Cruising The Glory Roads

By  Diane Roberts |  May 29, 2011

There he is, the artist as hippie dandy, with his cocked homburg hat, his long black braids, his carved walking stick, tiny white birds on his shoes. Jim Roche picks up the photo, taken around the time in the '70s when he was hanging out at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea and showing at the Whitney. He says, "Look at him. Is he full of himself? Does he have some ego? Is he thinking he's really something?" And laughs at his young, impossible self.

Roche is nicely self-deprecating, but he was—and emphatically still is—really something, an artist whose uncategorizable work, as surely as live oaks and cottonmouths, grows out of the red clay, white sand, and Blackwater-slough terroir of North Florida. A sculptor, ceramicist, and multimedia virtuoso, Roche was declared a star early on by New York art-crit mandarins and became internationally known, showing in Paris, Venice, New York, and Los Angeles. He experimented with found art—car tags, old motel signs, and cigarette ads—performance art, even acting. If you've seen a Jonathan Demme movie, you've seen Jim Roche. Demme, a friend since the mid-1980s, cast Roche as the motel philosopher who tells Jeff Daniels "it's better to be a live dog than a dead lion" in Something Wild (filmed in Tallahassee), a senator in The Manchurian Candidate, and a homophobe inPhiladelphia, to name a few.

A good twenty-five years before Jeff Koons started producing oversized figures in M&M colors, Jim Roche was making big, bright, sexually rambunctious ceramic pieces; and a solid two decades before Matthew Barney incorporated film, music, and performance in his epically unsettlingCremaster, Roche was a master of many forms, making audiotapes of his (sometimes intentionally offensive) monologues, pimping his ride into a sly commentary on race, greed, and American smugness called The Bicentennial Welfare Cadillac, and creating tableaux like his Bill Collector's Room, complete with rubber rats sitting around on chairs as if they're waiting to be served tea. Demme calls Roche "a visualist, verbalist, romanticist,, knife-thrower, ass-kicker, shucker extraordinaire, inventor, bee's-nest stirrer, ecologist," and, perhaps most importantly, "a troublemaker." In a short essay for Roche's most recent show, the conceptualist photographer William Wegman says Roche's "drawings, performances, tapes, installations were/are all imbued with an intense personal charisma."

Roche could probably have become the darling of Manhattan's haute-artiste scene: After his 1974 Whitney show, he was offered a number of studios there to work in. Instead, he says, "I fell in love, got a new credit card, and a new motorcycle," and went home to the South.

Roche's studio in Havana, Florida, twelve miles north of Tallahassee, is a kind of informally curated museum of his life. He's stuck photos of his wife (the painter Alexa Kleinbard) and their two sons all over the place. Disassembled installations lean against the walls and many pieces from the family art collection are stored in corners or hang on the walls. There are shelves full of tools, oils, and pigments, an authentic bolita wheel, the eagle lights he made for his solo Whitney show (now carefully wrapped against the dust), and a couple of very old African birthing chairs, made of a silky golden-brown wood.


Looming over this wonderland of stuff are the V-Boys, huge assemblages of garden rakes, Coca-Cola signs, levels, movie posters, toilet seats, biddy feeders, and what have you, wired to specially made chain-link frames. They appear anarchic but are as formal in composition as an altarpiece. Each has a cruciform center, made from pipes and poles-and, in one case, a playground slide—flanked by angled objects rendered symbolic when juxtaposed with one another. In medieval Christian art, you can "read" the imagery—keys, lilies, a lion, or a sword indicate particular saints or particular stories. Roche creates his own personal iconography.

The V-Boy Little Angels, for instance (the title comes from a clothing-and-gift-shop sign at the bottom of the piece), incorporates crutches, wheel rims, banged-up motorcycle parts, and a gas can on top. It tells of his epic, damn-near-fatal accident in 1995, when he tested a new BMW bike on a rural road. God knows how fast he was going, but right at the Georgia-Florida line he hit a deer. More accurately, he went through the deer like a large-caliber bullet through a hamburger patty. Cut the critter right in half. (It was a good-sized doe.) Roche lost control of the bike and flew straight up, landing hard on the blacktop. He claims, with a kind of Easy Rider insouciance, that the blow he took to the back of his head "cleared up my sinuses, which had been bothering me since my last motorcycle crash in Baja."

Little Angels is at once a celebration of survival and a talisman. Roche still rides and still owns several fast bikes. He says, a little archly, "I am studying for my open-road motorcycle finals."

His darkly exuberant Road Crosses series from the early '80s also addresses death and resurrection. As is much of his work, the crosses are influenced by folk art, in this case those memorials you see hammered into the dirt beside highways all over the South. Roche says the late W.C. Rice's fierce "Cross Garden" in Prattville, Alabama, probably helped shape his work, too. Rice painted messages on rusting washing machines, junker cars, and wooden crosses, cautioning you will die and reminding you that hell is hot, hot, hot.

