NEW YORK — An image of an Adolf Hitler doll didn’t just make Jim Riswold pause, it set him in motion on his first public art project.
For “Göring’s Lunch,” which closes this week at the Augen Gallery in Portland, Ore., Riswold positioned toy figures of the Führer, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and other eyebrow-raising characters next to such unlikely bystanders as an oversized rag doll and then photographed them. A miniature Stalin is pictured next to a plastic doghouse, and a diminutive Erwin Rommel is captured in a tiny toy sandbox.
“It’s become an explanation of hubris, which, unfortunately, is still a well-worn fault that a lot of people in this world have,” Riswold said.
As a 21-year Wieden & Kennedy vet and one of the firm’s creative directors, he is not one to shy away from controversy, especially in his agency work for Nike. His personal favorites — “Spike and Mike,” Charles Barkley’s “I’m Not a Role Model” and “Bo Knows” — were among the athletic giant’s most talked-about campaigns.
“So I was no stranger to controversy,” Riswold said. “I was playing with athletes before I switched to playing with dictators.”
In remission from leukemia and on medical leave, Riswold said once he was diagnosed about four years ago, he had a shorthand list of creative projects that didn’t end with someone’s logo. “Göring’s Lunch” started as a project after he and his son stumbled upon a catalogue image of the Hitler doll. “I don’t think ‘outraged’ is the right word, but it struck my curiosity that such an object was displayed as a toy.”
In his own work, Riswold has been influenced by a variety of artists but never by “heavy-handed” art. He started collecting Andy Warhol’s prints as a high schooler, much to the chagrin of his parents. “He wasn’t dead then, so they were cheap,” he explained.
A self-described 98-pound weakling whose childhood nickname was “Pipsqueak,” Riswold related to Warhol “because he was an outsider. Plus, I was losing my hair and I wondered what I would look like in a silver wig.”
Riswold said he has also long been a fan of lensman David Levinthal, whose early work includes photos of toy soldiers. Levinthal collaborated with his Yale classmate, “Doonesbury” comic strip creator Garry Trudeau, for that project.
As for “Göring’s Lunch,” the artist insisted it is up to gallery goers to draw their own conclusions, but he realizes he is dealing with a highly sensitive subject.
“I understand that some people are upset by the subject matter or they feel the subject matter should not be satirized,” he said. “It’s up to them to interpret. They can learn a valuable lesson in history that should not be forgotten. But it is up to them to interpret it.”
The Hallie Board Museum in Salem, Ore., is considering hosting “Göring’s Lunch,” and Riswold’s friend, Brad Cloepfil, founder of Allied Works Architecture, is shopping it around to New York galleries.