American vernacular utterances have always been at the core of Jim Roche’s artwork: brash, profane pronouncements often barbed with cruel humor and brutal candor—and no small amount of absurdity. The tendency might be to label the 73-year-old North Florida character a timely political provocateur, but the text-based approach of his most recent art—as with much that precedes it—is a canny amplification of a vox populi that has been polarized, and polarizing, since long before Donald Trump.
Roche’s exhibition “Some Americans Feel Like This,” which runs through February 20 at the Bale Creek Allen Gallery in Austin, Texas, crackles with an immediate tension as it samples, or perhaps exorcises, some of the most vitriolic speech inspired by the 2016 election. “The gloves are off—no more Darvon on the wall,” Roche said, with a pharmaceutical reference marking an urge to blow past too-often narcotized gallery art.
Among the show’s 31 drawings, which consist of meticulously hand-stenciled letters in caps-lock mode inked in a kaleidoscope of colors, are statements like: WHEN HIS COLONOSCOPY REVEALED A BRAIN TUMOR, DONALD TRUMP CALLED HELL TO OFFER UP IVANKA, TIFFANY, AND MELANIA FOR SEXUAL TORTURE IF LUCIFER WOULD FUND A TRUMP TOWERS CEO RETIREMENT HOME RIGHT ON LAKE OF FIRE BEACH . . .
On an adjacent wall, another piece cites a sentiment that many Trump supporters aimed at Hillary Clinton: LIFE’S ALREADY A BITCH, SO DON’T ELECT ONE . . .
“If I’d just shown the Trump, I might have got arrested,” Roche said, talking about his work on a recent afternoon at his home in Tallahassee, Florida. “Showing both of them gave me a way out.”
His speech wound its way around syllables in a drawl descended from his childhood within spitting distance of the Alabama state line, in rural Panhandle towns including Vernon (whose loquacious eccentrics were celebrated in Errol Morris’s 1981 documentary Vernon, Florida). Sitting beneath the high ceilings of his rambling homestead, a bungalow built in 1928, Roche was watched over by a pair of forbidding, life-sized wood sculptures by the outsider artist O.L. Samuels and folk-art canvases on the walls.
Beyond the particulars of the election, Roche’s show in Texas draws on a lifelong enthusiasm for road-bound Americana gleaned from countless motorcycle jaunts. Integral to his sensibility are rural cross gardens and brimstone-etched crucifixes warning state highway travelers to “Get Right or Get Left”; twists of phrase on church marquees such as his longtime favorite “Forbidden Fruits Lead to Many Jams”; and slogans on license plates, bumper stickers, and T-shirts such as the one Roche wore for his cameo in his friend Jonathan Demme’s Florida-shot film Something Wild: “I don’t love you since you ate my dog.”
Although Roche freely adapted words for the works in his current show, often involving his own verbal twists, some came nearly verbatim from their sources. To wit, a Facebook-popular alert from fundamentalist church signage: SKATEBOARDERS, VEGETARIANS, ARTIST, SURFERS, MUSICIANS, OCCUPIERS, ACTIVISTS, ADDICTS, FORNICATORS, and PEOPLE WITH TATTOOS are ALL GOING TO HELL! REPENT NOW!
In the past, Roche described the tone of such work as “flash and fun.” In the present, it’s more urgent. “Any artist right now who’s working it has been given so much license,” he said, “because Trump has gone way too far. He seems to be crushing so quickly, and vindictively, so many things that we really feel strongly about. We’re gonna just take it to him.”
Some of the latest pieces have previously been shown at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and in the studio of the Houston-based duo The Art Guys, but Bale Creek Allen, who runs the gallery bearing his name in Austin, wanted to devote an entire show to the new body of work. It opened on Inauguration Day, and the turnout among Austin’s art and music communities was notable, with luminaries such as guitarist Charlie Sexton and filmmaker Richard Linklater in attendance.
“It was so timely,” said Allen, who first got to know Roche as a child when he hopped on the back of his motorcycle and took a ride. Roche had come to Fresno, California, to visit Allen’s parents, the artist Jo Harvey Allen and Terry Allen, an artist and musician whose sly, skewed country songs have made him a Texas cult hero. “I will never forget it,” Bale Creek Allen said. “He probably was responsible for giving me the motorcycle bug. I thought it was a spaceship ride.”
Roche’s otherworldly qualities are tethered to a raw-boned earthiness. His childhood nickname was “Dirt Dauber.” Demme, who happened upon Roche’s studio while in pre-production for Something Wild, became fast friends with the artist and cast him in multiple films since—most memorably as a televangelist who sermonizes from the TV set in Hannibal Lecter’s dungeon cell in The Silence of the Lambs.
“He’s a daredevil, a humorist, a protector, dog trainer, knife-thrower, ass-kicker, shucker extraordinaire, inventor, bee’s-nest stirrer, ecologist, ‘performance artist,’ ” Demme wrote in a catalogue essay for Roche’s 2010 show “Glory Roads.”
Roche laughed as he recalled the cameo that he and his wife, artist Alexa Kleinbard, enjoyed as dancers in Demme’s 2015 film Ricki and the Flash. Instructed to behave like “old folks who still do it,” the couple busted out some provocative choreography to the delight of cast and crew, although much of it was left on the cutting room floor.
Roche is mindful that the heated opinions mined in “Some Americans Feel Like This” might limit the work’s appreciation in the long term. “You do political work,” he said, “it’s always stuck in the decade it was important in. After that, unless it’s exceptional, it’s gone.”
To Allen, the art in the show has more than just timeliness on its side. “I gravitated to his aesthetic—the way he places things, the attention to detail,” Allen said. “There’s no filter on whatever he’s addressing. It’s full- throttle, in-your-face.”
For all that, though, there also are grace notes—and oases of sanity amid the red-and-blue ruckus. Roche recounted how he was moved by watching a young African-American woman’s positive reaction to a piece that reads: JESUS PREFERS KIND ATHEISTS OVER HATEFUL CHRISTIANS. She approached him in tears, Roche said, and asked to take a picture with him. “She recognized my accent and told me, ‘I’m from down there, too.’ ”
That kind of interaction was not unusual. “If you want to test work, go to Texas,” Roche said. “They don’t mind telling you what they think.”