In the medieval maps of the world, the oceans always ended abruptly, marked off with a line. The other side was typically inscribed with the cautionary message: "There be monsters." A few days after the tsunami struck I received an email containing an op-ed piece by some scientist named Dr. Glen Barry, opining that the humongous mega-wave was the earth's revenge for being so routinely abused by mankind. In Asia, Islamic clerics claimed the big wave was God's vengeance for man's sins, a view also shared by some Western holy men who considered it further evidence that the End is near, which they say is wonderful news.
The sea is full of portent, it seems. In the great myths, men set sail, endured terrible hardships and encountered amazing sights before proving their mettle and becoming heroes. The sea was unknowable, a highway to foreign lands but also an ungodly place of serpents and anomalies. In the Old Testament, the sea is symbolic of cosmic chaos, but in modern times the oceans have become a kind of frontier. The documentaries of Jacques Cousteau perfectly reflected the scientific-romantic approach in which the sea is depicted as a kind of paradise imperiled by careless human commerce. Implicit was the idea that this silent, beautiful world could be preserved for the recreation and edification of mankind.
And then there is Alan Gerson, who seems to take all of the above sentiments into account in his recent paintings. Undersea I is a briny deep scene crammed to the gills with a profusion of our aquatic friends in all sizes, shapes and colors. Gerson uses the setting to emphasize the rich hues that sometimes attend underwater life, as zebra fish, neon tetras, eels, corals and seaweed all strut their stuff. The colors are vibrant, uplifting, but look again and it's a rogue's gallery of finned felons with fangs, a watery jungle of sinister sucker fish and evil moray eels all seemingly preying on each other. Even the aquatic plants are suspect, so the whole thing is this Kafkaesque realm of Piscean paranoia, a mingling of Disney and Bosch, an affirmation of the medieval fear of monsters, aberrations and abominations.
As I was writing this, I ran into Gerson and asked him what he was trying to do. "I kind of liked the colors," he said after a pregnant pause. "It's like a continuation of my flower series. And it might have something to do with the unconscious. It's all pretty otherworldly -- I couldn't make up that stuff if I tried." I also recalled that his last show featured Biblical scenes, one of which depicted his version of the Jonah and the whale story, with a modern Jonah in an aquarium of evil predator fish. Such sentiments continue in this series in works such as Fish Face, a closely cropped portrait of a spiny blowfish like a villain in a sub-aquatic comic strip. And a leviathan seems to lurk menacingly in Fish Head, a minimalist, near-monochromatic view of a menacing finned predator with a vast, gaping mouth and bulging eyeballs. Look again, and it's a close up view of a catfish. But the scale tips toward beauty and wonder in Deep Sea, a large, two panel diptych that reads almost like a cycloramic segment with luminous jellyfish and other phosphorescent forms of marine life illuminating the inky depths of the ocean floor. Here Gerson's marine beings finally seem to shed more beauty and light than angst and unease, even as they remain creepily otherworldly in other ways. Beauty is evident as well in Ancient Sea I, but here it's because of the luminous color contrast of glowing crimson and ethereal turquoise in what otherwise suggests a convention of ancient prototypical barracudas, spiny worms and Portuguese men-o-war (those bluish jellyfish that can grow to the size of a small football and which routinely sting the blazes out of anyone unfortunate enough to brush up against their very long, poisonous tendrils). But that's how it is in Gerson's world, where beauty is always tinged with a touch of terror and the presence of evil is a given, paradoxical and inescapable. Which, of course, is also the nature of the human condition and life on earth, and Gerson never tires of reminding us of it.
- Sometimes menacing, Alan Gerson's Under See exhibit of aquatic life sometimes tips toward the beauty and wonder of the ocean in works like Deep Sea (shown here in a detail of the two-panel diptych).