"I was doing static component tool design," he laments of his post-EVIT sojourn, explaining that his Honeywell gig entailed designing tools to machine fixed (or non-revolving) components of an airplane engine. "It was like how did I end up doing that? I had no idea what it even meant."
That all changed when he read an encyclopedia entry on the electrolysis of metals that was paired with a copper etching. He reproduced it as a line drawing and got so excited that he says he started drawing every day for six months.
A few years later, the 25-year-old painter's showing the result of his efforts in Eternal Repose, divine confrontation and strange discoveries, which opens tonight at Modified Arts.
Gersten says that after his six-month exercise, he moved on to paint while studying Old Italian (Michelangelo, Caravaggio) and Dutch Masters (Rembrandt, Hercules Seghers).
During that period his father sent him an article on Salvador Dalí. "I just absorbed from those paintings so much. I loved the Masters and their technique, but I was equally fascinated by Dalí making the bizarre okay."
By 2008, Gersten had developed his own "odd mix" -- first shown at Scottsdale's Art One Gallery -- with a tableaux of stilt-legged farm animals, pencil-necked human players, warped utensils, anthropromorphic fruit, strange doors, and hidden icons that melds surrealism with cartoon imagery and a (Tim) Burton-esque Gothic sensibility.
"My mom raised chickens in Tempe, even though it wasn't so smiled on," he says with a laugh. "We just used the eggs, never ate them, so the country thing came from her."
After selling out works in Arizona and San Francisco, the painter is doubling down on the country Gothic angle -- Grant Wood's American Gothic, that is -- for his new show, dubbed Eternal Repose.
"When I was a kid I saw [the painting] in a textbook and it scared me a little. That's how I got Eternal Repose.
They have this everlasting posture that just stuck in my mind forever." recalls Gersten, who secured the show after meeting Modified's Kimber Lanning this spring at Phoenix Art Museum's Palette to Palate exhibition.
While the 20-plus paintings in the show make various references to the Garden of Eden (tumescent apples), lust (O'Keefe-ian vaginal images hidden in bunny ears), and Gersten-fied renditions of the American Gothic couple (hiding throughout his fairy tale landscapes), he's still not tackling overt political issues -- like his Surrealist heroes Dalí or Magritte -- despite the fertile ground that is Phoenix circa 2011.
"I don't want to attack anybody, I just want to react," he says. "I try to hide behind the imagery."
Granted, it's a playful, exotic, if slightly scary hyper-reality to hide in, but if Gersten really wants his work to exist beyond the novel and penetrate a larger market, he'll need to rear his perspective above the canvas, especially when he's got the inventory.
"I have a lot of work that is extremely pointed, confrontational and controversial that I've never even shown," he admits. "Someday I'll open them up and show them."
Until then, his Gothic detour is a fun ride.