New York

Jim Roche

The title of Jim Roche’s installation, which fills and virtually oozes out of the small first floor gallery, reads as follows:

This is the Sand, Rock, Shell and Seed, Power Pole and Money treed, Dual Catenary X Ascension, Eagle Lite and spirit recension, Graven Image to the land; all in my background: Piece

This is scrawled on the wall outside the piece in Roche’s crude, fat cursive, and more or less says it all. Like Late Gothic Flemish painters, Roche’s work is an obsessive accumulation of meticulous detail (there is no aerial perspective here either—even the details have details) which serves to reflect, if not catalogue, the diversity of the natural world while each detail also has a symbolic, sometimes religious meaning. And likewise, it is only the meticulous care which keeps the obsessiveness anywhere near in check.

The materials which Roche uses are listed only generally in the title above. And the piece is much more than an accumulation of details; there is clear structure, intent and meaning. A raised oval of sand surrounds a plane of yellow corn (1,000 pounds) which is broken into four sections by a huge “X” of white oyster shells. Two “Power Poles” rise from each leg of the X: a white one covered with small stuffed doves, a black one crawling with rubber snakes. Where the X crosses at the center of the piece Roche placed a plain red Power Pole. In the four areas separated by the X, various natural and man-made phenomena are arranged on the corn. Horseshoe crabs move toward the center in one quarter; opposite, hundreds of rubber baby alligators move forward, at even greater speed. The other two opposite quarters are relatively static images of death: one is strewn with white, dry bones, while across from it, crudely carved wooden ducks sit in white shark’s jaws on rabbit skins. Alternating conch shells and starfish ring the inside of the sand oval. This, in turn, is covered on top with artificial roses alternating with rubber snakes and sand dollars (and strange details like marbles atop golf tees). Outside the oval are pairs of pink wooden flamingoes amidst colored oyster shells, pink gourd poles covered with American coins. All this is ringed by black painted rocks, more flowers with blinking lights, a narrow path for the public, and still more flowers with blinking lights at the base of the walls of the room. Overhead are some 40 plastic Matell eagles, lighted, each with a rubber snake in its claws. This is only a brief description.

Innumerable natural and symbolic opposites are in operation: good vs. evil; living vs. dead, predator vs. prey; man-made vs. natural; souvenir vs. relic; religious vs. natural. All the items could probably be found on the road in Florida (which is where Roche’s background is), either in a souvenir shop, in the swamps, or on the beaches. Things are then painted, coated, combined, juxtaposed, arranged with great care and total control. All details are recognizable, all are transfigured. The combined result, in which they are paradoxically the cause and the effect, seems to be the creation of a fast-moving experience of the flux and complexity of life and spiritual experience, in parallel cycles of ascension, of ebb and flow. The tight clarity of detail and the bright artificial color suggests an orderly procession toward the center, of sedate religious pomp. But that inward movement is also made compulsive by the detail and creates the feeling of being sucked into the center, surrounded by it all. Roche’s fastidious use of materials, which both causes and contains the sense of pending chaos, also counters the raunchy narrative suggestiveness of the work. This also happens in Roche’s audio tapes (not shown here), which, like his background, are fast, obsessive and almost trancelike. In the tapes, Roche shares with Wegman the use of local, popular culture and a reverberating language; unlike Wegman, the sound is also musical. Roche’s tapes often deal with “red-neck” topics; content and accent grate on liberal ears. Similarly, this piece is grating and offensive, but it is also forceful and a little frightening. The deliberateness with which Roche has selected his materials, the way in which they are symbolically “readable” and visually cohesive is interesting. He precisely contains and suggests the forces of nature and of a primitive spirituality. He also reveals a segment of American life through its transfigured paraphernalia, and the degree to which we see it and know it suggests the degree to which his may be the background of us all.

Roberta Smith