Jon Serl (1894-1993) is the quintessential outsider-art star. From the incredible circumstances of his life story to the raw power of his prolific creative output, Serl offers everything one could wish from this fascinating genre, which is currently enjoying more popularity among wider audiences than at any time in recent art history.
One of 12 children born in upstate New York to a family of traveling carnival folk — this is 1894, remember — Serl's family had a vaudeville act, and his father kept Jon basically in starvation mode, so he’d stay thin enough to play its female roles. In the later years of his painting career, cross-dressing characters made frequent appearances in his compositions — every one of them, it is thought, a version of himself. Though he married three times and never came out as gay, he did spend a lot of time in gay communities, and he never made a particular secret of his penchants.
Other work he produced was perhaps less interpretive of his sexuality but no less autobiographical. Before settling in Southern California in 1940 and dedicating the next 50-plus years to painting, Serl had worked as a chuckwagon chef, an agriculture worker, a landscaper and even a voice-over actor in Hollywood. His friends ranged from James Dean and Hedda Hopper to the itinerant troupes of matadors who followed the rodeo circuit back and forth across the borders from Mexico to Canada. He appeared on The Tonight Show twice.
In a sense, knowing the surreal details of Serl’s experiences, and understanding the psychology of a progressive, unsettled fish out of water, makes the surrealism of his work more reasonable. He was driven by unresolved demons stretching all the way back to his childhood, difficult memories, regrets, private fantasies, inspirational experiences, the advances and retreats of 20th-century society, and an abiding love of moody jazz and ladies’ stockings. But his visual vocabulary, as remarkable as it was, was learned from a string of unbelievable experiences.
The naive look of the way he drew his figures, the flatness of shadow, the inverted sense of scale, the roughness of the pigment — all of this executed with a sense of barely restrained urgency that is more emotional than strategic — this is what outsider art is known for. What makes Serl special within this genre is that his work is also nuanced, and richly textured, with underpainting and hidden details that emerge the longer you look, and the more closely. His particular gift for organizing a theatrical tableau, for the details of how to costume a character, and an eclectic appreciation of outlying individuality in friends and strangers all animate his paintings at a higher level of artistry.
Serl did gain some recognition in his lifetime, bless him. Those appearances on Carson came just a few years before he died, when Serl was well into his 90s. And no less august a curator than Paul Schimmel showed his work in 1981 at Newport Harbor Art Museum. His work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and collected fairly widely.
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Yet in a plot twist Serl would surely appreciate, many if not most of the top-notch works on view in Chinatown (for just one more week!) have never been exhibited before now.
They were part of the private collection of a Laguna Beach family who knew Serl and had purchased the works directly from him, since at that time Serl didn’t have a gallery. One of this family’s sons is an artist and a writer, who brought the trove to the attention of the Good Luck Gallery — the only outsider art gallery on the West Coast — and the Hawk of Elsinore, so to speak, landed.
"Jon Serl: The Hawk of Elsinore," The Good Luck Gallery, 945 Chung King Road, Chinatown; (213) 625-0935, thegoodluckgallery.com; Wed.-Sun., noon-6 p.m.; through Sun., Sept. 2; free.