 23 feet x 39.5 feet x 13 feet (entrance axis 19 feet, catenary arches 36 feet, height varying from 3 inches to 12 feet, 7 tons weight), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. (Roche Photo Archives)
Jim Roche, Tree Gravesite (…this is the “Onya Mr. Treegrave to Celebrate; Scarab, Turtle, an Ray, Treesea Rockwind dome gone East; X on Cross, Day Sun”), 1975, graphite on paper, 30 x 42 inches.
Tree Grave Site was built in 1975: the work is a memorial to vanished natural preserves—nature displaced by the super highways, or deforestation due to aggressive logging, chemical poisons or any other profit-motive human factors or human carelessness. Yet Tree Grave Site also functioned for the artist and his crew as extreme unction, a final sacrament; they placed ‘sacred’ objects into context in a ritual of loss. Both the Grave Site and All in My Background were descriptions of the way Roche had known his homeland and the expanses of virtually untouched Florida and southern woodlands. Once in conflict with the interests of the federal highway system or encroached upon by developers and the tourism industry, change was swift. In the most arid location of Art Park, Tree Grave Site was placed.
Jim Roche at Artpark in Lewiston, New York, in 1975 during the installation of Tree Gravesite.
The visual outline was an enormous Egyptian scarab, a flying beetle, searching for refuge because the forests were going, were gone. Assembled in the middle of desolate terrain, it took Roche and his crew 27 straight days to prepare then position painted rocks, blue granite, shark jaws, snakes, shells, marbles, flowers and innumerable other components weighing in at 47 tons of matériel. New Yorker magazine reported that despite the amazing fragility of the piece compared with other sculpture in the park, it was not vandalized. Roche believed that was because it worked spiritually. At the close, all the components were given away except for the three big shell sets which Roche kept. This was the last piece of site-specific installation work he undertook
Jim Roche and Alexa Kleinbard with The Bicentennial Welfare Cadillac, 1976, modified and decorated 1950 4-door Cadillac sedan, 65 inches x 87 inches x 20 feet 7 inches.
The late ’70s were quite a time for Roche. The Bicentennial Welfare Cadillac was completed in 1976, and in 1977 his wry Vampire Alarm was sent to the Paris Biennale. Roche is an artist who can take a popular shibboleth, i.e., the ‘welfare Cadillac,’ and make it palpable. In a Mark Stevens article on “The Dizzy Decade” a Frank Stella painting was reproduced on one side of the Newsweek page and Roche’s tricked-out caddy on the other. The Cadillac was dedicated to “all the blues players that have gone on, and to the few who remain,” like N. L. Williams, a street musician Roche knew as a youth in Tallahassee. Despite its political incorrectness, the vehicle was included in the watershed Automobile and Culture exhibition at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art in 1984.
Jim Roche, After Five, 1980, base 7 feet 2 inches x 7 feet 2 inches x 7 feet high. (Roche Photo Archives)
Installation Sculpture. With installations like the Human Condition Packets behind him, a sense of craft won out in a series begun in 1979 entitled Days of Reckoning. Roche undertook large-scale assemblage sculptures, among them Freedom of Choice, Preparation to Try, After Five, Life, and Minority Pressures [Teams].
Meanings accrue to sculptures as multilayered and as narratively rich as those of Jim Roche. But that’s not the whole story. There are details that qualify what we think we see. These details do not alter or detract from the poetry of mythic symbolism, they simply refine and add to the main thrust of the imagery. In After Five, for instance, the mantlepiece was rescued from the boyhood home of Governor LeRoy Collins, which has a particular historic significance and pedigree to Roche because of that fact. Then, if you look closely, you will realize that nothing about the chair before the fireplace is either modular or straight. Why not? Because the chair was made by a blind craftsman, which is the reason Roche acquired it.
Jim Roche, Freedom of Choice, 1979, assemblage, 9 x 13 x 7 feet. (Roche Photo Archives)
What viewers see in Days of Reckoning works is conditioned by commonly held beliefs and notions. For example, we are people anxious to preserve our individual rights, and so we recognize the concept of Freedom of Choice instantly. Then, because we are also working class, we identify with what is apparently the cozy security and peace of home in After Five. Since we are not alone in our lives—we have colleagues, national or local allegiances, families, children, or are ourselves children in the unbroken ancestry of mankind—we read Minority Pressures [Teams] as metaphorical, indicative of the act of belonging, of pulling together and being a tightly-knit unit against any hostile or threatening forces.
