Let's say you're one of the most successful advertising guys alive. You paired Michael Jordan with Spike Lee. You made Tiger Woods juggle golf balls. And now you've got cancer. What do you do?
For 47-year-old Jim Riswold, longtime creative director for Portland ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, the answer was...well, obvious is just not the right word. When Riswold, a onetime philosophy major whose iconic Nike ads made him an industry legend, was diagnosed with leukemia, he found solace in art. Not unusual for a creative type-except Riswold's chosen métier happened to be gigantic photos of toy dictators.
Riswold's art-world debut this year at Portland's Augen Gallery, a show titled Göring's Lunch, was a commercial and critical success. In an essay in September's Esquire (title: "Hitler Saved My Life"), Riswold explains his whimsical, poster-sized shots of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo, Mao and Napoleon figurines cavorting with other toys. But, frankly, WW still didn't quite get it. So we tracked Riswold down at his studio in Southeast Portland.
WW: You have a picture of a toy Hitler and a toy bunny, called Hitler's Bunny. And there's Stalin's Puppy.... So, uh, what's it all about?
Jim Riswold: I started with, "This is an interesting juxtaposition of good and evil." The Hitler figures and the dollhouse stuff are both classified as toys. Then the whole thing stubbed its toe on deeper meanings, with fancy words like "hubris." It doesn't take much of a brain to know that hubris is quite prevalent in the world today. I was going to call the show Hubris Revisited, but then I decided that Göring's Lunch was much catchier.
Isn't this stuff incredibly offensive?
Some people think I'm trivializing Hitler and company. I don't think ridicule or satire trivializes its subject matter. Ask Jonathan Swift. Yes, to a lot of people, Hitler is a four-letter word. I can understand that. But how could anybody look at my pictures and say this makes these guys look good? I like ridiculing evil, whether it's Hitler or leukemia.
How's your health these days?
Oh, do we have to talk about that?
Not if you don't want to.
Actually, my leukemia is on the ropes. However, the treatments that have kept my leukemia on the ropes may be causing me to keep getting pneumonia and all kinds of pulmonary problems. I spend a lot of time with doctors, taking lots of tests. I have better things to do-I have bad art to make!
Everyone knows your ads: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, et cetera. But for 99.999 percent of the public, you're anonymous. What's it like with the art show finally to be the guy getting credit?
Yeah, when people are like, "Who said Charles Barkley isn't a role model-what knucklehead put those words in his mouth?" The answer is, well, Nike. Or Wieden & Kennedy. I could hide behind them like a coward if necessary. I was petrified at the art opening, because this time it's "Who did this revolting Hitler stuff? That guy right there." It's that naked dream: I'm in class and I forgot to put my pants on.
Where do you find all these toys? I mean, I guess I can see why there would be Hitler dolls, but where do you find Tojo dolls?
You search the dark regions of the Internet, and you find some dark things. Type in "Hitler toy figure," and ka-boom. People are really into their toy figures. Why would someone make a Reinhard Heydrich doll? You know who he was? The butcher of Prague? I made a print with him in it that's one of my favorites [Heydrich's Skateboard].
What sort of mental gymnastics does it take to switch from working on Woods or Jordan to focus on notorious war criminals?
Icons are icons. And people's responses to icons have always been fascinating to me. I was told in no uncertain terms that my Selling Jesus series-pictures of wind-up Jesuses, bobblehead Jesuses, every kind of Jesus imaginable-was offensive. Duh. I just took pictures of what our culture was doing with the icon of Jesus. And then there's this [holds up a giant Hermann Göring doll]: a full-figure Göring. "This product is for historic, educational purposes only."
And working with this stuff helps you?
I've found this extremely therapeutic. It's a fucking blast. I feel like I've walked off a side of a building, and it's fun on the way down.
To see Jim Riswold's dollhouse dictators, go to www.augengallery.com/artists/riswold.html