Idaho Arts Quarterly » Cover Artist

Art Excavation

The singular geography of artist David Giese

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Visiting artist David Giese a few days past Halloween this fall, his front garden was filled with green webbing strung among frost-dead plants and sculptures. Ferocious looking rubber rats and dressed skeletons peered out from behind curtained windows in the foyer, indicating that here was a man who housed a potentially dark sense of humor. The house even looked scary, the stereotype of every haunted house inside every creeped-out kid's mind. Giese's home overlooks a city park in the heart of Moscow, Idaho, but if not for the busy street, the view out the front windows of his home would transport one to the English countryside, or maybe a Northern Italian villa with a view of the forest--which is precisely where the inspiration for his art comes from.

I entered the house and heard opera music playing lightly in the background of Giese's living room, which was richly adorned with art and opulent artifacts. Baroque, oriental and Renaissance influenced furniture mixed with a hint of modern boudoir appeal and filling the room with the warmth of deep reds, golds and deep earthy tones. An orange tabby played at my feet, rolling around on an oriental carpet. Soon a second orange tabby overcame his shyness and made an appearance.

Named for the Italian and Armenian words for gold, the cats jumped on the delicate furniture, threatening to knock over ornate lamps but never doing so. Clocks throughout the house chimed at seemingly random times. Collectables from around the world adorned every wall, tucked in corners and around the room creating a cozy but not necessarily claustrophobic feeling. Although Giese said he's lived there just six years, it seemed like a house filled with a lifetime of memories.

Ancient frescos and architectural pieces adorned the walls of his home. But wait. These are his works, his creations, and further inspection reveals tiny details that they aren't ancient at all, but modern knockoffs of historical paintings. I recognized some of the figures in the paintings, some of the styles from Renaissance, Classical and other period painters. But I don't recall seeing them in these arrangements, ever. A building in one of the frescoes comes from a famous painting, I am sure of it. The figure standing in front of it from another, yet it baffles the mind to conceive of newly discovered works by these masters long since dead. Which is precisely what Giese is trying to do: baffle. Baffle and maybe generate a little interest in the masters by making their art live on in new works. He came across as a shy man, avoiding eye contact until I got to know him a little better. Reluctant to speak about some things, fidgeting with his hands, we took the time to chat, to get to know each other a little, before the intimacy of the interview began to loosen us both up.

Raised in Minnesota, Giese graduated from Minnesota State University Mankato, where he first attended to become biophysicist. He didn't take his first art class until he was a junior. But he said that class changed his life.

"I asked myself, 'Who do you want to spend your life around?'" he said over a beer at the local bar we had migrated to. "Biophysicists or artists?"

After changing majors mid-stream, he still managed to graduate in four years. Because he forgot to notify the draft board of his intentions to go to graduate school, he ended up getting drafted in to the army during the Vietnam War. Ironically, he said he was really glad that happened, because he ended up becoming an arts and crafts specialist--not a common army job he added--and got to travel the entire Pacific theater. While serving at a military base in Arizona, he applied to the University of Arizona, Tuscon, graduate school, where he received his MFAs, one in photography and one in ceramics. He got a job in Milwaukee for five years, then in 1977, a job opened up at the Univeristy of Idaho's College of Art and Architecture in Moscow where he ran the foundations program for 14 years.

In 1986, Giese received a seed grant from the university and had a one-person show at the Boise Art Museum (since then he has had over 19 one-man shows at various institutions). He was in the process of perfecting a laminating process at the time and was using expandable foam in a new sculptural technique. Central to the theme of the works, he created an imaginary place, a villa in Italy where his works, which resembled ancient, salvaged architectural pieces with partially peeling frescos supposedly came from. He created 54 pieces for the show between July 7 and September 10 of that year, including crates and mounting systems, an accomplishment for any artist. Sandy Harthorne, the Boise Art Museum curator loved the show and helped get it into other museums. It then traveled to 12 institutions for two-and-a-half years during 1988 to 1991.

During that time, Giese traveled to the show openings to lecture and hobnob with the artistic illuminati of those cities. While he still loves to travel, he finds that living in Moscow suits him. "Moscow is a great place to function out of," he said. "I can get so much more accomplished here. But it would be a horrible place to be if you felt trapped."

He has found distractions in Moscow other than traveling, teaching or creating his works of art. For 14 years, he and several others ran Moscow's version of Mardi Gras, which eventually got so big--with the balls, bus tours, parties and more parties--that the city changed parade rules to tone it down. Now they really don't have that anymore, he said. After turning 60 last year, Giese stays involved with the local arts community, as a member of the Moscow Arts Commission, to which he was appointed this past summer.

