New York

Jon Serl


Featuring 24 of Jon Serl’s paintings from the past thirty years, this retrospective foregrounded the artist’s range of pictorial languages that resonates uncannily with familiar Modernist modes—Symbolist mystery, Surrealist fantasy, Expressive distortion, primitivist figuration, and poetic abstraction. What makes this artist’s oeuvre so interesting is that it is neither the result of a conceptual critique of the Modern masters, nor a naive attempt to emulate them, but, rather, a visual record of a rigorous process of discovering what painting can be.

Serl (189?–1993) is perhaps best known as a painter who transforms his life experience into ambiguous, often bizarre fables, which are nevertheless visually stunning. His figures peer at each other or the viewer with masklike faces that are both humorous and unsettling. Reminiscent of James Ensor’s work, the haunting Untitled (Woman with Three Figures), 1992, depicts a rouged and hooded wraith spiriting away a group of smaller, equally hideous creatures. In the surreal Down Under, 1990, mysterious figures crawl in a shallow, claustrophobic composition that flirts with pure abstraction. Serl’s palette, which ranges from dramatic reds and oranges to cool greens and blues, is always subtly considered.

Nowhere is the paradox of Serl’s self-taught sophistication more evident than in his handling of the human figure. In the half-length portrait Untitled (Indian Woman) (undated), the artist finds common ground with the early German Expressionists in his exotic subject matter as well as in his bold brushwork and use of color. The irony here is that Serl never stumbled into this mode for lack of skill or knowledge—that it was his chosen and painstakingly earned language of expression is evident in the consistency with which he hits his mark. From the spastic, oddly-proportioned freaks in Us Kids to the grinning, sexually charged barflies in Green Bottle, (both undated), Serl achieves the kind of figural rawness coveted by Modern painters from Paul Klee to Jean Dubuffet.

The standout works in this show, however, were the quieter, more poetic ones it seems that simple, even mundane subjects inspired Serl to lyricism. The animals in Untitled (Pelicans and Birds) (undated), dissolve into a self-contained arrangement of painterly, serpentine forms activated by a zigzag in what is ultimately a sensual testimony to the pure pleasure of painting.

It is true that his work, along with the work of Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, and William Hawkins among others, invites comparisons to the “Modern masters.” Thus, the Modernist canon becomes an all-too-familiar measuring stick by which self-taught talents are judged as interesting but ultimately inferior—nothing more than so many entertaining but accidental parallels to high culture. By painting his way toward many of the same formal conclusions reached by the Modernists, radically isolated as he was from the contemporary art world, Serl implicitly explodes the Modernist logic of a neatly delineated progression of historically specific styles. This is the essence of the challenge that many self-taught artists pose to the infallability of the canon.

Jenifer P. Borum