The power of the vessel in Freedom of Choice lies in its ambiguity and mystery: a ship is a means of escape and adventure. It is also a funeral craft. This spare yet well-appointed vessel is, in shape, a Paleozoic trilobite. As his point of departure, Roche wanted a mudcrawler, an ancient lifeform that came out of the primordial stew of the oceans and heaved itself up onto the volcanic landmass. An astute visitor would be able to read the animal reference, but Roche has incorporated other elements: the captain’s chair behind an antique racing-car windscreen and leg-irons. Because the tangled moralities of the daily news often find their way into the artist’s thinking, Freedom of Choice was for Roche, a silent commentary on the protest of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore and his fate. Gilmore demanded his right to die and the strange chair on the deck of the ship stands in for an electric chair; the shackles attached to it are chrome-plated artifacts, slave irons.
Jim Roche, Preparation to Try, 1981, assemblage, 14 feet high x 6 feet wide x 3 feet deep, from Days of Reckoning. (Roche Photo Archives)
As the Old Testament resonance of the series title Days of Reckoning suggests, Roche has no doubt whatever about an individual’s being accountable for his or her actions. It may only be a moral balance sheet—since transgressors do seem to prosper—but there is a ledger of right and wrong in Roche’s philosophy, and there are sinners and there are saints. His works are often generated by a complicated specific incident, but he elevates that incident to a poetic and cosmic level. Roche is an intuitive builder, he does what is genuine and he’s a populist to boot (he has been quoted as saying he doesn’t want his viewers to have to read a book before they get the message). Because of that, he works with cultural notions and big-spirited icons.
Jim Roche, The Eyes of Florida,1980, graphite and color pencil on paper, 29 x 60.75 inches. Photo credit: Jon Nalon.
Contemporary catch-phrases bantered about in off-hand expressions appeal to Roche. Not only expressions, but mottoes and ideas he finds in one place and in one context that can be liberated by him to be deployed in a different manner in another location: the concept of the “eyes of Texas” was transmuted into the “eyes of Florida” in his proposal for a commemorative work for a Florida site that also recycled the “don’t tread on me” snake symbol of the Texas state motto.
Jim Roche, a triad from the series of Road Crosses, 1981-83, acrylic on wood, variable dimensions. (Roche Photo Archives)
Scrawled in the wet cement of a sidewalk near his house is a line: “What’s right’s right, what’s left is wrong.” Easily read as a political statement, the neatly inscribed aphorism is cleverly accurate: whatever is right (true, honest) is right—and if it isn’t right, everything that’s left over can’t be anything but wrong. The graffiti is Jim Roche’s handiwork, whether he admits it or not. It is, in fact, the title of his 1983 exhibition of ‘road crosses.’
Roche’s crosses intentionally look like found objects, yet each is painstakingly crafted by the artist who arranges couplets of related phrases, sayings, promises, and threats in bright hand-worked pigment. Havana, where Roche has his studio, is just a tiny settlement along one of the less-traveled Florida roads where crosses appear as the memorials of fatal car accidents and as fundamentalists’ advertisements to recapture sinners and return them to the fold by means of hand-made calls to salvation. In his studio there, Roche began to re-create the exuberant fanaticism of the rural road crosses with biting messages like “Good Lawyers won’t help” and “Devil don’t need no money”—or “Jesus does not plea bargain” and “No technical acquittals.”
Jim Roche, Say What You Will, 1988, dimensions variable, 1188 vanity plates on a support matrix 8 feet 2 inches high x 3 feet deep x 36 feet long. (Roche Photo Archives)
After lengthy attention to the downward spiral of the series predictions, Roche was happy to head in a totally new direction and to turn to vestiges of popular culture, the vanity plates of Say What You Will. These plates, the wit and witticisms of crude humorists, with only occasionally philosophical statements, appear on the highways in personalized or personally-selected plates. According to Roche, not only is America the only country in the world sporting such a public and odd embellishment on its vehicles, but the plates actually originated as silkscreened tourist items, tags created by a Jacksonville company, “Finn Lad.” So when “Made in Florida” was slated to tour Europe in 1989, Roche’s submission Say What You Will was the quintessential inclusion of contemporary Americana, consisting of 1188 plates on double-sided Marine grade support matrix. One can only wonder if it translated well to the Europeans or if most of the puns, plays on words (Visualize Whirled Peas, for example) could translate at all. From “Help Keep America Clean, Shoot a Redneck,” to “Honk if Parts Fall Off,” from Rebel flags to “Grandma / Grandpa” or “Retired,” the vanity plate proclaims an attitude and a sense of the car driver’s identity. While “Jeeze If You Love Honkus” and “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” are two plates that particularly amuse Roche, it was obvious that in a culture on wheels, personal embellishment to a vehicle represented a streak of individualism. As an artist, he had once again hit upon an encapsulating emblem of the American way of life—the artifact of a mobile nation.
Jim Roche, Sign Times, 1991, installation 7 feet high x 145 feet long, shown at the Yellowstone Art Center. (Roche Photo Archives)
The 1988 piece Say What You Will was followed by an even larger survey of American media in 1990, Sign Times which is a vast room of advertising signage for seductive or useful products and reminders of mundane facts—“cash this aisle,” for example. Roche blended different time frames to create a corral of signs 145 feet long, by 7 feet 10 inches high, exhibiting the piece in Montana at the Yellowstone Center and later in Winston-Salem at the South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art.
