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Kalen Na’il Roach ‘14BFA

BFA Photography

While a Photography major at St. John’s, Kalen Na’il Roach ‘14BFA became interested in the assumptions people make when they look at images, and how photographs can fail to represent truth.

Just three years after his graduation from SJU, Roach’s inquiry into photographic representation formed the backbone of his first solo exhibit at the Deli Gallery in Queens, NY. The show ran from April 14 through May 7, 2017 and featured all new pieces.

Roach’s work engages a multitude of media and perspectives. He works with photography, collage, and installation from an archive of family photographs, personal memories, and oral family history. Roach’s father, Bernard Roach, Jr., was a photographer who gave him the camera he now uses – a Polaroid 600SE – and his maternal grandfather was a painter. The title of the show, “King Within A King,” refers to the practices he has inherited from these two artists in his familial lineage. The show’s centerpiece is a painting done by his grandfather, Nathaniel Briscoe. A characteristic of Roach’s father’s photographs was lavish backdrops, and this painting serves as a backdrop for Roach’s work.

Roach’s mother and father never married, but were very close co-parents. Roach doesn’t have any photographs of them all together as a family and this exhibit is, in part, a way for him to represent that truth. “I work with the metaphorical surface of the image by manipulating its physical surface,” said Roach. “Even though I forced these images of my parents together, they were really always together.” Through the show, he investigates the relationship between his mother and father, the relationship between his maternal grandparents, and his own identity as part of these family relationships.

His interest in his own family archive has been part of Roach’s work since he was a sophomore at SJU, and he exhibited work at the Department of Art and Design 2014 BFA Thesis Exhibition in his senior year. Roach also co-curated the show, “Unpacking the FSA: The Photographic Archives of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information” at the Dr. M. T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery. He worked closely with professors Belenna Lauto ‘81C and William “Alex” Morel ‘97C, MFA, who helped him develop his technique. “St. John’s is a unique place to study art because it’s a small department in a big university setting,” said Roach. “You get tons of face time with professors and each other.”

"Kalen was a very special student and now he is a very special artist,” said Morel. “From the beginning, I’ve seen his work constantly evolving to new levels of amazement and complexity. Not long after his thesis show, the new exhibition at Deli Gallery is a sign of Kalen’s maturity. From the new works to his installation strategies, the exhibition has a sophistication few ever accomplish. Kalen is an artist with important things to say, and I’m looking forward to everything he will be doing.”

In his junior year, he studied at the International Center of Photography (ICP), which is affiliated with the SJU BFA program. There, Roach realized that he already knew a lot more than some of the older students at ICP, like how to print photographs and make reproductions, because of his training at St. John’s. “I felt technically sound and able to ask the right questions,” he said. Reproducing photographs is a huge part of his work today.

Said Lauto: “Kalen is one of those students whom faculty remember throughout their lives. He is exceptional in every way: as a student, a person, and now a professional artist. We are all so proud of him.”

After graduating in 2014, Roach took on several professional photography jobs on a freelance basis and made little of his own art. But his work gained a life of its own online, where his Tumblr page got a lot of attention. Other artists and curators liked what they saw, and Roach was able to exhibit his work in several group shows, including one at Gallery 102, part of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In 2015, the Deli Gallery director, Max Marshall, invited Roach to show his portfolio and immediately wanted to give him a show. It was the opportunity for Roach to create this new body of work for the exhibit and his first chance at a solo show. “This is a palate cleanse for me, a new beginning for my career,” he said.

Roach currently lives in Maryland, where he works full-time in estate sales taking photographs of furniture and artistic pieces. He also does fashion product retouching for Carlisle Etcetera LLC and freelance photography for weddings and events.

Yulia Tikhonova, director of the Yeh Gallery, called “King Within A King” “dynamic and demanding. Roach successfully translates his personal history into a collective history that embraces all families. The SJU faculty who taught him gave him a great foundation, and he has taken it on a journey over the past five years, which confirms his gifts as well as theirs.”