‘Art World Warrior’

On Friday (2.27), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is opening “Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic.” The new exhibition is a 46 year survey including paintings, drawings, ceramics, and sculpture from Roche’s prolific career. Curator Bradley Sumrall sat down with NoDef to answer a few questions about the show.


What are the must-see pieces in the show?

In this densely-packed exhibition, there are some real stunners that stand out immediately. One is a 37 foot acrylic floor painting in the shape of a snake. It hasn't been shown since the 37th annual Venice Biennale.  A preparatory drawing for Da Snake is titled Two Hunderd Years keeping Animals Down, done brought Da Snake crawlin back around, Flashin Symbols for One an All; Don't Tread on Me No More Y'all: Piece."


The current installation of his "road crosses" is inspired equally by W.C. Rice's Cross Garden, the vernacular cross memorials found throughout the backroads of the South, and what Jim describes as "those fire-and-brimstone preachers on the low-watt stations." You can see Roche's performance of his character, Brother Jim, in Jonathan Demme's film, Silence of the Lambs. Roche is shown as a televangelist preaching in front of the road crosses on the TV outside of Hannibal Lecter's jail cell.


A show-within-a-show, the motorcycle drawings depict his routes as a time-trial driver on European motorcycles. Known in certain circles as "Dr. Curve," Jim Roche is still the record holder in the 1000cc unlimited twin class of the La Carrera Mexican Road Race with an average speed of 107.69 mph on a 1977 BMW R100RS motorcycle. This international race took place on April 11, 1987 on the Baja Peninsula between Ensenada and San Felipe. He has been performing time trials on his own well-defined routes, mostly in northern Florida and Georgia since the early '70s. Look for GPS-correct, pencil-on-paper pieces like The Bear Hair 100 Mile Time Trial for Open Road Motorcycles or Running Ellijay to Wolf Creek across the Continental Divide, searching for Roads that have Tried to Hide.


What themes are prevalent in the current exhibit?

The themes of this exhibition range from the pure playful imagination from his early years as a fearless, immortal, optimistic young artist to the harsh criticism of a wizened and deeply-experienced art world warrior, holding a more dystopian view of the future.


How is the South reflected in Roche’s work?

I see this exhibition as a continuation of a series of shows that explores the idea of what it is to be a Southern artist. There is so much diversity in the South. Sharon Kopriva is a voice: Catholic, Italian, Houstonian; a voice exploring nature and death and cultural identity. Juan Logan is a voice: a blend of African-American, Scottish, Native American; a voice exploring race, place and historical systems of power and oppression. Jim Roche is voice: self-described as a "North Florida cracker mixed with Creek Indian"; a voice exploring within and without, from deep inside his endless imagination to a fearless criticism of contemporary culture, and then, of course, his separate voice as Dr. Curve, a legendary corner-worshiper in the world of motorcycles. A fifth-generation Floridian, he received graduate degrees from the University of Dallas in 1968 (MA) and 1970 (MFA), where he was a member of the Oak Cliff Five, a radical group of young artists that put the Dallas art scene firmly into the dialogue of contemporary art. He now divides his time between his home and studio in northern Florida and a cabin in the mountains of Georgia.  He draws inspiration from common folks in the South; Southern evangelical traditions; vernacular art, architecture and language. In his work, he presents a view of the Southern culture that is honest and sincere, containing equal parts of celebration and harsh criticism.

The Eyes of Florida 1980. Graphite and color pencil on paper, 29×60.75 inches. Collection of the artist

Jim Roche’s sexually charged content was controversial in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Sensibilities have changed. Is he still relevant?

After working in ceramics at the University of Dallas (1966-1970), Roche’s thesis exhibition was displayed for only three hours before being shut down for it sexually charged content. Jim Roche was controversial then, and he is still controversial today. His is both one of the bravest, and one of the most misunderstood artists that I have ever encountered. In his series, Some Americans Feel Like This, he has taken phrases used by a cross-section of contemporary culture, and drawn them meticulously on paper, framed them, and placed them on a museum wall. These are phrases that are often used behind closed doors: in boardrooms, living rooms, churches, meeting halls. They are also plastered on bumper stickers and protest signs. They represent radical thought from both the left and right. Roche presents them not as opinion, but as observation — "some Americans feel like this." I once asked Juan Logan what he felt the role of an artist was in contemporary culture. His response was that an artist doesn't provide solutions, but "asks better questions." By shining a spotlight on some of the more inflammatory and politically-incorrect views in contemporary culture, Roche is initiating serious dialogue — he is asking better questions.


Why should one go see this show? 

To see a small sampling of the result of a life lived by an artist deeply tied to a particular place with an unflinching vision and unstoppable creativity.


Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic, February 27 – July 12, 2015, Opening reception March 7

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