New Orleans

Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Jim Roche’s life is such a good yarn, there is a danger of it overshadowing his work. Before Roche was out of graduate school at the University of Dallas, he was one of the first artists ever to exhibit ceramics at the Whitney; in 1987 he was the record holder for the La Carrera Mexican 1,000cc Motorcycle Road Race; he won an NEA fellowship in 1982; his work was shown at Dave Hickey’s infamous gallery A Clean Well Lighted Space; and he made a brief appearance as a televangelist in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. Yet these anecdotes don’t reflect the prolific meditations included in Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic, curated by Bradley Sumrall at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Roche is an artist who has been majorly overlooked in the last decadeshis work Two hundred years keeping animals down, done brought Da Snake crawlin back around, Flashin Symbols for One and All; Don’t Tread on Me No More Y’all: Piece was last shown at the 37th Venice Biennale in 1976yet his work is more prescient than ever.

Installation view, Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic, 2015. Courtesy of The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Photo: Richard McCabe.

Jim Roche. Cultural Mechanic, 2015; installation view. Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Photo: Richard McCabe.

The Loch Ness Mama is the mythical character that dominates many of Roche’s drawings—forty-four of the 150 works in the exhibition depict her. Part snake, part amphibian, and with a three-breasted head, this cartoon creature is deceptively simple, yet she’s the protagonist in a dense, hallucinatory, Dada-esque world. Roche said, “The Lochness was something I had thought about for a long time. I guess I saw myself as this creature that no one new about. But I knew I existed.” Other characters in this play include another creature called a Penniemama, happy birds, transparent boxes, and flowers. In Loch Ness Mama Getting It in Open Water (1969), Roche opens the story with the title character frolicking in the water. This drawing is clean, precise, and annoyingly upbeat. However, twenty-five drawings later in the series, Loch Ness Mama Reduced for Quick Sale (1972) shows a composition covered in obsessive and baroque marks. There is a clear subtext that nature is fundamental to our existence and humankind is doing a terrible job of existing symbiotically within it.

Jim Roche, The Female Mama Mole Process Release Piece, 1973; Graphite on Paper. Courtesy of The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Photo: Richard McCabe.

Jim Roche. The Female Mama Mole Process Release Piece, 1973; graphite on paper. Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Photo: Richard McCabe.

Some of the densest work in the show provides the most absurdity and pleasure. The Female Mama Mole Process Release Piece (1973) is a drawing with diagrams and copious notes made as proposals for an impossible (or at least improbable) museum show. This plan places a labor of female moles in heat inside “any big museum” and a bunch of male moles right outside of the gallery. Roche writes of a host of auxiliary activities that occur around the mating “‘as male moles and heat moles are released, a helicopter circling above will start playing “The Charge of the Light Brigade.’” These drawings recall John Cage’s early scripts for happenings, where the performance was determined by the chance operations of different participants—in this case, horny moles.

Jim Roche, The Bear Hair 100 Mile Time Trial for Open Road Motorcycles, 2008; Graphite and color pencil on paper, 33.5x34.75. Collection of Marilyn Oshman. Courtesy of The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Photo: Richard McCabe.

Jim Roche. The Bear Hair 100 Mile Time Trial for Open Road Motorcycles, 2008;
graphite and color pencil on paper; 33.5 x 34.75 in. Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Photo: Richard McCabe.

Roche’s series Dr. Curve: Corner Worshipper (2004–2013) documents a lifelong pilgrimage on wheels. Twenty-five graphite and colored line drawings are displayed with intricate detail; different routes, notable intersections, worthy diversions, and short cuts all are carefully recorded. “2 eyes, 2 hands, 2 feet, 2 wheels, 1 day, 1 life, 1 garden” is scrawled across many of the map drawings. Not just a cartographer’s exercise, these drawings are a summation of Roche’s life—the elusive flashes spent living within the moment of the curve. In Blue Ridge 500 TT (2005), organic lines are composed in different colors across the picture plane. Numbers and notes are written beside bends in the road. These works provide a foundation for Roche’s perception of the planet, one of beautiful vistas and ongoing dangers. These maps seem to simultaneously represent a homing in and a zooming out of the world. Perhaps a lifetime of experience allows Roche to balance the broad strokes with the minute details. Roche explains: “If there is any legacy I would like to leave my children through the arts is that we’ve been offered the garden, as it is called, just one time. Everybody has a Garden of Eden, it’s just how you take care of it.”

The density and volubility of the show cloud an overall curatorial thesis, but Roche’s capacious charm, art-historical significance, and the political relevance of the works make this exhibition worthwhile. Roche’s work is a vigilant warning about the earth, one that reminds us that the mechanic can give us diagnostics, but we must pay the price for repairs.

Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans through July 12, 2015.

Share