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Fatal Beauty 

Leave it to painter and Loyola art instructor Alan Gerson to find the most exotic or esoteric implications in the most ordinary things. In the past, he explored the darker aspects of childhood, adulthood, the legal profession, the landscape, still life and the sea, but now he turns his attention to ornamental wreaths -- those circular arboreal concoctions that adorn numerous front doors about town. More than mere decor, wreaths are also steeped in history and symbolism so it's no great surprise that Gerson, a painter who also holds a law degree, would pursue their mysteries with near-prosecutorial zeal.

On second thought, make that the obsessive curiosity of a dedicated explorer, a spelunker of the nether regions of the collective unconscious, for that is where wreaths seem to originate. How else to explain something that not only adorns doors and mantles but also winning racehorses, visitors to Hawaii and the heads of Greek heroes and Roman emperors as well as those who wanted to be seen as such? A wreath of bay laurel leaves originally was associated with the sun god Apollo and Greek athletic victors before being adopted by victorious generals and, finally, heads of state. The symbolism was so powerful that a laurel garland encircles the head of Napoleon on numerous statues because he thought it was important to be associated with the symbolism of victory. But it was Napoleon who sold Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson for a mere $15 million and, of course, the leaves of the bay laurel in Louisiana are mainly used to season local dishes. For instance, in its powdered form, it's better known as filŽ gumbo.

So Gerson is clearly on to something. Wreaths, which look so innocent, decorous or downright Martha Stewart on someone's front door, are really very convoluted if not twisted when you get right down to it. But you have to be willing to look beyond the surface. For instance, Wreath I, a festive concoction of primary-colored blossoms and buoyant blooms, seems innocent at first, but only at first. Upon reflection, Gerson's flowers, no matter how cheerfully colored and arranged, always seem a little too dense and viscous, almost rubbery and somehow too heavy. Like the genetically engineered progeny of calla lilies and Venus flytraps, they seem to suggest a taste for living creatures that they are somehow able to pursue once the sun goes down.

Wreath VII is similar, yet even heavier, as more muscular succulents and even strange gourd-like things add to the already suspicious mix. While flowers are supposed to be ornamental and cheerful, this particular selection broadcasts a variety of subplots that suggests the botanical world is no less filled with need, neurosis and bitterness than any episode of a daytime TV soap opera. There is indeed something shameless about the way some of the more ornamental blossoms comport themselves, and Gerson accentuates their peculiarities to such an extent that some recall exotic deep sea creatures that might have escaped from an old Jacques Cousteau episode. Actually, in Wreath IX, the colorful items that comprise this unlikely garland really are sea creatures -- crabs and eels -- as well as other swamp and desert predators such as snakes, frogs, scorpions, spiders and the occasional preying mantis. So if there was ever any doubt whether Gerson regards the natural world as sinister, this pretty much confirms what we suspected. Or if it doesn't, there's always Wreath VI, which is comprised of human eyeballs, or Wreath V, a garland or crown of thorns. Compared to these openly diabolical delicacies, Wreath II, an array of iridescent, interwoven deep-sea creatures, may be the most emblematic of the lot in its juxtaposition of vibrant, uplifting colors and menacing creatures all seemingly preying on each other -- a Kafkaesque realm of Piscean paranoia. Finally, Wreath XIV, a view of a classical Italian landscape seen through a portal of neatly interwoven bricks, suggests the traditional human response to all this: build a wall and bar the door. But that's how it is in Gerson's world, where beauty coexists in the midst of things troubling and imponderable and is more often than not tinged with a touch of terror.

click to enlarge Gerson's Wreath I seems innocent at first, but upon reflection, the bright blossoms seem more threatening, even sinister.
  • Gerson's Wreath I seems innocent at first, but upon reflection, the bright blossoms seem more threatening, even sinister.
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