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Review: Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s retrospective of the Florida artist



It seems fair to call Jim Roche a mystery man. The fifth-generation Floridian was born in 1943 and has a resume that not only lists exhibitions at prestigious venues including the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Museum of American Art, but also a victory in a La Carrera motorcycle race in Mexico and cameo roles in several Jonathan Demme movies. An earlier Ogden Museum of Southern Art show featured the great folk art collection he and wife Alexa Kleinbard assembled, and when I recently met him, his silver hair and courtly manner suggested an art collector straight from Central Casting. That's why this Ogden show was disorienting initially — until I became aware of the Mexican motorcycle race. There's a distinctly ad hoc, gonzo, radical outsider vibe going on in this big retrospective going back to the 1960s, an era that permeates much of his oeuvre.

Loch Ness Mama Playing (pictured) is a large serpent sculpture with multiple humanoid breasts where its head should be — a hallucinatory look that recalls the 1960s psychedelic feminist sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle, who also favored curves, bright colors and buoyant mammaries. It resurfaces in large colored marker drawings that suggest adult fairy tales and makes cameo appearances throughout the expanisve show — a smorgasbord of paintings, drawings, process and performance art, with nature and politics as recurring subthemes. His Bugometry series of colorfully baroque paintings features fantastic insects like mutant species crafted by genetic engineers on acid, but some of his more political pieces evoke gritty 1960s underground newspapers such as our own late Nola Express. A series of word paintings, Some People Feel Like This, includes his acerbic Muck Fonsanto: We Have a Right to Know What's in the Food We Eat, a comment on genetically modified foods, but others evoke north Florida's "redneck" populism in an exhibition that reflects the spirit of the cowboy bohemians of the 1960s and 1970s — an outlaw breed long ago supplanted by academic theorists and shrewd, calculating careerists.

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