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Prophets and Losses

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Sex, violence and betrayal -- just turn on TV and you're bombarded with the stuff. Not like those older, more rustic times when our forebears would settle down next to a kerosene lamp after a long, hard day and read verses from the Bible before drifting off to sleep. And what did they read about? Sex, violence and betrayal -- especially if they were reading from the Old Testament. But unlike today's dumbed-down TV shows, the Bible is so rife with mystery and paradox that scholars have struggled for centuries trying to figure out what it really meant.

It is that timeless passion and drama, as well as those oddly convoluted paradoxes, that inspired Alan Gerson to focus on the Old Testament in his new paintings. True to his claustrophobic vision of otherworldly angst, these grimly jocular and Kafkaesque Bible tableaus depict people who were at the mercy of vast forces over which they had no control. That much was true even when the world was new, as we see in Temptation: Ikebana, Adam and Eve. Here the original couple stands waist deep in weeds in front of a potted plant, and this is about as heroic as Gerson's figures ever get, with traces of musculature instead of the usual elongated blobs that usually serve as heads, torsos and limbs (as if he were painting from Silly Putty or Play-Doh models concocted by a twisted child). Michelangelo it ain't, but it does convey something of the absurd side of the human condition -- as do the zipper-like grimaces across the blank, anxious faces.

The potted plant is no less otherworldly. Perhaps a mutant apple tree, it is laden with big red fruit, one of which Eve clasps tightly, her face a manic leer, as an anxious Adam, sensing that she might do something rash, grabs her arm in a hapless cautionary gesture. But, of course, we all know what happens next, as does the snake, an insinuatingly slinky critter with creepy little legs like a genetically confused caterpillar. In The Expulsion, the Garden is a riot of carnivorous-looking flora, a jungle of bloated botanical predators, as angels like flying skulls descend from a darkened sky. Below, our chastened hero and heroine run like hell on their Silly Putty legs while lamely trying to cover their privates with skanky sprigs of fern. And things have been a mess ever since.

Skipping across millennia, Gerson goes all out with The Seed of Abraham, father of the Jews (and also Arabs, according to Jewish and Islamic tradition). His story is so complex it requires several canvas panels, the most prominent of which depicts grandson Jacob with his mother, Rebeccah, who helped him fool his father, Isaac, into giving him his blessing to become the spiritual leader (even though Isaac actually preferred his brother, Esau, who joked about trading his legacy to Jacob for the pot of lentils seen on the lower left). Other panels depict Jacob's son, Joseph, in a pit prior to being sold into slavery by his brothers, among other cautionary tales, a series of stories with more schemes, intrigues and betrayals than most soap operas and which often come to conclusions that are far from what we might ordinarily expect. As Gerson notes, the Lord of the Old Testament did indeed work in mysterious ways.

As does Gerson. Here a painting of what might be a whale turns out to refer to the story of Job, who, beyond bad skin, also had to deal with some mind-bending lectures from his maker, including a hair-raising parable about a Leviathan. But Jonah finally turns up in another painting, Jonah, as a modern dude in a suit, adrift in a household aquarium with evil-looking piranhas and moray eels. The Bible story was all about Jonah's attempts to avoid his spiritual destiny until a whale took him where he needed to go -- as God later explained to him under a gourd tree. Here Jonah is a worldly guy lost in an aquarium from hell, as wild gourds clamor against the window. Gerson is a master of surreal angst, a cartoonish fear and trembling that in these works take us to a childlike region of the psyche, a place, perhaps, where the inner child meets the Holy Father, He whose name cannot be spoken, in yet another attempt to bridge the metaphysical generation gap.

Alan Gerson takes several canvas panels to explain the complex story of Abraham with The Seed of Abraham -- one of which shows Jacob with his mother, Rebeccah.
  • Alan Gerson takes several canvas panels to explain the complex story of Abraham with The Seed of Abraham -- one of which shows Jacob with his mother, Rebeccah.

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