IMAGE: Ray Gordon
Retired Wieden & Kennedy ad guru and leukemia survivor Jim Riswold is in the Indian-summer bloom of a second career as an artist. His previous four shows at Portland’s Augen Gallery showcased eBay-purchased figurines of Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, and Mao Tse-tung, all recontextualized in gently provocative tableaux. This month, with Easter impending, Riswold has set his sights on a new target for satire, a target who is 2,008 years old: Jesus of Nazareth.
WW: When did you come up with the idea for this show?
Jim Riswold: I’ve always been working on Jesus. My health is vastly improved now, but I think I decided, “This is what I’m going to finish next,” when my health was very much in question.
Is it fair to say you’ve been in a race against death?
Yeah. I was the beneficiary of some new medical discoveries, but I did have issues as a result of the treatment: a chronic lung condition that still nags me and a hole in my heart that had to be repaired. But I feel all chipper these days, ready to be struck by a lightning bolt.
Were you raised Christian?
Lutheran. I went to church every Sunday. The services were no fun. You always hoped you’d get to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” because at least it was upbeat. My parents are still involved in the church.
What do they think of the show?
My mom really likes the image on the flier, the crucifix with the price tag on it. My dad—if it sells, he likes it.
You’ve done images of Jesus in an Easter basket, a crown of thorns on a hat rack...were there any lines you decided not to cross because they were too irreverent?
Yes. Of the 400 images I composed, I threw most of them out. I didn’t want to make fun of Jesus the way those assholes on Family Guy do: “Ha ha, look at us, we’re making a Jesus joke!” I toyed with calling this show Blasphemy, because I thought I could save people the trouble. I wound up calling it Selling Jesus, because it’s about the cheapening of Jesus’ imagery and words. Most of the toys I used for the shots are from Christian websites and stores. My poke here is, “Who’s cheapening the images?”
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I guess I think there’s something, but I find it presumptuous to think we know what it is. If I had to be pinned down, I would tend to believe along the lines of the theory that got Spinoza excommunicated: that God is nature, God is creation. I do believe there was a guy who lived whose name was Jesus, who was a pretty damn good guy. What saddens me is that Christianity—and religion in general, as a private matter—can be quite spiritual and moving for people, but religion, organized, does everything to counteract that.
Would you do a show with Mohammed figurines?
Sure—if I wanted to die. Actually, I had a piece about Mohammed called No Graven Image. It was a blank piece of paper. Marilyn Murdoch at Katayama Framing took one look at it and shook her head, and I thought, “OK, I get it. That would just be showing off.”
Do you see yourself as an ironist?
Yeah. I grew up a 98-pound weakling. I had to develop a wit to protect myself. Ironically, it got me beaten up even more.
You’re a very glass-half-full kind of guy. Do you have a darker side?
No. My wife always says, “I have my hands full with three children: the two kids, plus that man who lives with us.”
So you’re saying you’re all happy, all the time?
No. My therapist will tell you my wit and humor are my defense mechanisms against my insecurities and my health. My oncologist says, “I’ve never seen somebody laugh so much when it looks like they’re on the verge of dying.” I actually have a tombstone that’s part of the show. It’s called “Jesus, Meet Jim Riswold.” I had it made up in Seattle. It weighs 400 pounds. If it falls on somebody and kills them, I’ll just give it to them, scratch out my name, and put theirs on it.
If there is an afterlife, are you worried Jesus is going to be pissed about this show?
I think if there is a Jesus in the afterlife and he’s involved in the running of this world, he’d better have a sense of humor.
SEE: Jim Riswold’s show, Selling Jesus, is at Augen Gallery, 716 NW Davis St., 224-8182, through March 27. Free.