The paintings of Jon Serl (1894–1993) are as worn, nuanced, and unexpected as the man himself. Painted on found boards, they traveled with him for years and depict scenes from his multifarious and troubled life. The Los Angeles-based Good Luck Gallery is honored to present the paintings of Jon Serl in partnership with the Tartaglia Collection and in affiliation with New York’s Cavin-Morris Gallery, for an exhibition curated by Randall Morris, now on view through September 2, at 945 Chung King Road in Los Angeles.
Born in Olean, New York in 1894 to a family of itinerant carnival/vaudeville performers, Serl was intimate with hardship. One of twelve children, he was starved by his father in order to keep him thin enough to play a woman in the family performances. He would eventually break away from the family business and go on to work as a chuckwagon chef in the Pacific Northwest, a day laboring fruit harvester, a gardener, and a voiceover actor in Hollywood - eventually quitting films in protest of the cruelty to horses in the Westerns.
Serl began painting in the 1940s after a move to San Juan Capistrano. Initially creating paintings for the practical purpose of adorning his own walls, he was soon painting full time, a compulsive need to negotiate with old demons, memories, and resentments driving him. Serl’s paintings were autobiographical, recalling his childhood of performing, the halcyon days between the world wars living in a makeshift community of fellow gay men and women in Texas, and his many surrealist fantasies.
His subject matter ranged from mundane everyday objects and occurrences to the supernatural. Friends with the likes of Hedda Hopper and James Dean, Serl also made appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1989 and 1990. His house in Lake Elsinore - where he lived for the last twenty years of his life amongst his paintings, chickens, and Chihuahuas - was a stopping place for young matadors making the bullfight circuit from Canada to Mexico.
“I know about color and line, I know what life is about and how it has treated me, and that is part of what I paint.” Jon Serl
A performer at heart, the act of painting became his performance. Randall Morris, who visited the artist many times in the last years of his life recalled; “It was an overall jazz improvisational performance, with him talking to the painting out loud, warning it, questioning it, praising it in the thick, dry, almost impossible heat of the room he used as a studio in his rambling maze of a multi-roomed shack.”
Beginning with a solo exhibition curated by Paul Schimmel in 1981 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, CA, Serl went on to exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY; The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago, IL; The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; and has had multiple solo exhibitions at Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York, NY.
His work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Luce Foundation Center, Washington, D.C among many others. Through an extraordinary set of events characteristic of the almost mystical atmosphere surrounding Serl’s 98-year-life, many of the paintings in this exhibition have never been seen by the public and encompass a full spectrum of Jon Serl’s vision of America.
Ever enigmatic, the thrice-married Serl never publicly came out, but his paintings made his jitterbugging cross-dressers universal. He painted pleasure and beauty and sharp-fanged nightmares. He was a unique Old Master of American Art Brut who hid mystery, danger, and history in the expressionistic language of his paintings.
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