Jacob Rochester’s Journey From AJ13 Retro Cards to “Shattered Glass”

The LA-based artist on the unlikely thread that runs through his body of work.

Image: Jack McKain / 2020.

In the mid-1990s when Nike reissued Michael Jordan’s signature sneakers for the first time ever, the brand included a two-sided postcard in the box of every pair. Included on each card were details about the design, a brief history of the silhouette and an image of the shoe in the year it originally released. The cards eventually became known in footwear circles as “Retro Cards” and while it’s difficult to quantify their importance in the trajectory of sneaker culture, there is one rising creative whose career can be traced back to these collectible inserts: Jacob Rochester.

Rochester is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work is rooted in the recognizable touchpoints of pop culture, all of which began with the discovery of Retro Cards. His practice today is largely a continuation of this transformative moment, a thread that runs through the objects, people and scenes captured in his expressive paintings. A rainbow of Dennis Rodman’s iconic hairstyles. A yellow Sony Walkman Cassette Player paired with a matching Subaru Baja. An unspecified person seated behind a TV displaying a character from Hey Arnold!

In a full-circle moment, his work can now be found in campaigns for Jordan Brand and Nike, alongside Apple, the NBA, Topps and many others. His latest paintings are featured in the expanded Miami edition of “Shattered Glass,” an exhibition curated by AJ Girard and Melahn Frierson at Jeffrey Deitch. Joining over 50 international artists of color, Rochester’s work includes a painting of an anonymous figure in visvim FBT sneakers and A.P.C. x Carhartt WIP pants hauling nearly a dozen rugs to an unknown destination, as if he is Atlas holding up the heavens on his shoulders.

As the monumental exhibition comes to a close, we catch up with Rochester to discuss his dream collaboration, the Golden Age of Colorways and how his sister’s AJ13 Retro Card changed everything.

'Hopes & Prayers' / 9 x 13" / 2020, Jacob Rochester.   

Tell me what your earliest memories of sneakers are and what role they’ve played in your life.

My most important memory is probably when my oldest sister got a pair of Jordan 13s. I think she got the women’s white and blue pair with hits of pink. She had the Retro Card that came in the box and that’s what set my whole trajectory. I’d low-key sneak into her room and steal the Retro Card and draw what I could from the card. [My work] all stems from my sister getting that pair of 13s. The 13s are literally my favorite—not necessarily my favorite sneaker to wear right now but probably my favorite sneaker in terms of design. That shoe is amazing.

'Wellness' / 12 x 16" / Gouache on Paper / 2020, Jacob Rochester.   

Your art features plenty of iconic sneakers. How do you determine which ones to include?

Nowadays it's more specific to what I'm wearing at the time I’m creating the work. A lot of my stuff now is photo-referential, based on what sneaker I’m wearing in a specific picture. In other instances, the sneaker is almost an afterthought because I'm in a space now where I don't want it to be too commercially driven.

'Anxiety' / 9 x 12" / 2019, Jacob Rochester.   

Are there certain sneakers that carry a specific significance in your work? For instance, the Air Carnivore is a recurring silhouette in your work and was seemingly rediscovered following the release of the Comme des Garçons collaboration.

Similar to the Jordan 13s, it's one of those moments that sticks with you. With the Air Carnivore, I forget what grade I was in, but they dropped and I wasn't able to grab them at that time. It wasn’t until two or three years ago that I picked up the teal and purple pair. I put the Carnivores in two recent works of mine as a nod to those moments.

'Untitled' / 36 x 48" / 2019, Jacob Rochester.   

Do you think sneakers can ever be considered a work of art on their own given their functional and commercial nature?

Certain sneakers are pieces of art or you see the craft that goes into them. A lot of visvims are that way. The Y3 Qasa is amazing. I feel like there are a bunch of sneakers that are form over function. For instance, I wouldn't necessarily wear a lot of stuff that Kanye is doing now. I definitely appreciate it though. A couple of my friends work for the Yeezy design team and they’re always pushing boundaries in terms of form. The stuff that's more risky or weird or different is what pushes other brands to make crazier stuff.

Has your work always pulled inspiration from sneakers?

It goes back to my sister's Retro Card. It's always been an extension of that. Not every piece features a sneaker of course, but sneakers do inspire my thought process in terms of design. They’re always present even if they’re not necessarily in a painting.

'96 Degrees' / 12 x 16" / Gouache on Paper / 2020, Jacob Rochester.   

Does that extend to referencing specific colorways?

My brand, Construct, references the Carnivores, specifically the teal/purple colorway. A lot of colorways and palettes, especially from the mid-’80s and early-’90s have amazing colorways. So do the late-’90s and the Y2K era, with the rise of metallic sneakers and, of course, Foamposites. A lot of that is engrained in how I approach design, especially with clothes or merch.

Sneakers, once a subculture, have ballooned to the mainstream and even crossed over into the art space. Any thoughts on how that came to be?

I feel like that could be attributed to resell culture, Instagram and accessibility. There are so many sneakers, so many different styles that everyone can pick their own lane and be fully entrenched in their personal style. That alone helped balloon sneakers into mainstream culture.

'Yardi' / 12 x 16" / Watercolor on Paper / 2019, Jacob Rochester.   

You work across a number of mediums, from music and illustration to painting. Do you draw a distinction between the different mediums?

Each medium I work in has some type of relationship with each other, especially with the process and how I like to finish projects. Making beats with sampling, it's literally a one-to-one thing taking references from the past, like a piece I’m designing and diverting it into something that's completely new. It feels like each thing I do builds off the other.

What’s your dream sneaker or apparel collaboration?

A collaborative visvim apparel collection would be so tight. Their production capabilities and the craft that goes into each piece is something I really appreciate. For sneakers, the visvim FBT Folk would be fire. 

'Rally' / 12 x 16" / Gouache on Paper / 2019, Jacob Rochester.   

Tell me how you ended up in the Miami edition of “Shattered Glass.”

I got involved through the curator, AJ Girard. We’ve been homies for a few years and his eye for curation and art pedagogy is insane. It was all seamless and just made sense.

What can you tell me about your pieces in the exhibition?

The two pieces I’m showing are works that I think best represent me in this very moment. I like the idea of piecing together interests, moments and nuances that people could relate to.

What does it mean to be included in such a monumental exhibition?

I’m extremely grateful to be part of this. It’s my first time showing larger work and it’s something I hope to keep doing. It’s also my first time at Art Basel—it’s probably the best start anyone could ask for.

What's next for you?

After Art Basel I want to get back into doing larger pieces and figuring out what I want to say in my art. That's what I'm still struggling with, but I'm getting there. The smaller stuff, that's always quicker to knock out—and I’m planning a proper art show for 2022.