Parts and Accessories, 2019. Installation view. Carnation Contemporary.
ERIK GESCHKE's sculptures are well-crafted, clean reproductions of symbolic objects that have a relationship to Western Modernity. He deftly uses dry humor, scale and material shifts and the language of museum display to entice the viewer into seeing familiar objects in a new light. Erik earned his BFA at Cornish College of the Arts (Seattle) and his MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (Baltimore). He attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1996 and Pilchuck Glass School in 1999 and has been an Artist-in-Residence at Vermont Studio Center (2001), Sculpture Space Inc. (2002), and Djerassi Resident Artist Program (2013). Erik's numerous exhibitions include solo shows at Cornish College of the Arts, ZieherSmith Gallery, Pacific Northwest College of Art, Pratt Fine Arts Center, Seattle Art Museum's SAM Gallery, and Vox Populi Gallery. Most recently, Parts and Accessories was exhibited at Northeastern Illinois University (Chicago) in 2018 and Carnation Contemporary (Portland, OR) in 2019. Erik lives and works in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Associate Professor of Art at Portland State University.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What role does artifice play in your work?
Erik Geschke: Artifice plays a central role in my work. The words art and artifice share the same Latin root, ars, which means both “skill/craft” and “trick/wile.” This connection influences how I think about the nature of art and what I do as an artist. When anything is represented or recreated, the artist asks the viewer for their willing suspension of disbelief, which allows the viewer to experience something unexpected.
The use of this strategy to lure and entice the viewer into this suspension is very fascinating to me. I make work that can be deceptive or confuse the viewer. I want them to question what they’re looking at and what exactly “art” is and what it can be. I also want the viewer to consider the relationship of the art object to the abundance of human-made and naturally occurring objects that inhabit our world. I do this by creating copies, surrogates and simulations of these identifiable forms with shifts in scale and material transformations. I use artifice as a means for the viewer to question both their perceptions and their understanding of the physical world.
Cracks in the Stable, 2015. Aqua Resin, fiberglass, pigment, and acrylic polymer.16” x 96” x 72”
OPP: Your work is definitely in conversation with Minimalist sculpture, while eschewing the non-contingency of Modernism. How informed are you by these art-historical precedents?
EG: My work is very informed by these art-historical precedents. When I was an undergraduate student the late 80s and early 90s, it had still been a relatively short period of time since Modernist thinking had fallen out of favor. It was often viewed with skepticism or derided. My references to Modernism and Minimalist sculpture, in particular, contain equal parts reverence and irreverence. Minimalism’s paring down of elements and elimination of non-essential forms and features aligns with with both my thinking and aesthetics. But I believe its attempt at an extreme form of abstraction that’s completely objective and non-referential is impossible and therefore a bit comical. There’s something so hopelessly idealistic about it, and I like to play off that in my references to minimalism.
Accretion, 2013. Wood, aluminum, Aqua Resin, polyester resin, fiberglass, epoxy, hardware, and acrylic. 36" x 43" x 65."
OPP: What else informs your work?
EG: My work is also informed by human-made objects and structures of utility and their inherent symbolism and history. For this, I turn to the disciplines of industrial design and architecture. The work is informed by the ways we represent both ourselves and the natural world, so forms of simulation found in both cinema special effects and museum dioramas have been influential. Humor and satire are also present in my work and I attribute this to an early interest in cartooning and underground comics. Early on, I used humor as a way to discuss darker themes. The influence of cartooning can be seen in the way I render things, the odd shifts in scale and my simplified color palette.
Arena, 2015. Wood, alkyd enamel, flock, felt, and vinyl. 3” x 64” x 64” (Detail)
OPP: Untitled (Social Engineering) (2011) and Untitled (Invidious Consumption) (2014) are connected through the form of the geodesic dome. What does this form mean to you?
EG: Growing up on the West Coast in the 70s and 80s, I encountered geodesic domes in a variety of contexts, from countercultural music events to a futuristic architectural experiments or school playgrounds. Later I came to understand its connection to Modernist architecture through the work of architect, designer and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. While he didn’t invent the geodesic dome, he certainly popularized it. I consider this iconic structure to be a symbol, synonymous with Modernist concepts of progress, societal ideals and utopian aspirations.
Untitled (Invidious Consumption), 2014. Hemlock, brass, and shellac. 36” x 72” x 72”
OPP: How do the materials in each of these works change the form?
EG: Untitled (Social Engineering) (2011) directly explores the structure’s connection with the utopian aspirations of Modernism coupled with the carnage of the 20th century, the same time period in which Modernism came to prominence. It’s made of 65 cast plastic human femur bones, both left and right, creating a macabre cautionary tale, calling attention to the irony that many of these utopian aspirations led to the dystopias of war and genocide, of which the 20th Century saw many. While the theme is dark, I rendered it at the scale of a child’s jungle gym and the bones are a pale white plastic, giving the structure an unthreatening toy-like quality.
