The Grappler

Nathan Grumdahl

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.

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."

During its wild early days, pro wrestling was organized along the lines of a vaudeville or carnival circuit. Wrestlers would perform in, say, the Midwest for a year before moving on to a new territory. At one point, Raschke says, his father found himself working in Quebec, wrestling bears. "It was a trained bear, so there wasn't really any danger. But it was a good spectacle. Showmanship, right?"

Of course, this also meant that Raschke's family moved around a lot during his childhood. They lived, for varying lengths, in Minnesota, Connecticut, Indiana, and North Carolina. "As a kid, it was always a little traumatic to move," he says. "But on some level I think I enjoyed it. It was a great experience in terms of enlarging my worldview and making me see the possibilities. I got to see all these different regions of the country, talk to all these different people."

"There was that whole aspect of it: meeting new kids. But my dad was also friends with all these wrestlers who'd come over to the house. When you're 12 years old and Andre the Giant is shaking your hand, that's like, wow. I remember coming home from junior high one time. There was no one around. I remember going into the backyard and seeing these midget wrestlers...or little people...well, midgets, playing catch with my baseball mitt."

"Wrestlers are this unique breed of people," continues Raschke. "At least in that era they were. They were all characters in their own right--very unself-conscious in their eccentricity. I appreciated that. I think that's one of the things that pushed me toward art."

One early childhood memory in particular piqued Raschke's interest in photography. When his family was in Indiana, Raschke remembered living in a red house. Later, when he saw pictures, he realized their house was actually green. "The fact that my first memory was a false memory and that a photograph corrected that memory is fascinating to me," he says. "That's one of the things that keeps coming back: What is a photograph? I'm really interested in the ideas that shape our understanding of them."

The ephemerality of photographs and the instability of memory remain recurrent themes in Raschke's work. His piece in the MMAA exhibit, for instance, is a suitcase full of casual, seemingly incidental snapshots. When stripped of context, do such photos become meaningless, or do they faithfully map our chaotic, unreliable memories? Raschke pulls out a small black box--another photography project, which he's been working on for the last few years. Inside are a series of square photos, more quick, blurry shots of fluorescent-lit bathrooms and empty streets. The idea of the project, he explains, is that viewers will arrange the pictures, fitting the images with narrative and meaning.

"What I'm interested in is how the meaning can shift when you put different things together," Raschke explains. "Wrestling has this element of We're going to show you something. We're putting on a performance for you, but how you interpret it is always in flux. It's a performance, but there's always something real happening. I know for a fact that there's some make-believe going on, but it has the power to pull me in. It's that edge between real and false that I'm interested in. There's something in the constructed nature of photographs, versus the fact that photography is dependent on the real world. You can't take a picture of something that doesn't exist. Also, you can only take photos of specific objects. You can't take a picture of ideal oranges. It's always one specific orange."

Raschke shuffles through his pile of photos, picking out one of his aged father doing The Claw for fans. "With these, there was something in the world that made me go, Wow, this is great. That's why I made the picture: to transfer that moment to another person.

"I always bring things back to wrestling. In wrestling, there's a story being told: good versus evil. The whole point of the story is to suck people into it, to get them to the edge of their seat. A good wrestler can bring them to the point where they're going to leap out of their seat and run into the ring and help the good guy. A good wrestler can also do something to bring them back down. So there's this weird crescendo, with this cathartic release of tension. I'm hoping on some level these photos are those cathartic moments, of, like, 'Oh, life's worth living,' to put it in overblown terms." Raschke gathers up his photos and slips them back into their box.  

The Lincoln turd never does show up. But at the "Art-a-Swirl" opening later that evening, everyone is in high spirits nevertheless. Two golden-haired children are handing out fistfuls of lilacs to visitors. Tiny red fish swim in the toilet bowls. Raschke, naturally, has a camera around his neck, ready to bank the moment for posterity.

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