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The engaging and unusual Jim Roche

An exhibit spans years of the artist's drawings, sculptures and project proposals, one involving glue, feathers and some mighty fans.

Published December 7, 2003

[Gulf Coast Museum of Art]
Jim Roche, 1963 BMW R69 S, 1973, graphite on paper.

LARGO - The good thing about Jim Roche is that he can't shut up. His rambling script, eccentric schematics and jumble of objects as ideas fill the Gulf Coast Museum of Art like the conversations of a compulsive talker we can't tune out; in some instances, I'm almost reminded of those famous, fevered monologues delivered near breaking point by Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo and Ronee Blakley in Nashville. The difference, for all its vexing demands, is that this is lucid art, often extraordinary, sometimes even hilarious.

Roche, 60, a faculty member at Florida State University for more than 30 years, has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, more so in the 1970s, when he participated in biennials at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and similar events in Paris and Venice. He's had shows at prestigious venues and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Years before Matthew Barney entered the fray, Roche was a multitasker, taking up performance, video, process and environmental art, for example, when they were new forms. If this show is representative of what he's doing now, Roche seems to be slowing down; most of the best art here was created 20 or 30 years ago. That it still is so engaging proves how original it was and remains.

The drawings especially demand a lot of our attention because they are dense and, in unconventional ways, so referential. Roche's interior life collides with the exterior world in Background Identification Piece, a group of eight photographs of himself in the rural woods he coupled with diarylike entries that look like automatic writing. In them, he's finding a context for himself within what remains, amid rampant development, of Florida's rural north where five generations of his family have lived. As he wanders among the scrub, he rails, "Take a rock an claimit . . . and takeouta piece of Yankee throat." In this and other works, he's part rap poet, part ranter.

Other drawings that were made as proposals for projects call to mind, in a completely different way, those from Leonardo da Vinci's journals in which he drew diagrams with copious notes about them. I know, I know: A critic comparing any contemporary artist to Leonardo is asking for and deserves hoots. But I'm comparing methodology, a similar open-ended thinking that allows for the most outrageous idea to have a sometimes equally outrageous, but possibly doable, application, as in the proposal for The Female Mama Mole Process Release Date. This is a plan for a process art piece, never executed, in which male and female moles are released to mate in a somewhat controlled, artfully designed landscape attended by lots of corollary activities explained in detail in the drawing. For example, "as male moles and heat moles are released, a helicopter circling above will start playing The Charge of the Light Brigade." Okaaaaay, you might think. I loved it.

In another proposal, The Mama Pigeon Nestle Down and Feathers Shed; Blow and Stick Grid Line Piece, a flock of moulting birds is to be gathered into a museum, "any big museum," at first in a single gallery, then, as he picks up steam in his description, he thinks of an entire museum, "right, that's what we'll do, we'll do it in the whole museum." Fans - "make sure they're high speed, I mean high speed" - would create a big blow of feathers filling the galleries and ultimately sticking to grids coated with glue. I stood in front of the drawing/proposal for about 15 minutes, reading it, amused and fascinated, and still didn't get through all the details. I loved that one, too.

Some of these proposals actually came to life, such as Tree Grave Site, the immense 1975 installation at Art Park in Lewiston, N.Y., which we see in photographs accompanying the original drawing. On a barren site, Roche gathered natural and artificial objects imbued with symbolic significance - rocks, sharks' jaws, shells, flowers, 47 tons of material in all - and layered them into a huge mosaic in the outline of a beetle. It also resembles a burial mound and acts as a celebration of and elegy to the land. It was dismantled at the close of the show, and he has not created another site-specific work since, according to the catalog.

The drawings have a randomness and naivete associated with outsider art that mask a disciplined and classical symmetry seen more clearly in sculptures such as Freedom of Choice, Road Crosses, Say What You Will, and the two "V-Boys" assemblages (both excellent examples of recent work, created in the late 1990s). Road Crosses is a series of four sets of hand-hewn wooden crosses, one larger and two smaller crosses in each set, bearing snippets Roche gleaned from radio evangelists' sermons. He finger-painted them onto the wood in thick color swipes, for example, "R U A Wrinkle in the Sheets of Jesus?" This is not a new idea, the combination of innocuous metaphor and grim irony, but it's deftly done.

Say What You Will is Americana as conceptualism, a 36-foot-long hinged screen of 1,188 vanity plates. Like the coarse and barren spirituality of Road Crosses, this one suggests that our cultural and intellectual landscape has been reduced to drive-by quips such as "Help Keep America Clean, Shoot a Redneck" and "A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle." At the same time, it, like much of the work, is a bemused acknowledgement of the eccentric individuality Roche so admires, low-brow or misguided though it might be.

In the two V-Boys sculptures, Roche arranges a lot of everyday stuff into elegant compositions, one a giant face with a wide-open Coca-Cola sign for a mouth, staring from behind a large crossbar. It suggests containment, perhaps a prison, but it's more likely a temple, flanked by columns formed from shovels and rakes, at which we worship planned obsolescence.

Not available for viewing when I visited the exhibition were his video works, so I can only speculate that they follow the same central theme of the sterility of a life without links to a place, and do so in a generally engaging, unpretentious way.

I don't know how relevant this is but Roche, a friend of movie director Jonathan Demme, has made cameos in several of his films, including Something Wild, Married to the Mob and Beloved. In Silence of the Lambs he made a brief turn as a televangelist. If there is art in trying to figure out the way a mind like Roche's is working - and I think there is - he's made a believer out of me.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Jim Roche: Sense of Place," Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through Jan. 25. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Adults $5, seniors $4, students $3 and children under 12 free. (712) 518-6833.

[Last modified December 5, 2003, 10:14:17]

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