Jim Roche, Little Angels from the V-Boys series,1998, assemblage, 109 inches high x 8 feet wide x 24 inches deep. Photo credit: Jon Nalon.
In 1996 Roche began the V-Boys, which are often composed of new objects that have become obsolete. Think about it—examples are all around us: consider, for instance, the near obsolescence of the stationary telephone. For roughly a century, the plot of a work of fiction (a film, a novel, a play) could turn on the drama of someone’s reaching a telephone in time to place a call for help to the police or to an emergency room. Now cell phones have almost erased the memory of any other mode or necessity. Especially searing are those images of September 11, 2001, when hundreds of phonecalls were placed between doomed Trade Center and airliner victims and their families. Like telephone wires catching the slanting light of the sun, visual imageries are disappearing (as quickly as underground cable can be laid, as quickly as Americans embrace wireless communication). Roche looks for forgotten implements, devices or symbols of an outmoded way of life to incorporate into his V-Boys. There are constants—his love of symmetry, his penchant for cruciform shapes and old signs. He has his ear to the ground, and in many ways, Roche is a cultural archaeologist. He is observant and perceptive about the things society tosses to the garbage bin.
Although Roche had been making tonal poetry and intense recordings since the beginning of his career, his video studies in the nineties and currently are encounters with characters of many shades and nuances. The videos function like poet Robert Browning’s ‘dramatic monologues’ where murderous dukes and avaricious cardinals unconsciously reveal their flawed humanity in the course of casual dialogue. Roche’s characters are both distinct from and distinctive to the viewer. With some exceptions, he films his rogues’ gallery in a single location with few changes of setting or personal costuming. While many of the outré personalities he has created are intended to evoke sympathy (along with a gentle smile at their naivete), others like Flue Mask or Chin Face are played broadly for the comedy of the situation. Flue Mask lets the viewer in on the visual joke; the persona is advocating a method of dress (a suit of armor against germs) that will guarantee that the wearer absolutely cannot catch influenza: totally swathed in tin foil with sunglasses on top of that, the character is definitely an individual to be avoided by anyone carrying germs—and to be avoided by anyone, period. Chin Face presents a look at bigotry in the most preposterous of scenarios through a ‘chinless’ character whose use of four-letter profanity is positively lyrical; the character has typed himself and his chinless clan as aesthetically superior to all those who do have chins, inveighing against the whole race of them, as vehement in his bias and intolerance as he can absurdly be.
To look too closely at the misfits of the humorous videos is to miss the point of letting the cadence of the ridiculous roll on. Some of the sketches are inspired lunacy, others are droll instances in which you can almost see the artist watching himself as the viewer does: Bike Dance is ostensibly an homage to Roche’s racing motorcycle on which he won the La Carrarra race (average speed 107.697 mph over 118 miles). Roche bows and honors his bike in the video, giving tribute to the bike god for his win.
Roche’s artwork is translucent—or perhaps more mirror-like, reflecting the social environment of our time in its myriad facets from political world events to personal systems of belief. He touches exposed nerves: “All those of us who are liberal, straightforward—notwithstanding for the right—Democratic Christian, and the rest of the things we would all like to be” is a facetious statement from a suspect character in Queer Nation, an off-color prank of a video (2001). It is useless to ask, like a ’50s gameshow host, if the real Jim Roche will please stand up. He has done so, in fact, for Roche, as an actor, is both all and none of his characters—from the psychotic rapist in F—em to the hilarious dawdler in Too Much Stuff, from the downtrodden trash-gatherer in Pork ’n Beans to the reverent animist in Bike Dance. As a writer / actor of bleak videos, he has insight into the dark places in the human psyche, and in the lighter pieces, he unmasks the contrary nature of human folly.
Support and Organization: The exhibition JIM ROCHE: GLORY ROADS was organized by the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts in concert with T. Lynn Hogan, College of Visual Arts, Theatre and Dance. Project Staff: Allys Palladino-Craig, Grantwriter / Editor; Jean Young, Fiscal Officer; Teri Yoo, Communications Officer; Viki D. Thompson Wylder, Educational Programming; Wayne Vonada, Chief Preparator. Publication / Exhibition Interns: Stacy Tanner and Alison Schaeffler-Murphy. Guest Editor: T. Lynn Hogan, Chairman, Department of Art,
and Associate Dean, CVAT&D, Florida State University, Recipient, Arts & Humanities Program Enhancement Grant / Florida State University
Book Design: Julienne T. Mason, JJKLM Design, Lansing, Michigan
Photography: Jon Nalon, Tallahassee, Florida and Roche Family Archives