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Gambit Weekly No Kidding

By D. Eric Bookhardt

MARCH 23, 1998:  In his previous shows, lawyer-turned-painter Alan Gerson took us on a tour of 20th century life as it might appear to an outsider who also was a consummate insider. It was a revealing vision, as we saw in Jungles and Bricks and World Without Heroes, his series of surreal cityscapes in which modern downtowns appear as Kafka-like concrete mazes inhabited by angst-ridden executive managers, grimly posturing attorneys and men in gray suits.

Cartoonish and architectonic, his images reflect the sense of impersonal dread that we associate with the bureaucratic mazes of modern times, that lurking menace that sets the tone for such cautionary 20th century classics as George Orwell's 1984 or Fritz Lang's Metropolis. But now that the Evil Empire and Berlin Wall are history, I wondered if Gerson's angst might merely be a Cold War relic. Such were my thoughts as I came home one day to find that my electricity had been cut off. Without warning. How odd.

Not only had I paid the bill on time, but there had been no disconnect notice. Surely it must be a simple mistake, I thought. And then the fun began. Divining the numeric codes of Entergy Corp.'s phone system was telecommunications water torture for starters, but when I finally reached a polite and apparently human voice, I was told that I must give them my Social Security number before they would even deign to discuss the matter with me.

Hello? Since when does a private enterprise need my Social Security number just to take my money? This was weird, right out of Kafka. Here I was, trying to pay my bill twice just so I could turn on my lights, and this global nuclear behemoth was carrying on as if I were a suspicious Social Security claimant. I will spare you the Orwellian techno-odyssey that followed; suffice it to say that it was a chilling experience. But the kicker came when I was told, rather reproachfully, that I could have avoided all this grief if only I had let them siphon off their monthly tribute straight from my bank account as they had previously requested!

Gerson's The Stranger depicts his typical angst-ridden industrial torment.
The nerve! If they could bungle something this simple, how could I possibly trust their fumbling cyber-fingers anywhere near my bank account? As if to prove my point, the very next day, my bank sent me back my original check -- along with a notice from Entergy that read: "Entergy received this check. We cannot locate a valid address for the customer. Please return to customer."

Needless to say, the address was right there all along -- how else could they have billed me in the first place? Yet, after all these years on their grid, I suddenly found myself a non-person with a non-valid address. Their computers no longer recognized me: I had ceased to exist. Shades of the old Evil Empire at its most senile. It was an object lesson in how Big Business and Big Brother can become indistinguishable, and soon I was persuaded that Entergy might indeed deserve all the bad publicity it has been getting of late (I am by no means the first to be declared a non-person.)

In any event, I now have more than ample reason to feel that Gerson's late industrial angst might not be so far-fetched after all. Actually, the man is quite attuned to the times. Following the Evil Empire's death-bed conversion to sleazebag capitalism, Gerson's work focused more on nature as a consumer commodity in lush still-life studies comprising opulent blooms, roseate blossoms and predatory insect species in decorator-Navajo crockery. It is a tribute to the versatility of Gerson's imagination that he could find a mother lode of paranoia even there. Of course, Ma Nature can be scary, as everybody knows -- but what about the kids?

Gerson's new series, Child's Play, is all about the little ones, of whom he says: "We all go through childhood, and then it becomes a foreign land that we can't go back to, a sort of lost world." Of course, some may be more lost than others; paintings like Boys and Lizard and Fat Boys at War conjure up all of those halcyon childhood joys that their titles so nostalgically imply. Yet all is not fun and games: some images stress the exemplary virtues that prepare a child for worldly success. The Stranger depicts a girl in a severe tunic beside a stark corporate tower. Her blank eyes and fixed manic grin suggest a cross between a forced smile and a seizure -- the same death grimace seen in Gerson's corporate sharks and lawyers -- so we know she must be on the right track.

The girl seems frozen in place as a darkly managerial shadow engulfs her, and I'm not sure what Gerson is up to here, although it might be about the millennial twilight of modern industrial society. We are, after all, on the verge of vacating this tired technology-ridden century in favor of a brave and promising, if utterly unknown, new world. Don't forget to turn out the lights.

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