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American Gothic 

"I like children, I really do," Alan Gerson says while standing in front of one of his new paintings at LeMieux Galleries. I don't doubt it, yet anyone familiar with his work might be excused for wondering. Most of his stuff reflects a darkly ironic sensibility that is far from warm and fuzzy, even as regards the ordinarily sacrosanct world of childhood. Americans, after all, are usually more sentimental, even imagining their own childhoods on par with Beaver Cleaver's, regardless of how much mischief if not mayhem was left in their wake. But not, apparently, Gerson.

Maybe it was his other life as a lawyer, a profession that encourages a more critical look at human nature, that engendered his contrarian view. Field Trip depicts a class of school kids visiting a natural history museum with their sternly mustachioed teacher. Most gather around a reconstructed dinosaur, while the stragglers wander aimlessly. The brontosaurus looks aggressively reptilian, but, then again, so does the teacher. So do the kids for that matter, and the main difference between the humans and the dinosaur is that the former are small and pink while the latter is big and green.

Red Bike is a classic childhood scene of a dad teaching his kid to ride a bike -- only this father-son duo may be a little too tightly wrapped. Both wear suits and ties, and the kid's beaky pink reptilian face is like a replica of his dad's. He wears a helmet and pedals earnestly as his father barks guidance through Gerson's signature grimly clenched teeth, in this case clenching a pipe. Behind them, box hedges and ranch-style houses define the contours of the American dream, yet the whole scene is really sort of scary. But not as scary as Jack O'Lantern, a kind of pre-Halloween scene with a kid carving a pumpkin with a large, deadly looking knife. The kid leers maniacally through rows of clenched teeth as he plunges the knife through the pumpkin's eye socket, and it's hard not to think of scenes from movies like Psycho. (Actually, this painting was bought by a friend of Stephen King as a present for the macabre maestro.) Here, as in Initiation, in which a little tyke on a sofa between two portly, cigar-smoking older gents, holds his nose, Gerson seems to take a mixed view of the way kids are shaped, for better or worse, by the adult world around them. Painted in his usual flat, morbidly cartoonish style, Children's Hour presents a starkly revisionist view of childhood as a time when youthful "innocence" may not be all it was cracked up to be.

More myths bite the dust in Tom Huck's large woodcut prints. Here the subject is the "heartland," but Huck's Midwest is gothic in ways that never would have occurred to Grant Wood. And while the subject matter is distinctly American -- he says it's all based on his experiences in his home town of Potosi, Mo., -- the look recalls central European expressionism. Beef Brain Buffet is emblematic -- and ghoulish. Here we have the nuclear family, a mom and dad and their little boy, gathered at a table where they are enjoying a feast of cow brains. Most Americans don't eat cow brains, but some Europeans do, and his feathered cap and her garland of flowers suggest that these folks are polka-country Midwesterners celebrating their heritage. But it's all over-the-top, as the manic expressions (including the cow's), and the maniacal detailing, graphically attest.

Even ordinary scenes like The Crossing Guard are no less crazed. Here scurrying little brats flaunt traffic brought to a screeching halt by a crucifix- and stop sign-wielding school crossing guard who dotes on her little gremlins as fuming drivers sit steaming with frustration. As with the others, it all looks very busy at first, but the more deeply you look into it the more you see. It may be more than you want to see, but it's all there in vivid Durer-esque detail, and titles such as Gag Bags and Taco Girls, Dollar Dance and Ultimate Cock Fighting only hint at the gut-wrenching wonders that await you. A whole new twist on the "heartland" by an under-recognized master of the medium.

click to enlarge In works such as Dollar Dance, Tom Huck - provides a whole new twist on the concept of the - heartland.
  • In works such as Dollar Dance, Tom Huck provides a whole new twist on the concept of the heartland.
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