I was struck by lightning once, sort of, and it's not something you forget. I don't know what electricity did to Cole Gerst when he was a kid, but it must have been something, since he's been thinking about it for at least 20 years: he called his new show "Kilowatt," (you get the pun; he didn't call it "Megawatt"), and at the tip of each of his lightly rendered lightning bolts is a species of danger I personally relate to completely.
Gerst is known right now mostly for his stand-alone pieces—his comics for LAWeekly, his show posters, his (getting) famous option-g T-shirts—which is odd, because it's only in concentration that his work really reveals its depth. Until now, I never poked around in his primitivist paint box, because in isolated instances, his outsider artistry—what writer Dave Clifford calls "insider-outsider"—doesn't look like much more than pop art in pastel. But in a gallery show as gigantic as "Kilowatt," Gerst's style unfolds into a deeper system that connects each of his works: it's the same consistency of vision that he admires in outsider artists as an ability to present the world as (he writes) "only they saw it." His repeating elements—clouds, trees, wild animals, creeping into at least half the pieces—lend everything he draws a certain life, and in "Kilowatt," that life happens to run on electric.
His plug series reminds me of R. Crumb's reference sketches of urban skylines: that scene in Crumbwhere he's scratching out a lattice of power towers, telephone poles, TV antennas, unbelievable (but somehow unobtrusive) horizon pollution. "You can't make this stuff up," Crumb mutters, and Gerst has done the same kind of research, stamping out a no-two-alike set of electrical switches and socket covers. The mother socket—the archetypal three-prong dealie Plato might plug his electric razor into—is buried at floor level, next to the real live thing (marked in the catalog as "not for sale," though it was priced at $2 when I visited—act now but bring your own screwdriver!). And the rest are industrial evolution unchecked, an international pageant of the sub-mundane: phone jacks and Euro plugs and power strips and light-switch covers; it's well-observed humor at one level—can't make this stuff up!—but alongside Gerst's other work, there's also a sort of vaguely malevolent animism (a very respectable outsider philosophy) in all those dark eye sockets. I'm thinking now of NoCover, a monster outlet with its face pulled off, a nest of exposed wires curling around the edges: think snakes, think snakebite.
And into the next series: Storm8, with an octopus whose tentacles come tipped with plugs; SurgeProtector, with electric piranhas plugged into a power strip; Generator's Venus's-flytrap putting down its own grounded roots; ManofWarwith a jellyfish labeled "test monthly"; and title piece Kilowatt, with a plugged-in bird diving on a squirrel. You may notice the obvious unsafe conditions—electrical appliances operating underwater! And how many piranhas do you have plugged into one outlet, Gerst?—and you may also notice that all these animals (and plants too) are predators, and that all these animals are powered by electricity. Think snakebite again: that's an eloquent connection between the lightning bolts Gerst puts in his skies and the surge protectors he puts in his grounds. He says only that he had the "bejesus" shocked out of him as a kid; unless he was struck by lightning (as happened to me: through a phone, during a thunderstorm, wiped me right across the couch!), his shock must have come from a technological source, but here, Gerst draws it as a natural force. Look at that squirrel, who doesn't even see that bird swooping on down—won't even know what hit him. That's a lightning strike too.
And into the next: GameOver, Pain,Shockand Stagnanteach superimpose Gerst's characters over a blown-out color photo, like an animation cell over a stock background—a video game, a sunset, a house at night with holiday lights, a blurry warehouse. Shockis the only one with the lightning bolts, but each has its own cause of death: a smoking cigarette, a sparking electric socket, a gun and in Stagnant. . . a construction barrier? Ah: "A trigger of events," notes Gerst in a subtitle. Present and potential, each equally deadly—sort of funny, sort of grim. I like that Gerst keeps a little humor—each of these series has a deliberate odd-subject-out, the construction barrier and then the Venus flytrap, demanding a little extra deciphering. But the theme remains: "My life is short and irrelevant," writes Gerst in Stagnant, the sort of thing you might think as a thunderclap cracks open just above you.
Still, we'll end on a happier (?) set—the hummingbird series, a softer companion to the predators across the room (even the plugs and sockets here deliver their warnings in amiable French: "Risque de choc electrique!"). Read these in your own way: it's considerate that Gerst gives these hummingbirds an alternate source of power, since their standard, ultra-high, nectar-based metabolisms doom them to a stop-animated life of nonstop feeding—beautiful to look at, but viciously greedy to stay alive. The one that gets me (besides each bird-on-a-power-cord at but not in his—er, or her—little flower) is ThirstforPower, with two of those heavy-duty sockets on metal stalks, a rhyme with the flowers next to them. Gerst shorthands electricity (and whatever it's intended to mean) in lots of different ways in this exhibition—his lightning bolts mimic his branching tree roots, which mimic his spiraling power cords, and so on—but this literal representation strikes me as the saddest. Electrical outlets growing out of the ground, just like plants, with birds on power cords swooping down to feed.
You can't make this stuff up.
COLE GERST IN "KILOWATT" WITH ADDITIONAL WORKS BY DAN MONICK AND KELLY LYNN JONES AT KOO'S, 540 E. BROADWAY, LONG BEACH, (562) 491-7584; WWW.KOOS.ORG. OPEN THURS.-SAT., 1-6 P.M. FREE. THROUGH AUG. 6.
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