Giese's work centers around a central idea, which he calls "the rise and fall of tastes." He explained over dinner that an archeological record is like wallpaper. People keep putting new wallpaper up over the old in a house. Before wallpaper, however, Italians would do the same by plastering old decoration with new. As time wore on, earthquakes and disrepair would reveal what was underneath as pieces of the newer plaster fell off.

"I began to understand as an undergrad how people viewed art," he said. "I would go to a museum and would spend more time in the museum bookstore than in the galleries. But I also began to be interested in watching people go to museums. There seems to be two types of people, those who read everything--the signage accompanying the art--and those who didn't."

As a result of this insight, Giese began to conceive of works that were based in history, or as he put it, "Bridging the gaps between the explanation of the truth and the unknown." His postmodern works are a fantastical creation. Typical of other postmodern artists' appropriation of others' works and liberal use of parody, he has created a fictionalized place that he bases all his works upon. But despite the rich history and story behind every work he creates, "I do the work first and then come up with the story," he said. "I think the work is the primary."

While his works imitate ancient artifacts dug up from archeological sites, they are made from extremely high-tech and expensive materials, some of which are developed and used exclusively by Giese himself. While the finished works seem extremely heavy, as if made from three inch thick plaster or ancient concrete, they are in reality quite light, a large piece weighing a fraction of what it would be if made of natural or man-made stone. While his proprietary techniques have been developed through experimentation and with the precision of a scientist, they are not patented. But neither does he teach his students about the techniques in classes, since he said that the materials cost alone are usually out of the range of student's budgets. Besides, why would he want to reveal his secrets?

Beginning in what he thinks was "around 1992," Giese started experimenting with two-dimensional frescos. He scanned classical paintings into a computer, collaged them into new works, outputting them onto colored prints and imbedding them chemically into his unique concrete chemical mixtures. As a result of the chemical science he has developed, he has created a technique that may last as long or longer than original fresco technique. He was also very interested in carrying the two-dimensional elements of paintings, many of which depicted drapery on the edges, into the three-dimensional drapes of the surrounding sculptural works of his pieces.

While one may see recurring elements in some of his works, such as a cupid head or gargoyle face replicated within the same piece, Giese's array of molds have been collected over a lifetime. His art dealer in New York City gave him carte blanche to make molds of his private collection, which includes thousands of pieces, stretching back to the Greco-Roman era. Giese found some of his best samples this way.

While his works are rich, detailed and fascinating to look at for their beauty of mimicry, the backstory he creates for each piece makes one chuckle long after looking at the work. His works are even more enjoyable when one is aware of the inside jokes and satire that he sometimes puts in to the story. He has woven just about every key historical figure of the last thousand years into his backstories. They have all visited the villa and been infuenced in varying degrees by what they have seen. No historical figure is sacred. Giese even claims that Walt Disney was inspired by the degraded frescos and sculptures while visiting the villa. While there, Disney sketched the basis for many of the characters found in the cartoons he created and in turn, influenced an entire generation. By tapping in to what most people can relate to, the 20th century, Giese bridges the gap between the past and the present, even if the connection is false.

But some don't seem to get it. At the Boise Art Museum opening in 1988, Giese's works were shown alongside real drawings of Italian masters. Although clearly labeled as new works with modern dates, and with all the obvious show catalogues detailing that his works were new creations, people still proceeded to question the originality of the real (and ancient) master's drawings, preferring to believe that those were fake and that Giese's works were the real deal. He even overheard a woman telling her friends that she had visited the excavation site in Italy and what a tragedy it was that the Nazis destroyed most of it during WWII.

Confusion over what is real and what is not seems to surround his work, which is entirely what he is aiming for. When his Web site was up (it has been down for some time but plans to return it online are in the works) he received inquiries from archeology interns offering to work at the excavation site. At some shows he overhears people wondering, "How does he get these through customs?"

Institutions hosting his works seem to get in on the fun of the fiction as well. Wilamette University exhibited his show "Excavations at the Villa Bitricci" in the fall of 2001 and promoted it as real. The only clue in the exhibition description were a few carefully placed quotation marks to help attendees read between the lines: "In the early 1980s, while traveling in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, Professor David Giese discovered the remains of a fabulous country house/estate in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Based on archaeological, epigraphic, and literary evidence, Giese believes the house to be the longest continuously inhabited private residence in Europe, dating back to the 3rd century AD. The exhibition will feature a range of frescos and architectural fragments that the artist 'claims' to have excavated at the site."

Scouring the Internet for information about the Villa Bitricci, one can find references on study sites referring to his Web site, not as an artist's site, but as as an excavation worthy of study by students of archeology. They cite the fictional details as reality, which just makes the joke that much better.

