Altered Artist: Rodger Gerberding

Altered Artist: Rodger Gerberding
Medium Magazine (February 2003)
By Wendy Townley

Rodger Gerberding openly admits that although he’s nearing what today’s standards consider “middle age,” he isn’t completely sure who he is.

“I’m trying to solve the great mystery, which sounds rather pretentious, but it’s a personal thing that allows process to enter in,” explains the artist who traces his passion for creation back to when he was a toddler clad in cotton diapers. “I think that by doing my work, I’m becoming more whom I’m meant to be–whoever that is.”

Identifying Gerberding’s work with paint and some more tactile materials requires the understanding of an altered artist. The blonde-haired creator with the deep, almost addictive voice can’t pinpoint what occurred in his life that transformed not only his work, but the method in which he perceives it. It was after moving to Minneapolis from Chicago that Gerberding says (and art aficionados may notice) his work, quite simply, began anew. While perusing a stack of works from Gerberding’s Chicago period recently, he was brought back to a place and person he remembers, but no longer is: “The style is no longer me; the subject matter really is no longer me. In those days, I pretty much went with whatever style the subject matter dictated. And sometimes, I incorporated pretty conscious awkwardness.”

Some of his earlier works are more dark in tone, appear to have a congruent structure and bring in subdued color schemes and monochromatic themes. Studying at both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Fine Art gave Gerberding a clearer understanding of the theories and ideologies behind art itself. But after those years of intense education, Gerberding says: “I unlearned everything that I had learned.”

Much of the change in Gerberding’s later work post-Chicago reveals an artist who bows more to the project’s calling than simply his creative instinct: “I don’t worry about control any longer,” he says. “I have a certain technical finesse and all that stuff, but that’s not important. The work takes me where it wants to go.”

Gerberding’s work has clearly taken over his two-story home near 10th and Pierce streets. Stacks of past and current pieces, some sculpture, overflowing bookshelves, newspaper clippings, aged wood floors and a chatty cat named Jack permeate and dominate his studio and living space. “More and more, the work is overtaking the space. But it’s OK,” he says. “It’s a good thing, because I pretty much work continuously.”

Some of Gerberding’s work these days is spent, oddly enough, on pieces he began upwards of 20 years ago. On many occasions, Gerberding will revisit a piece he hasn’t touched for years as a completely different artist with a new eye for what works. Some of the work he perceives as unfinished will beckon his changed styled.

And while such methods may yield different works, the process is nonetheless challenging: “The problem with that kind of thing is that you’re collaborating with somebody you were 20 years ago. It’s totally impossible. You have to honor that person, I guess, even if you don’t particularly like that person. There’s no real meeting of the two.”

Gerberding’s painting, “Outside the Drunkard’s Cave,” is one attempt at marrying those two artists. The view is from inside a cavern, looking out at pieces of man Gerberding once was. Infusions of warmer, richer colors introduces audiences to a new person: “It combines the old with the new. The somberness is still there, but there are all sorts of adjuncts. That for me is a successful collaboration. It honors who I was and who I am.”

Today’s work, unlike his earlier pieces, are more of what Gerberding defines as “more bare bones. I just found that to include less was to maybe say more. I’m now much more selective about details. I don’t have to include everything.”

To become the more flexible artist Gerberding now is required fire and his past works. After moving to Minneapolis, Gerberding gathered nearly 300 past pieces and set them ablaze in a fiery farewell: “The idea is in order to become who you’re meant to be, you sometimes have to get rid of who you were.” The purging of these photorealistic works was somewhat painful, but didn’t yield any type of crippling fear of dread or reluctance. Gerberding was simply saying goodbye to a person he once knew, but no longer was: “I didn’t want the early stuff, which was totally unrepresentative of who I became, to be there.”

The artist and person Gerberding is today also doesn’t allow unwarranted criticism to continually surface. He says he understands and sometimes connects with the person behind the work, regardless of his opinion: “It’s very difficult for me to criticize, in a very outright way, anybody’s work. I tend to look for what beauty is in it, what it says about the person who did it. That’s something I’ve come to fairly recently. You have to consider the hand and heart that’s behind it.”

What should audiences of Gerberding’s work conclude about his hand and heart? Much like the direction of his work, Gerberding isn’t exactly sure: “For me, it’s all part of the journey. I have no idea where I’m going, and the less control I have the happier I am. It’s a process that matters more to me than anything else.”