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Jon Serl

American, 20th century.
Born 1894, Orleans, New York; died 1993, California.


Jon Serl painted agitated, grotesque figures who appear at first glance to be long lost cousins of the painterly progeny of modernist expressionism. A closer look reveals a true Outsider's hand guided by a singular vision, not limited by concerns for style. Working in relative isolation in the California desert, Serl conjured an archetypal world of carnival and masquerade that exists radically outside the bounds of space and time. 

Born Joseph Searls in New York to an itinerant theater family, Serl grew up performing vaudeville and traveling extensively. He eventually settled in Southern California, where he worked in almost every aspect of the film industry, and kept company with stars such as Clark Gable and Hedda Hopper. He also supported himself by working as a seasonal agricultural laborer. By the end of World War II, Serl moved to the desert town of Lake Elsinore. In 1949, initially motivated by the need to decorate his home, Serl took up painting, an activity to which he would devote himself until his death in 1993 at the age of 98.

Serl painted primarily in oil on found board, although he also invented his own pigments. His scenes, populated by mysterious, agitated personae, suggest the vaudeville shows of his childhood. As a painter, Serl was a stage director for an otherworldly cast of human and animal characters trapped by anger, desire, obsession, and exuberance. Activated by gestural brushstrokes and an unpredictable palette of earth tones and odd pastels, his compositions reveal the artist's keen formal inventiveness. 

As is often the case with Outsiders, Serl has inspired trained artists, who have looked to him as role model. The painter Sam Messer credits Serl with both the complete revitalization of his painting practice and his rebirth as a person. Messser paid homage to both the life and death of his elder muse with a series of paintings that demonstrate the freeing influence Outsider Artists often exert on their Insider Artist counterparts.

- Jenifer P. Borum


Selected Solo Exhbitions

1994, Jon Serl: One Man By Himself, Art Alliance Gallery, Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, California

1981, Psychological Paintings: The Personal Vision of Jon Serl, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, California

Selected Group Exhibitions

2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art

2012, Accidental Genius: Art From the Anthony Petullo Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee

2004, Golden Blessings of Old Age, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

1999, Aliens Among Us, Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

1986, Muffled Voices: Folk Artists in Contemporary America, PaineWebber Art Gallery & Museum of American Folk Art, New York

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans
Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Luce Foundation Center, Washington, D.C.

Selected Bibliography

Goldner, Liz, "Jon Serl," Contemporary-Art-Dialogue.com, Online Resource, 2013.

Stone, Lisa, ed., Accidental Genius: Art From the Anthony Petullo Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 2012.

Borum, Jenifer P., "Jon Serl," Artforum International, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1996.

Messer, Sam, Denis Johnson, and Red Lips, One Man by Himself: Portraits of Jon Serl, Hard Press, West Stockbridge, MA, 1995.

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