The other geodesic dome piece I’ve made is Untitled (Invidious Consumption) (2014). I knew that I wanted to create a work that dealt specifically with the Modernist rejection of ornamentation in design. The inspiration for this concept came from reading the essay Ornament and Crime by Modernist architect Adolf Loos. In his essay, Loos criticizes the use of ornamentation in useful objects. Loos went as far as describing the presence of ornamentation as immoral and degenerate; a crime. To counter this, I made the iconic modernist structure out 65 lathe turned ornamental neoclassical architectural balusters made of Hemlock and connected with brass fittings. An odd dissonance was created by making the structure out of materials with a design that alludes to time prior to the Modernist era.
Veneer, 2018, Wood, PVC, steel, hardware, and acrylic enamel. 96” x 96” x 72”
OPP: Another recurring element is the metal structure that for me evokes a billboard in Device (2015) and Veneer (2018). How is this “support” structure key to understanding whatever element it is holding up?
EG: These pieces explore the power dynamics of architecture. I’ve made a number of pieces over the years that utilize the billboard scaffold structure. Initially, I was drawn to the aesthetics of the structure and the literal connection between its form and function. Prior to Device and Veneer, I had placed silhouette cutouts and text on the structures.I wanted to draw a parallel between the supported fragment of architecture and a billboard advertisement. Architectural structures can imply wealth, exclusivity and dominance. Having them also operate as a façade indicates how often times these displays of power and authority are in fact thinly disguised vulnerabilities.
I developed the concept for Device (2015) during the run-up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, when the xenophobic rhetoric of “The Wall” first entered the public consciousness. The scaffold supports a fragment of a cinderblock wall. It calls attention to the symbolism of a wall as something that can be used to play upon the public’s primitive instincts and fear of the other. Placing it on a façade calls attention to the structure’s inherent weakness and limitation and exposes it as a mere rhetorical device.
Veneer (2018), on the other hand, explores interior projections of wealth, power and authority through decoration with nods to Neoclassicism and its tradition. The piece symbolically represents the aristocracy. Mounted on the scaffold is a fragment of whitewashed, wainscoted, decorative wall. Its ostentatious design implies the ability to afford finery. The title alludes to the thin veneer upon which displays of wealth are often dependent.
Parts and Accessories, Installation View, 2019, Carnation Contemporary.
OPP: Tell us about your most recent solo exhibition Parts and Accessories (Chicago 2018 and Portland 2019), which explored “issues surrounding class, dystopia, and modernity.”
EG: When I started this body of work, I knew that I wanted to explore issues of class. Wealth inequality has reached levels that have not been seen since just prior to the start of the Great Depression. It’s reminiscent of a new Gilded Age. We are similarly seeing vast creations of wealth through rapid technological advancement in a system geared towards the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands.
My work often employs the remaking of the recognizable and familiar. I specifically selected objects that symbolized either a sense of wealth and pedigree—an ornately wainscoted wall, a top hat, a gavel—or its opposite—workers’ hardhats, a humble throw rug or a bare suspended light bulb. I purposefully make things in an exacting way with refined surfaces that are largely devoid of expression. I do this as a way for the object to have a sense of anonymity, similar to mass-produced objects.
Parts and Accessories, Installation View, 2019, Carnation Contemporary
OPP: Tell us about the arrangement of the objects in the exhibition space.
EG: I wanted them to confront the viewer upon entering the space. They are predominately displayed facing the entrance. With these symbolic objects representing different levels of class and authority, there is purposeful hierarchy to the arrangement. Objects in front were presented low to the ground with an increase in size and scale moving towards the back of the arrangement. With the exception of one piece—a solitary disposable coffee cup—all the objects are displayed on a pedestal or platform, isolating each object and calling attention to its cultural value or commodity. This orderly arrangement references both methods of museum and retail display.
As with any issue I choose to explore in my work, I want to avoid being overly didactic and sanctimonious. I’m not looking to provide answers for the viewer, but rather to offer them something to ponder and consider.
Plot, 2018, Aqua Resin, fiberglass, and acrylic, 4” x 50” x 72”
OPP: What’s your experience in the studio right after completing a solo show?
EG: I’m usually focused on cleaning up the aftermath. There’s always a push to meet an exhibition deadline and especially so when it’s a solo show. No matter the level of planning, discipline and time spent in creating a new body of work, art making is an inexact science. There’s usually a rush at the end when cleaning and organization fall by the wayside. As a result, the time immediately afterwards is spent literally picking up the pieces. Having done this for a while now, there’s a bit of a ritual to the process. After months of focusing on one end goal and activity, there’s an odd sense of quietness in the studio. This quietness coupled with cleanup and organization provides a good time to think and reflect.
Creating my work is very time intensive and involves a great deal of physical and mental energy. I always need a period of recharge afterwards. I require time away from the studio, so I prioritize self-care and rest. I’m a full-time academic with an active professional career; work/life balance is often difficult to achieve. After finishing a big show, I need to spend time catching up with friends and exploring environs outside the studio. It’s vital.
There’s also a period of time after being in production mode where there is a shift in focus from making to promoting what has been made. My work is primarily funded through both professional and academic grants and fellowships, so I have a cycle of production followed by exhibition, promotion, and securing the necessary funds for the next body of work. I’ve been fortunate in that new opportunities always arise, new ideas always present themselves, and the cycle begins again.
In memory of Gerald Gilbert Geschke, 1931-2019