Roche's own crosses partake of a similar Old Testament–flavored ferocity-except they're even weirder. "I began to take it [the crosses] awful far," says Roche, a sentiment that could apply to his whole career. His crosses holler, devil don't need no money and r.u.n. i.o.u. devil oops! he's gotcha or ask ru a wrinkle in the sheets of jesus? Roche says, "I used to listen to a lot of those low-watt radio stations, gospel, you know, and sermons. Rev. Cleophus Robinson. You ever hear his 'Dead Flies in the Church'?"

When he exhibited the Road Crosses in Massachusetts, some people pitched a hissy fit, worrying that this Southern white guy, with, as Roche says, "that Cracker accent," was endorsing the illiberal sentiments of the straight-out-of-Deliverance rednecks believed to infest every nook and cranny below the Mason-Dixon line.

"Daddy's Brain" (2001) by Jim Roche.

He started making trouble early. His University of Dallas MFA show with its voluptuous "Mamas"—large, hilarious, in-your-face ceramic pieces—lasted all of a few hours before some influential people demanded the "suggestive" pieces be concealed in black plastic. Roche grew up in a Pentecostally inflected South where sex was at once powerful and terrifying, where people could and did speak in tongues, where it wasn't uncommon for a church to have its own snake pit. As TV evangelist "Brother Jim" in The Silence of the Lambs, he was suitably and unnervingly convincing in a chalk-blue suit, waving a Bible bookmarked with what look like motel do not disturb tags and take-out menus.

Several of his video monologists are preachers. In Sermon on Child Abuse from the mid-1980s, he channels a minister, head twitching like a spooked mule, warning that anyone who "de-innocentizes a chile" will end up frying in the "chitlin pit of hell." The furtive Rev. of "Fondlators" rants about bad women—"we are not talking about innocent girls!"—who go around "gussied-up and hussied-up," high-heeled enemies of the holy.

"People don't always understand indirect discourse," says Allys Palladino-Craig, director of the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University and a longtime fan of Roche's work. "They think Jim's works are the artist speaking, acting out, or being confrontational. Jim is a cultural archaeologist, collecting the flotsam and jetsam of society."

Holiness is at the beating green heart of Roche's art—holiness and history. The 1974 Whitney installation, which made him famous, includes horseshoe-crab exoskeletons, animal bones, marbles, plastic flowers, cypress knees, shells, and trees. He made his own Florida lawn flamingos with curiously armadillo-like heads to guard the perimeter and, high overhead, he hung lights hidden inside fifty-two eagles with snakes in their talons. He wrote on the wall of the museum: "this is the 'Sand, Rock, Shell and Seed, Power Pole and Money treed, Dual Catenary X Ascension, Eagle Lite and spirit retention, Graven Image to the land; all in my background: Piece.'"

Jim Roche and I are hanging out at the Tallahassee house he and Alexa Kleinbard share, talking about nature, the sacred, and his background. It's spring: The mixed scents of wisteria, tea olive, and coming rain waft in through the screen door. The front porch and yard teem with old-time flora: elkhorn fern, crown of thorns, a bottlebrush tree, poinsettias fifteen feet tall. Inside, every room is jammed with art from Haiti, New York, or various parts of the South. In fact, he and Kleinbard have amassed such a splendid collection of "outsider" art, the Ogden Museum in New Orleans is planning an exhibition of some of it this August.

In one corner, there's a nude self-portrait statue by renowned African-American sculptor O.L. Samuels. Roche fears some visitors might find the generously endowed hunk of carved fat lighter a little embarrassing, so Samuels's back is turned, preserving everybody's modesty. Roche and Kleinbard have hung what they call the "Woman Wall" with "naive" portraits of women looking out to sea, women paddling canoes, and one of a woman reclining, cigarette in hand, while a couple of babies and a couple of demon-eyed cats compete for food on the floor. Roche comes from the same rural upbringing as many of the folk artists he admires. His people have lived in the still-wild country north of the Gulf of Mexico since before Florida was part of the United States. His kin, which include Native Americans and framers of Florida's first constitution, made their living in the fields and sand hills of Washington County. "They were so of the land," he says. "From them, I learned never to destroy anything just for the hell of it."

Roche is himself of the land, an environmentalist before the word was common. He has watched Florida become less the Sunshine State and more the Drain-It-and-Pave-It State. "Humans are the skin cancers of the earth, a melanoma on nature," he says. His satirical "plan" for the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, including "8,000 plastic-jug wind vanes" and a trailer park in the salt marshes, was drawn in 1973, but now looks distressingly prescient as the current legislature contemplates commercializing the state's last unspoiled places.

Probably the grandest and most moving ecological intervention of his career was the 1975 Tree Gravesite, installed on top of what had been a chemical dump at Artpark in Lewiston, New York. Shaped like a scarab beetle and broader than Stonehenge, it was an assemblage of "man-eating" clam shells, cypress knees, beech logs wide as a truck tire, and boulders. Roche says that at the time, "the last stands of virgin beech trees, which are very rare in Florida already, were being cut down in the Apalachicola basin to build I-10. I hated what they were doing to the Apalachicola River—I'd just as soon have kept the two-lane road."

