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Cole Gerst's 'Turf Wars' depicts perilous universe

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Eastside night crawlers know the work of Cole Gerst: His images of animals in serene, modernist settings are familiar even to people who don't know his name. Birds, deer and expansive trees thrive on his T-shirts, his design for Café de Leche and the York pub, and on witty posters for shows at Club Spaceland.

But Gerst's latest work is less overtly cool. The new paintings, prints and mixed media at Ghettogloss Gallery through April 28 depict a more perilous universe: The animals -- particularly birds -- are still there, but the tranquil abstraction is gone. Instead, they're swerving to avoid power lines, cowering past construction sites and generally fighting their way through the concrete jungle.

"The show is about how humans and animals are fighting for the same land -- and about how animals are surviving in our world," says Gerst, 39, who still speaks with a strong Georgia drawl, of his show "Turf Wars." "The paintings are trying to show these chaotic settings from their viewpoint."

Gerst is discussing his work in the bungalow he rents in the Los Feliz hills; he shares the canyon view with two dogs, a girlfriend and a collection of folk art from across the Deep South.

Though Gerst's work is not included in the beautiful new volume "Naïve: Modernism and Folklore in Contemporary Graphic Design," he's probably the Southland's finest exemplar of this fruitful movement. Spaceland founder Mitchell Frank credits him with "a fresh style that's also simple, that conveys a story and a sense of humor."

Including flora and fauna came naturally to the artist. Gerst, born in a swampy part of southwestern Georgia, grew up among deer, coyotes and alligators. As a teenager, he became drawn to both album jacket design and the folk art of his home state. He became fascinated with the work of the Rev. Howard Finster, who designed covers for R.E.M. and Talking Heads in kudzu-mad glory.

While at the Atlanta College of Art, Gerst worked for an independent label, and in the early '90s he was hired by Alias in Los Angeles. The day after arriving here, he went to Van Nuys Airport to shoot a cover for the Archers of Loaf, flying in a small Cessna to get runway shots for their "All the Nation's Airports" album. "I was literally dangling out of a plane -- that was my introduction to L.A."

From there he worked for the House of Blues; he drove through the South's woods and mountains to buy folk art, much of which still hangs at the Las Vegas club. "Some of these people were really hard to find," he says. "Some people would say a lot of them were crazy too." Many were poor, and it showed in their choice of materials: Willie White used magic markers for his work; Jimmy Lee Sudduth, mud and house paint. Another, Joe Light, painted images of a yellow bird he claimed had visited him in prison and spoken to him. "He said it gave him hope."

These outsider artists sharpened Gerst's aesthetic. "I like the ruggedness," he says. "It's the opposite of art school, almost."

It was in '03 that he approached Spaceland about designing show posters. This and the green-themed T-shirt line he started, through his company Option-G, helped crystallize his current style.

The paintings in his new show -- many painted on brown grocery bags -- mark a departure. "Turf Wars" emerges from the struggle between man and nature but also from Gerst's biography. "That comes," he says, slowly, "from being electrocuted while onstage at school." In gym class, at age 12 or 13, he was plugging in a large old-style scoreboard and was knocked unconscious by the shock. This new batch of art is his most direct engagement with that moment.

His electrocution hasn't kept Gerst away from technology: He colors his work on a Mac and runs a website. Gerst has also begun branching out into music videos and animation -- a Web series, "Inventions," he developed for Good magazine was just nominated for a Streamy Award for best animation.

Timberg blogs at scott-timberg.blogspot.com/.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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