The Grappler

Inspired by his fatherís pro wrestling career, photographer and curator Karl Raschke struggles to blur real and fake, introspection and spectacle

Creative Electric Studios looks like a home-improvement project gone hopelessly awry. The Northeast art gallery's floor is littered with pink Styrofoam packing peanuts, sawdust, and empty beer bottles. Half-installed bathtubs and toilets fill the rest of the tiny storefront space. Surveying the chaos, Karl Raschke, curator of Creative Electric's lavatory-themed exhibit "Art-a-Swirl," sounds none too stressed about the evening's opening. "When things happen around here, they happen fast," he says brightly. In fact, not all the art for the exhibit has arrived yet. Raschke is still waiting to take delivery of a sculptural piece that a local artist produced in homage to Abraham Lincoln's last bowel movement.

"The details are a little vague," Raschke explains. "Apparently, he recreated Lincoln's last meal, so I guess you could say it's inspired by Lincoln's last turd." He smiles puckishly. "Apparently, it's still drying. He's assured me it will be here by this afternoon."

Raschke, a tall, pleasantly unpretentious 34-year-old, is what you might call an arts impresario. Along with two partners, Dave Salmela and Kurt Froehlich, he organizes shows at Creative Electric (in keeping with the communitarian spirit of the enterprise, the three share an apartment above the gallery). Raschke also maintains a website and plays in a folk-rock band, both of which are called the Latchhook. Raschke teaches photography at Augsburg College. His own photographs were recently featured in a Minnesota Museum of American Art exhibit, "Interact/React." And, in addition to these myriad projects, he's in the early stages of developing a theater piece about his father, the professional wrestler Baron von Raschke.

Nathan Grumdahl

As an artist and curator, Raschke is drawn to weird ephemera, the sort of everyday flotsam that shows up in, for instance, the pages of Found magazine. On his website, Raschke gathers and displays photos that he or his friends have found lying around in the street. The collection ranges from the absurdly banal to the mysterious. There is, for instance, a photo-booth picture of two smiling young women that has apparently been torn to pieces and subsequently reassembled with tape. There is also a photo of Tom Wopat, the actor who played Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Raschke's own photos likewise aspire to the strangeness and immediacy of found images. His pictures appear at first to be carelessly framed snapshots. Many of Raschke's photos are of anonymous bits of scenery--a coiled garden hose, for instance, or a snow bank. When his pictures include people, their faces are often cut off or photographed in blurry close-up. A number of Raschke's photos are of public restrooms, garishly illuminated by fluorescent lighting. It was these pictures, in fact, that inspired "Art-a-Swirl."

"I'm to blame for this," Raschke says of Creative Electric's bathroom deconstruction. "Some of the first photographs I ever sold were of bathrooms. Of course, people hung them in their bathrooms. All my favorite stuff is in the bathroom. So I thought, wouldn't it be fun to do a whole bathroom show?"

Just then, Froehlich appears from the rear of the gallery. A guitarist in the band Work of Saws, Froehlich is also Creative Electric's resident engineer. Recently, he rigged a rainwater collector to irrigate the place's backyard. His latest project is equally impressive.

"You want to go downstairs and crank it up?" Raschke asks Froehlich. "Watch this. This is magical."

Froehlich disappears into the back again. A minute later, the shower installed in the middle of the gallery floor starts spraying. "Isn't that great!" exclaims Raschke. "There's a sensor in the bathroom, so when anyone goes in there, the shower starts. It's actually getting recirculated from a five-gallon bucket in the basement."

Such lo-tech showmanship is fast becoming Creative Electric's calling card. In the past year or so, the gallery has hosted an exhibit of rock-concert posters and a show by the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. This quirky populist flavor likely has much to do with Raschke, who cites both Marcel Duchamp and pro wrestling as guideposts to his curatorial philosophy. "All our shows are really ambitious," he says. "When one of us is doing their thing, it's because of their obsession or passion. We sit around and come up with ideas. A working tub in the gallery? Yeah, let's make that happen. A gallery's job is to create excitement around looking at art. I actually don't enjoy looking at most galleries because they're not set up to interact with in a meaningful way. So I'm always looking for these little things that can open a show up, or that people can connect with on some level. I want it to be a fun party."

Not surprisingly, Raschke traces his taste for playful spectacle primarily to his father's unusual profession. The elder Raschke began his pro wrestling career in the '60s, performing in Verne Gagne's Minnesota-based AWA. At first, the Baron von Raschke was a heel--wrestling parlance for a villain (heroes are known as "baby faces," Raschke explains). His signature move was called The Claw.

To demonstrate, the younger Raschke reaches out and grabs my forehead with his sizable hand. "If you squeeze hard enough, you can really hurt someone. In theory it can knock you out."

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