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The Campification of the Divine: Andy Messerschmidt’s Graze Anatomy

By Paul Schmelzer

“Culturally, I’m a cold-hearted colonialist,” says Minnesota artist Andy Messerschmidt, who notes that he has no problem “ripping off” images or ideas from world religions, from Buddhist mandalas to Indonesian shamanistic rituals to American consumer holidays, in his installations and paintings. The tendency is on display in his Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012), a new work commissioned for the public space near the Walker Shop. Messerschmidt describes the piece as an exploration of the “compression of loaded symbols of divinity and how they work in moire to create a meta-symbol of the divine.”

“I’m not a religious person,” explains Messerschmidt, “but I’m very much interested in the campification of the divine.” Fittingly, his piece melds Christmas kitsch with symmetrical two-dimensional patterns reminiscent of altars or mandalas. Installed in the trapezoidal notch in the ceiling between the Walker lobby and the bar at Gather restaurant one floor up, the work is largely comprised of layered imagery the artist finds scouring Google Image Search, Facebook, and Shutterfly as well as items he finds in the world around him and scans to add to his digital toolbox. Playing with symmetry and repetition, the work’s two-dimensional component is made from layers of red, green, and metallic holiday wrapping paper and computer printouts of images ranging from Dr. Zeus of The Planet of the Apes to Jesus Christ (although both aren’t readily visible to viewers).

Messerschmidt is enthralled with ornament more than with the content of the images, so his layering has a decidedly democratic feel: no pattern or image takes preeminence over another. “I’m really working on a hard mash of image singularity,” he says.

Deviating from this equalized treatment of visual elements, however, is the artist’s use of three-dimensional objects in Graze Anatomy, including a chandelier made of 63 glowing plastic sheep from an outdoor Nativity set (half of which were sourced from “the world’s largest Christmas store” in Frankenmuth, Michigan) and two pairs of plastic shepherd’s crooks. The installation also includes a tuft of Easter grass, two electric window candles, a pulsing animation of geometric shapes projected onto the ceiling of the space, and a soundtrack created by the artist.

Continuing his theme of layering—and of cultural appropriation—Messerschmidt’s sound score includes overlapping audio of rainforest birds, a recording of an exorcism ritual in Indonesia, the artist’s own vocalizations, “cheesy ’60s folk with Mimi and Richard Farina,” and gothic music from the 11th century. Like the repeated visuals, the score includes multiple loops, both in a nod to techno music, one of Messerschmidt’s favorite musical genre, and to his love of ostinato, the persistent repetition of a phrase or motif in music (best exemplified by Ravel’s “Boléro”). “Ostinato I would consider to be the audio equivalent of ornament,” Messerschmidt says. “It’s a pillow, a buffering mechanism that lets the eyes or ears fall in gently.”

All of Messerschmidt’s devices—from the soundtrack to the symmetry, religious symbols to the use of props—are part and parcel of a strategy of attracting and repelling viewers, he says. In this and past works, he willfully references familiar, archetypal forms, including the mihrab (a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque), the minaret (the spire commonly found in structures from mosques to the Disneyland castle), the patterning of Persian rugs, and yantra (a geometric diagram a practitioner may focus on during meditation), to name a few. “I use symmetry as a convention to get people’s foot in the door,” he says, conjuring a metaphor from the environs surrounding his home in the northern Minnesota town of Ely. “It’s like trapping in the Boundary Waters: What’s the lure there? I use an archetype.”

While he acknowledges that symmetry is a cliché that “has a lot of baggage,” he says he complicates its use through visual structures like triangles, circles, and trefoils that create “a shift or meta-pattern that happens over the top.”

He says the music is likewise alternately seductive and abrasive, with piercing birdcalls mixed with more soothing sounds and the occasional surprise (He marvels at the heaviness of a line from a folk song he’s included: “We possess the warriors sword.”) And the shepherd’s crook is a rather overt reference to the pull—a literal hooking—at play in the work.

“[Gilles] Deleuze has been a big influence on me,” the artist explains, “especially his concept of faciality, how you have the soft and the hard together. You have these lips, which are for kissing, but inside they hold these fangs.”

Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy is the second commission for this space, which has been informally dubbed “the oculus” by Walker staff. Part of a commissioning series supported by the McKnight Foundation, it follows Elizabeth Simonson’s Instar, installed in late 2011, which represented in beads the evolutionary stages of metamorphosing creatures. While Messerschmidt’s themes—supercharged images from religion and pop culture—could scarcely be more different from Simonson’s, they do represent a kind of evolution as well—an internal one for the artist.

“You live your life and the older you get, you don’t want to die with any hang ups—big ideological or philosophical hang ups,” he says. “Visually, I want no hang ups.”

Andy Messerschmidt

Photo: Olga A Ivanova

Andy Messerschmidt, Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012) in the Walker’s Hennepin Lobby

Photo: Olga A Ivanova

Sixty-three plastic sheep make up the chandelier at the center of Graze Anatomy

Photo: Olga A Ivanova

Messerschmidt’s raw materials

Photo: Olga A Ivanova

Messerschmidt installing a decal on the window of “the oculus”

Photo: Olga A Ivanova

Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy, as seen from Gather by D’Amico

Photo: Olga A Ivanova