Rumors of My Demise
Edgar Serrano’s paintings, though motionless, emulate the aesthetic hallmarks and absurdist, frequently ominous narrative logic of animated cartoon worlds—think Looney Tunes mixed with the dark mythological undercurrents of Disney’s Fantasia (1940). But asserting that Serrano’s source material derives entirely, or even necessarily directly, from cartoons—or any narrow cross-section of related visual culture, for that matter—would curtail the broader picture of the Chicago-born, New Haven-based artist’s life and career. Inaugurating the new downtown gallery Brief Histories, Serrano’s solo show “Rumors of My Demise” brings together 10 works made over the last few years. Roughly half of them were completed during the pandemic, offering a succinct look at the areas of inquiry recently defining the artist’s practice.
Among the cartoonish qualities, Serrano puts his objects and characters in the foreground, rendering them out of simple lines and shapes lest the hypothetical plot demand they spring into action. They stand apart from static backdrops, which, conversely, often manifest with near-naturalistic detail. Take Dagger, Or The Irresistible March of Fate (2018), which depicts a knife hurtling across the fading blue of a twilight sky into a lush thicket of palm trees—at least, this is where it looks to be headed, gauging from the thin black lines splaying behind it, signaling the fact of this projectile’s momentum and trajectory through the air.
This manner of highlighting certain, more prominent elements on his canvases would also seem to go in tandem with Serrano’s long-time habit of collecting disparate images, usually from disposable or otherwise ephemeral contexts—stickers from vending machines, Tumblr visuals or reproductions of artworks printed on postcards, with the latter dating back to his undergraduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
This preoccupation with repetition remains central to Serrano’s practice. Paintings from his “Intruder” series, the third and fourth of which (both 2020) are on view at Brief Histories, display identical portrayals—albeit realized in different color schemes—of four fingers reaching through the slats of Venetian blinds.
Among the most enigmatic pieces in the show is the 2018 painting Eternal Artifice. The subject, on first glance, appears to be a swan or stork of some sort splashing on the surface of a serene lake at dusk. In truth, the figure originated from Casper the Friendly Ghost (1995). Serrano isolated a frame in which Casper, while moving, becomes a distorted blur of his usual form. Left unseen is the reason why Serrano took up Casper as a motif at all: The artist saw a photograph in The New York Times of a child watching the film from a “cage” at a migrant detention center near the southern border of the United States. Serrano, as the son of Mexican parents who were undocumented when he was born in Chicago, was profoundly struck by the banal horror of the scene.
Made in 2020, Negotiating With Death is openly morbid while riffing on the heavy-handedness of historical representations of Serrano’s heritage, mocking the shortsightedness with which Latin American cultures have been contextualized along the other-ing spectrum of “primitivism,” in particular. In the composition, Bugs Bunny-like hands and feet poke out of a desert grave around a sun-bleached ribcage, trying to feel out their surroundings. Roughly where the character’s head would be is an interlocking succession of three masks, the larger ones opening up to reveal the next-smaller ones, Matryoshka doll-style, except for the halves split down the middle of each visage. It’s plain to see that Bugs Bunny, here perhaps a symbol of the academic West’s self-satisfaction at its own cleverness, hasn’t got a clue. —Rachel Small
Edgar Serrano, Chamber of Reflection, 2020. Oil, gouache, leather, and wood on canvas 30 x 26 inches.