MYS Oregon to Iberia

A monumental snore (with a wink)

What would happen if we turned grandiosity into a joke? Building big, artist Erik Geschke sculpts himself into the possibilities.

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Eric Geschke's "Missgeburt," resting his weary body.
Erik Geschke’s “Missgeburt,” resting his weary body. Photo: David Slader

With mouth agape, eyes closed and hands slack, Missgeburt rests his weary body against a wall in Clackamas Community College’s Alexander Gallery where I first noticed him dozing last month. Despite being almost twice life-size, he is anything but heroic. He is, instead, the work of an artist with a wry sense of humor and an acute awareness of world history and human longing, expressed with consummate technical skill.

As I was heading to interview the creator of this sculpture, Erik Geschke, at his studio at Portland State University (where he is a professor of art), I walked briskly along the familiar paths of the South Park Blocks and turned instinctively, as I have often before, to give my regards to George Fite Waters’ towering bronze homage to a downcast, war-weary Abraham Lincoln. For the moment, I had forgotten he was gone, toppled by a mob’s mindless rage. Heavy with memories, I continued south to interview an artist who, in a positive way, turns the concept of heroic sculpture on its head.

The 1928 Abraham Lincoln sculpture in downtown Portland's South Park Blocks was toppled on October 11, 2020. Photo: Brittany Peterson.
The 1928 Abraham Lincoln sculpture in downtown Portland’s South Park Blocks was toppled on October 11, 2020. Photo: Brittany Peterson.

The vandalism of Portland’s October 2020 postdated Geschke’s creation of Missgeburt, but a similar upending of history was a stimulus for its origin. Much of the world was riveted in 2003 by images of the toppling of Baghdad’s towering monument to Saddam Hussein.

Statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad's Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq. Photo: unknown U.S. military or Department of Defense employee/Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq. Photo: unknown U.S. military or Department of Defense employee/Wikimedia Commons.

Artists are particularly impacted by visual stimuli, and this one resonated with Geschke, raising questions about the recurring historical impulse—literally, iconoclasm—to demolish symbols of a rival, an enemy, or a fallen regime. What is the difference, he asked, between reality and simulations of reality? Can we smile, even laugh, at hyperbolic representations of the ordinary, the mundane, and the banal? What would happen if we turned grandiosity into a joke?

Geschke set out to find out by creating his monumental anti-hero, Missgeburt. In doing so, he merged surrealism and conceptualism—both of which reject tradition—with the hyper-realistic craftsmanship and monotone rendering of classical sculpture.

Anti-hero in a silicone mold

Art is made. Understanding how can enhance our grasp of the results. Geschke hand-modeled Missgeburt in plasticine, a non-hardening clay, enlarging the figure to 175 percent of life-size. The sculpture’s head and face are, partially, a self-portrait, but Geschke’s colleagues and graduate students also contributed to the collage of features. The hands and feet were modeled from plaster casts of Geschke’s own appendages.

"Missgeburt" in process in Erik Geschke’s studio.
Missgeburt” in process in Erik Geschke’s studio. Photos: Erik Geschke

At this point, many sculptors turn their work over to specialized fabricators. Geschke chooses to complete the execution himself, and he carefully documents the process. First, he made silicone molds, negative impressions of the plasticine figure. He then created a hollow casting by carefully brushing the mold’s interior surfaces with layers of polymerized gypsum reinforced with fiberglass. Once that hardened, the mold was removed to reveal the finished casting.

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Fashioning a statue with Styrofoam and rigid polyurethane.
Fashioning a statue in the studio. Silicone molds were made of the hand-modeled, plasticine clay, head and appendages. Photos: Erik Geschke

Missgeburt’s body is carved Styrofoam coated with a rigid polyurethane. The figure’s various elements—its head, hands, feet, torso, legs, and arms—are fitted with custom aluminum connectors so that the giant can be disassembled and reassembled like a mannequin.

Missgeburt in the studio, awaiting an arm.
Missgeburt in the studio, awaiting an arm. Photo: Erik Geschke

The sculpture prepared for its slumber by dressing in custom-tailored pajamas based on a pattern, enlarged 175 percent, which fit Geschke’s own body. The cast body parts were painted to match the clothing, echoing the monotone surfaces of heroic bronze and stone public sculptures.

A sleeping Missgeburt and his monumental feet.
A sleeping Missgeburt and his monumental feet. Photo: David Slader

Casting wry

Geschke’s meticulous technique is a counterpoint for the droll imagery that results. Poking fun at heroic public monuments—whose aim is to intimidate or, at least, impress their audience—Missgeburt couldn’t care less what you think of him. He isn’t even aware he has an audience. He is a snoring ten-foot-tall put-on who has drifted off into dreamland, the opposite of grandiosity on a pedestal. And that is the point. As is yet another layer of irony: The figure could not appear more benign. Yet his name is a German insult, describing a freak of nature, a dangerous monster. Geschke told me:

“I wanted to play this perceived harmlessness and vulnerability . . . against the more commonly threatening definition of a ‘monster’ . . . I was also referencing the social outcast or ‘freak’ definition which also comes with the word, which is the opposite of a person who is being revered and depicted in a very positive light, which is commonly found in public portrait sculptures.”

Catching a few winks in the Alexander Gallery. Photo: Kate Simmons
Catching a few winks in the Alexander Gallery. Photo: Kate Simmons

Missgeburt is not just a reflection of the sardonic side of Geschke’s personality. It is also a pushback at the self-seriousness of much of the art world. And it is but one example this artist’s playful approach. Even concepts that were fun to start with are not exempt from his teasing, as with Vanitas, his take on Big Bird:

Geschke's Big Bird, in pieces.
Geschke’s Big Bird, in pieces. Photo: Erik Geschke

In one sense, as Geschke recognizes, in a world perpetually wracked by war and famine, artmaking seems frivolous and indulgent. Yet it is so central to the human spirit that we need its reprieve. Instead of closing our eyes, he seems to say, let us observe and smile at, the world’s—and our own—absurdities and grandiosities. Humor is, after all, a way of noticing, and nothing gets fixed until it’s noticed.

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Creating code

I’m back in the studio—with new work that includes inspiration from the patterns of a boarding pass QR code that caught my eye while stranded in an airport during Portland’s January ice storm. Take a look.

The art of the QR code.
The art of the QR code.

If it turns out to be interesting, I will owe a big “thank you” to Emily Ginsburg. I would never have even noticed the patterns had I not had the opportunity to come to know, and write about, her work and her ability to see shapes and forms whose ubiquity hides their appeal from less astute eyes. See my recent profile of Ginsburg.

Emily Ginsburg clay sculpture. Photo: David Slader
Emily Ginsburg clay sculpture. Photo: David Slader

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See Portland artist David Slader‘s Art Letters to subscribers here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Slader is an Oregon painter, digital artist, sculptor, and photographer. His youthful art ambitions were detoured by an almost forty-year career as a litigator, child-advocate, and attorney for survivors of sexual abuse. Although a Portland resident, David's studio is in the Coast Range foothills, along an oxbow of the Upper Nehalem River, where he alternates making art with efforts to reforest his land. In the Fall, a run of Chinook salmon spawn outside his studio door.

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One Response

  1. I kinda miss the Lincoln statue too – people used to leave flowers in his cupped hand for him to hold. On the other hand, I really don’t care about statues of old dead guys. I like the robot in front of the art museum and the other exhibits in the park, and think our parks would be improved by more public art – di Suvero, Noguchi, Serra – or locally commissioned artists.

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