Arts Danny Geisler's new world

An infamous artist takes stock of his life and work

“I love the sorting more than anything,” Danny Geisler exclaims. We are standing in the artist’s apartment surveying a tabletop crowded with Christmas tchotchkes — tiny fir trees dotted with glitter, injection-molded plastic reindeer, more rhinestones than a transvestite beauty pageant.

Danny Geisler, above, is taking stock of his career with three simultaneous shows. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

It is mid-October, a mere month-and-a-half before Geisler makes a big, fat, merry, manic splash with three overlapping exhibits that comprise a self-engineered career survey, tribute, and gauntlet: a one-man show at REM Gallery, a holiday version of his semi-annual Peep Show, and a group Christmas-themed show that he is both curating and anchoring at the UTSA Satellite Space.

Geisler is upbeat and anxious. He giggles often, a little nervously, as he discusses his plans — life-size snowmen, stacks of faux presents, wind-driven leaves, giant cardboard lockets. When I return a month later, three snowmen made of crumpled paper encased in wire frames occupy most of the floor space, and Geisler’s bed is blanketed with the tools of his trade. The red felt is peeled off the torso of a palm-sized reindeer; the suggestive stockings that remain are complemented by an antler tiara made of multi-colored plastic gems. Vegas Show-deer. It’s beautiful, trashy, and kitschy and, like most of Geisler’s work, defies easy labels. Gay? Certainly. Rascuache? Geisler doesn’t really elevate his cheap materials as much as add them to his lexicon. In his artist’s statement, he says he creates “A NEW WORLD — every time.”

Geisler shows are densely layered installations, filled with enough symbolism to keep a Jungian analyst permananently on staff — or perhaps a Freudian disciple, given the family leitmotiv that recurs in his work. “Scott `Lifshutz` tells me, ‘If you could just drop dead before you finished something, you’d be famous,’” he laughs. One reviewer has described Geisler’s aesthetic as “accessorized worst-case scenarios.” Each “world” may be new, but together they operate on the same set of givens: 1. Adults will lie to you. 2. If you want it done beautiful, you have to do it yourself. The soundtrack for the 2002 Inside Every House installation at Joan Grona Gallery features “The Greatest Love of All” with a tragicomic singalong voiceover. During the second verse of “I believe that children are our future,” maniacal chuckling swells in the background.

Geisler inherited the second principle from his grandmother, a gifted craftswoman who decorated her husband’s handmade Kleenex box covers and wastebaskets with 3-D decoupage, and who often entertained her young grandson at the Winns store where she worked. He keeps a set of tree skirts they sewed, his miniature version as skillfully trimmed in sequins as his grandmother’s large one. He keeps almost everything else, too — in addition to his sleeping quarters, Lifshutz’ old studio space, his own apartment is filled to the rafters with ornate, desiccating furniture and more supplies — some of it obsessively sorted, the rest of it on its way to or from art. He shows me his grandmother’s old crafting box, filled with clear, labeled jars: “red beads,” “white beads,” etc. His life is the Noah’s Ark of dime-store cast-offs, a back lot for the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

One of Geisler’s 2005 Christmas cards skewers the false premises of the holidays.

Geisler is a bit of a Rudolph himself — a mischievous iconoclast who really does want to play with the other reindeer, but can’t bring himself to compromise for the “in” crowd. As he reviews the highs and lows of his 30-year career, a recurring theme is miffed bewilderment when his work is excluded from group shows or censored after it’s installed. Most recently, organizers of the second-annual Martinez Street Women’s Shelter Bling-Bling Fling removed his donated collage from the auction because a board member complained about the naked boy it contained — a common figure in Geisler’s oeuvre. The boy’s privates were concealed but, an event organizer reportedly told Geisler, “we know he is naked underneath all that other stuff.” Geisler’s mordant humor quickly reasserts itself in the face of opposition. He obligingly tore off the offending body part and stuffed it in his pocket. As the evening wore on and he tired of requests to see the censored bits, he popped the crumpled paper in his mouth and ate it.

