NEW ORLEANS — Motorcycle racer, evangelical performance artist, illustrator of Southern myths, and giant snake creator, Jim Roche is a difficult person to pin down. A five-decade survey of his work, Cultural Mechanic at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, examines Roche as an explorer of the strange and spiritual South.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Florida artist’s work (as I was), stepping into the galleries of the Ogden is overwhelming. There are sculptures, photographs, drawings, ceramics, and assemblages, all displayed salon style. A separate room hosts a mini show-within-a-show called Jim “Dr. Curve” Roche: Corner Worshiper, which displays the products of Roche documenting, by hand-drawn cartography, his favorite motorcycle courses. (In the region Roche may be best known as a longtime Florida State University professor, from 1973 to 2011, but he also is a European motorcycle aficionado and still holds the time trial record for the 1000cc unlimited twin class of La Carrera Mexican Road Race.) The larger exhibition doesn’t do much to guide you, allowing you to bounce from one colorful piece to the next: from trippy 1970s drawings of his mythical Loch Ness Mama monster, with multiple breasts for a head atop its striped body, to a hallway full of his 1980s Road Crosses, which feature painted slogans based on homemade evangelical markers and the vernacular environment of W.C. Rice’s Cross Garden in Alabama.
There’s a subversive, psychedelic edge to it all, as Roche both embraces and plays with the backroads culture of the South. Wall text points out that the Road Crosses were made when Reagan-era politics were rising under the banner of far-right Christianity — one cross reads in painted letters: “Why not / Life is brief / S.O.S. or D.O.A., R.U.O.K? / Death is sure / Live for / Jesus?” In one of Roche’s many odd moments of fame, he even appeared on a TV outside the cell of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs as his preacher persona, “Brother Jim,” waving a Bible filled with what looks like hotel ephemera in front of some crosses.
Other major and curious milestones of his career rise up from the colorful chaos of the exhibition, like his massive “Don’t Tread on Me No More Y’all: Piece” serpent that slithers across the floor, a satiric take on the Gadsden flag; it last appeared in the 1976 Venice Biennale, and now has a new relevance as the Tea Party movement has adopted the flag as one of its rallying icons. That piece followed Roche’s 1974 solo installation of DIY pink flamingo lawn ornaments and assorted natural and manufactured Southern ecology at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was in turn preceded by his thesis show being shut down at the University of Dallas due to his scandalously curvaceous Mama Plants ceramics.
The exhibition can feel as overstuffed as Brother Jim’s Bible, drawing your eye all over the place, but it’s certainly not boring. No artist stays the same over five decades, yet Cultural Mechanic shows a creator who has consistently been fluid in his work, while maintaining a personal mysticism that both embodies and reacts to the predominant religion and customs of the South.
Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic continues at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street, New Orleans) through July 12.