The coast south of Washington County is a tacky, dystopian tangle of condos, motels, tattoo parlors, Walmarts, and Walmart-sized bars. Spring-breakers cavort and girls go wild on the sands of Panama City, disturbing the turtle nests and scaring the dolphins, but thirty miles from the perpetually replicating string of strip malls, gun shops, and liquor stores, the hardwood groves and green hills are almost as serene as they were nearly two hundred years ago when Stephen Roche, a doctor and merchant, established a settlement in the Holmes Valley. His wife, Sarah Russ, was a Creek who had been adopted by a white family. Perhaps she's the one to thank for Jim Roche's incandescent passion for his own little postage stamp of native soil. Linda Hall, a Tallahassee artist and former student of Roche's at FSU, calls him "shamanesque." She says, "I learned from him about the secret history of Indians and turpentiners and complicated wild landscapes, feral animals and native plants, ghosts and the piney woods."

The Apalachee hunted the Holmes Valley, leaving their pottery shards and spear points in the woods; the Camino Real, the trail connecting the Spanish cities of Pensacola to the west, St. Augustine to the east, and all the missions in between, ran through here. There are oaks that were centuries old when Andrew Jackson raided Seminole villages, whiskey-brown rivers, and springs as cold and blue as a winter sky. Generations of Roches, some of them veterans of the Seminole Wars and the Confederate Army, lie in the graveyard at Moss Hill, a Methodist mission founded around 1819. The present church was built by slaves in 1857 of heart pine so sap-saturated that, when first cut, anyone handling it or stepping on it left a ghostly mark. Jim Roche says that, as a kid, he'd sit in Moss Hill Church looking up at the footprints on the ceiling. "Clear as anything," he says. "Bare footprints and handprints, too."

Fed on such environmental lushness and such down-home surrealism, it's no wonder Roche's work is positively rococo. "I don't have a minimalist fiber in me."

He lives immersed in Florida's Fauvist colors, the hot, wet green of summer leaves, flowers in shades of fuchsia, magenta, vermilion, and chrome yellow, and the loamy palette of the swamp. From recent pieces such as Daddy's Brain to his mid-'70s drawing for a giant harlequin-patterned snake—Roche is a master of chromatic extravagance. This serpent, the Free, Forever, or Die: Piece, is a subversive take on the Gadsden flag, forked tongue planted firmly in reptilian cheek. One version, on a thirty-foot canvas, was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and titled Don't Tread on Me No More Y'all: Piece.

Roche's early pieces established a geometry for his art, namely the catenary arch. It turns up everywhere, from his irrepressibly sexual ceramics to his sculpture. The "Mamas" had more (and larger) breasts than seemed strictly necessary to some critics-Roche likes to tell how the New York Timescalled the Overly Optimistic Transvestite Mama gross. They failed to see he was making references to ancient works such as the many-bosomed Artemis of Ephesus, using the elegant catenary arch over and over again.

The arch a hanging chain—catena in Latin—makes when inverted is a catenary. The St. Louis arch is a catenary; McDonald's "golden arches" are a double catenary. The kilns Roche fired his ceramics in were catenary-shaped. The catenary arch distributes force throughout the curve, making it self-supporting. The Mesopotamians used it; so did the Greeks and the Romans. It's Gaudi's favorite, too. Despite the psychedelic, head-shop colors that might make it seem innocent, even cartoonish, Roche's 1970 Loch Ness Mama swimmin into NY harbor is a cunning subversion of art-world pieties. The breast-headed critter, its body formed of catenary arches, confronts the transparent cube-shapes of Minimalism that have taken over Manhattan. It's an artistic manifesto. It's also witty.

"1963 BMW R69S" (1973) by Jim Roche.

Appropriately, Roche's motorcycle alter ego is "Dr. Curve," the name he uses when writing for BMW Owners' News. It's a perfect nom de guerre, though it was given to him by someone who wasn't exactly au fait with his art. In 1987, he went out to the La Carrera Mexican Road Race with "the scabbiest-looking bike you've ever seen." The well-equipped Californian riders hanging out at the bar were unimpressed, saying they'd heard he was some "schoolteacher down in Florida" and sardonically wondering what his academic discipline might be. But legendary racer Fred Eiker, La Carrera's resident hotshot, had practiced with Roche and stuck up for him. Eiker suggested Roche was a "doctor of curves."

In Jim Roche's work, the bikes, the bosoms, the catenary arches, the profane and the sacred, the yin and the yang, collide like accelerated particles in an atom smasher. And, though he's now officially retired, he keeps on moving fast and making art. His 2010 Glory Roads series is a collection of maps drawn in gem-toned Faber-Castelli pencils, rendering the routes he takes riding his motorcycle. They are, Roche says, "GPS accurate." They are also exquisite, delicate-looking, acutely observed. The bike is burning hydrocarbons, sure; the bike is hyper-masculine; but the natural world through which he rides is feminine, fecund. Dr. Curve.

"I think the artist is a mechanic for the culture," Roche says. "When the culture isn't working right, the artist needs to come in there and tune it up."