One such site reads, "The structure that is the subject of this Web site was begun just after 200 C.E., and occupied as a private residence continually thereafter into the 20th century. First begun by Roman Emperor Caracalla as a last attempt to show the power and splendor of Rome, construction and renovation on the estate continued until it was stopped by the Fascists at the outbreak of World War II. It was owned through the centuries by powerful political and business leaders who each tried outdo the previous don in building and decoration. During the 13th to 18th centuries, many of Europe's foremost painters, sculptors, and architects were commissioned for projects at the villa. As a study site, this is a rich niche of history, art, and architecture. Students of archeaelogy may learn here from the exacting work of the those engaged in studying Villa Bitricci. They say that because so many people of intellectual prominence sojourned there, the art and architecture affected Western thinking in important ways, ranging from Thomas Jefferson's surveying theory to Max Wertheimer's gestalt psychology."

Like an urban myth, the "reality" of the Villa's made-up history seems to get replicated over and over across the Internet and may end up become a real place in historical textbooks and study materials. One just has to laugh at that.

Whereas the fake background stories can be humorous, Giese finds greater purpose in his works.

"What I like about my art is how it confronts your own basis of knowledge," he said. "There are layers of meaning. If that work is just a piece, can you imagine what the rest of the room in the villa looked like?"

The story Giese tells is that the villa has been visited by nearly every major artist and member intelligencia for the last 1,000 years. Each influenced the art and design of the villa in their own way while there. By imagining such a deep history over this period of time, Giese can tap into ancient Roman motifs to the Renaissance. But being fiction, he can also make it all up as he goes along. "When Jefferson visted the villa," Giese said with a storyteller's smirk, "he perceived the parts as making the whole. It inspired him to influence George Washington to conceive of separating the government and political areas into separate but equal parts."

After spending a year at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas as an artist in residence in 1992, Giese took a sabbatical from the University of Idaho. When he returned to Moscow, he became the chairman of the Department of Art and began teaching more upper division students. During that time he helped redesign the process of the curriculum. This allowed the art and graphics students to develop a stronger body of work. It also allowed the undergraduates to mature more quickly and have a larger portfolio, with practical experience, by the time they graduated. It was the gem of art programs in the state and the University of Idaho had a reputation for having one of the strongest art programs in the Northwest. Then came a shift in the wind. For reasons that some say were personal or political, but officially to deal with funding shortfalls, university administrators began cutting back on the art programs and in 2002, announced that they would eliminate the College of Art and Architecture at the University of Idaho. The classes and students would be merged with the College of Letters, Art and Social Sciences and would only address design, not fine art.

"You spend your whole life working with students, to be told to your face that what you do is not worth it," David said. "It's very insulting."

But the hammer didn't completely fall on all art programs. The debate came up again earlier this year when Dean Joe Zeller brought up the desire to cancel more art classes and send the art students to Washington State University in Pullman (allegedly without consulting WSU administration officials first). The dean's office sent out letters to prospective art students that there most likely would not be a four-year art program at the university. Listening to a call from faculty and current and former students of the college, on October 17, 2005, the state board of education voted to reinstate the College of Art and Architecture at the University of Idaho. Giese said when they voted it was like something out of a movie. Everyone at the meeting stood up and cheered.

But the controversy has had a lasting impact. The result, said Giese, is that art students for several years now, unsure as to the future of the fine art program at the university, have sought programs elsewhere. Conversely, with declining numbers of students taking art classes, they have reduced the number of art faculty and now have about eight full-time and two part time staff.

In his studio on campus, an old warehouse on top of one of the hills, he stores his work on floor-to-ceiling shelves housing the hundreds of molds. Usually he works on four to five works simultaneously. In the studio, Giese showed me some pet urns he was playing with at the time.

"I'm making up all these stories about these people who lived at the villa and their pets," he said while turning the work around and inspecting the underside.

Some of the materials he uses as inspiration come from unsuspecting places, like cheesy candlesticks from department stores. "But when you cast them they look great," he said with a grin. "I think of myself as a collagist. I make the flats and I start adding stuff."

Giese makes transfers from colored prints onto the flats, which he had light-tested for archival aging. With the preservative coating, they determined his works are five times more stable than a Kodak C-print, which has an estimated color-maintaining duration of about 80 years.

On the other side of the warehouse is the room containing all the storage crates, some filled with his older works and others being prepared to ship newer ones. While the works--selling for anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, more for commissioned installations--may look fragile, Giese said they are quite sturdy.

What the future may bring for his historically based works, no one knows. Giese does not fear the future, nor has he any doubt about his works. He sees himself continuing the process. "I suppose I find there are so many various combinations of motifs that I'm not tired," he said. "I have no problem coming up with new pieces."

When one avenue of creations peter out, Giese simply fictionalizes another part of the archeological dig and "discovers" new works inside his own mind.