He’s mellowed. Five years ago, he was excluded from Blue Star’s Red Dot auction fundraiser for the first time since its inception. In mock protest, he curated the Red Hot Art Sale in his nearby apartment, featuring Franco Mondini-Ruiz, Scott Lifshutz, Will Muñiz, Robert Tatum, and himself. “Mister Danny Geisler” was born that evening, a character who cemented the wall that the artist had been building around himself since the mid-’90s.

Danny Geisler was once one of San Antonio’s golden boys. “He and `Jump-Start co-founder` Dennis `Poplin` were part of the beginning of all of this, where we are today, the visual and performing arts both,” says longtime friend Dawn Brooks. Brooks has known Geisler since 1967, when they were in middle school. At Churchill High School, they became the core of the theater program. “We had higher aspirations, we were not just high-school kids rehearsing lines,” says Brooks. “Everything was bigger and bolder Not only did he do all of the silk-screening for all of the posters, he did it for everything else. He was always cutting stuff out — the paper cuts, the stylized imagery, the vibrant color, everything that is recognizable about his work.”

Geisler parlayed this precocious talent into a career as an award-winning graphic designer after he attended New York’s Parsons School of Design and California’s Art Center of College and Design, and later into acclaimed stage designs for Jump-Start Theater Co. and Cornyation.

Everything Else

2-6pm Fri,
Noon-6pm Sat,
& by appt.
Dec 1-Jan 29
Opening reception: 7-11pm Thu, Dec 1

REM Gallery
1414 S. Alamo, Ste 201

Holiday Peep Show

After dark
Dec 1-2

121-1 Blue Star

Mister Danny Geisler’s Christmas in December

Noon-6pm Fri-Sun,
& by appt.
Dec 2-23
Opening reception: 6-9pm Thu, Dec 1

UTSA Satellite Space
115 Blue Star

During those early years, Geisler married his high-school sweetheart and had a daughter. A series of high-profile turns at short-lived design agencies eventually gave way to a well-compensated post at USAA, but those conventional achievements concealed a common-enough trajectory: Man realizes he’s gay. Man comes out. Man deals with emotional fall-out later. A long-term relationship with Jump-Start’s Poplin ended when Geisler fell in love with a younger man, who in turn left Geisler. Not long after, Geisler lost his job at USAA and his life seemed to take a turn for the worse.

“He turned into a sloppy drunk. He was bitter, mean, and nasty,” recalls Brooks. “Danny was good at the viper-witted repartee. That was not the guy I wanted to be around socially.” At the same time, she notes, he was turning out a lot of good work. “He kind of healed himself from some of the stuff that happened to him in his childhood.”

Even at his nadir, Geisler didn’t alienate key people in his life. Old friends cautiously recount the “dark” days, but they always marvel at his design skills and his seemingly inexhaustible urge to invent. The word “genius” comes up frequently. Geisler has remained close friends with Lifshutz, who is in his UTSA Christmas show and who just finished one of his famous floating-head pet portraits of Geisler’s late puppy, Othello. Geisler credits another good friend and former lover, Cody Williams, with saving his life. His daughter, Lilla Bernal, now a pastry chef at Biga, says she has always adored him. “I think he deserves some recognition for having come out the other side,” she says. “We’re all really proud of him.”

Bernal has a 2-year-old daughter, and she says Geisler is an “awesome” grandfather. “She’s a really outgoing, loud kind of kid.” says Bernal. “They totally hit it off becase they’re similar.”

Geisler gave up heavy drinking after his recent 50th birthday, a decision he lays at the feet of his granddaughter. Bernal and her mother lived out of town when she was that age, and Geisler says he doesn’t want to miss those years a second time. “I really don’t like that ‘time out’ thing,” he says of their time together. “That’s like a punishment for me, too.”

These days, Geisler seems grounded and, relatively speaking, calm. “Part of the snap was my deciding no matter what ... I am pretty much stuck with me, the way I am. Since I don’t have enough time to start over, I better get used to it,” he wrote recently. “Oh fuck, I am writing the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, 2005 — I guess I really am gay, and even better, sort of content.” He has said more than once that he feels these might be his last shows. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said cheerfully when we visited recently. “I got my annual rejection letter from Artpace.” I, for one, hope he takes it as an incentive to continue prodding people with his art. As Brooks observes, it has all of Geisler in it: “There’s genius, there’s humanity, and there’s pain.” Oh, and naked boys.

By Elaine Wolff

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