Cowboy Confetti | Oil on Canvas | 48 x 60 inches | 2023

Artist Spotlight: Geoffrey Gersten

Geoffrey Gersten’s Hollywood Summer uncannily feels like a portal into idyllic post-World War II America. Rendered large-scale in near-photorealistic detail, a carhop delivers food to the driver of a Plymouth sedan, against the backdrop of L.A.’s Art Deco masterpiece, Wiltern Theatre. Look closer, though, and the artist’s painterly skills reveal themselves in expressive brushstrokes and abstracted forms that capture a fender’s gleam, the sweep of clouds, even curtains in second-story windows. “Every time you load the brush and reach toward the canvas,” says Gersten of such intentional, inspired touches, “you make myriad different little decisions.”

Such masterly oil-on-canvas tightrope acts bring Gersten and viewers alike deep satisfaction. They stem from his total commitment to and dedicated self-training in classical techniques, coupled with a lifelong love of rendering subjects with painstaking precision.

Gersten’s nascent talent first emerged in the early 1990s in Phoenix, Arizona. “Our fourth-grade art teacher gave everyone an outline of Picasso’s Weeping Woman and told us to color it in,” he recalls. “I covered mine in a mosaic of different colors, and heard her behind me whispering, ‘He’s so creative.’” She submitted his work to a citywide competition, and Gersten won Best in Show. “There was an exhibition, and my painting was presented framed, gallery-style, at the center. But I just wanted to go home and goof off.”

Hollywood Summer | Oil on Canvas | 56 x 56 inches | 2023

Eventually, while focusing on computer-aided design, he proved so talented that Honeywell hired him right out of high school to train as a 3D designer of precision aircraft-manufacturing tools. A couple of years later, he happened upon an encyclopedia entry on etching, with an illustration that “looked like a drafting drawing had been shaken, with all its geometrical shapes moved around.” That literally shook up his own ambitions. “I realized I wanted to be an artist.” He left Honeywell and began studying books on art history, including painters of the Dutch Golden Age, “trying to figure out the techniques they had used.” Meanwhile, he created a progression of whimsical pop-surrealist works.

In 2019, still not making ends meet through his art, Gersten painted a serious black-and-white scene of a woman staring out to sea, “and everything I’d done before just fell away.” He began searching for one-off vintage black-and-white photos to buy as references, fascinated with midcentury American imagery that feels “very compelling because you don’t know what you have until life moves on in the blink of an eye.” 

Calling Your Name | Oil on Canvas | 60 x 48 inches | 2024

Such poignancy lingers even when he now sometimes surrounds isolated vintage monochrome subjects with color. In Confetti Cowboy, for instance, drips in a rainbow of hues add “dynamic action” to a joyous rider on a bucking bronc. In still other works, precise hand-painted polka dots complement the main image. Ever ready for fresh challenges, Gersten has also begun ordering even larger canvases up to 100 inches on a side. “I recently saw giant paintings by Velazquez at the Prado in Madrid. It’s like you’re walking into their world. I don’t know yet what I’m going to do at that scale, but I feel excited.”

Gersten is represented by Altamira Fine Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Jackson, Wyoming; and Relevant Galleries in Vail, Colorado.

Based in San Rafael, California, Norman Kolpas is the author of more than 40 books and hundreds of articles. He also teaches nonfiction writing in The Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

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