1894 - 1993
|Born Joseph Searles in Oleans, New York, Jon grew up in poverty. His family’s vaudeville show eventually settled in California where he later pursued a variety of careers including female impersonator and vaudeville performer, voice-over artist for early Hollywood talkies, screenwriter, dancer, and waiter. He was a two-time television guest of Johnny Carson, and onetime friend to Clark Gable, Hedda Hopper, and Howard Hughes
Serl started painting in 1949 when he couldn’t afford the fifty-dollar price of a painting to hang in his home in the California desert. He refused to exhibit his work until the 1970s when he permitted the Municipal Arts Department of Los Angeles to organize a touring display of 41 paintings, and he slowly started selling to schools and eventually through galleries. He worked in a variety of media, using wood scraps, plywood signs and other salvaged materials and paints he made from earth and homegrown plants. Jon’s paintings were a work in progress: some being worked on for 20 years. Ranging from banal to magical, his work reflects his patchwork personality as the consummate performer, often memorializing episodes and characters from his Hollywood days and other travels. Serl’s pictures are filled with sideshow figures and contortionists, and lanky, elongated people at play, and have been described as having mystical, almost archetypical, dimensions, with masklike faces that are both humorous and unsettling and reminiscent of the work of James Ensor's and Edward Munch. He has rightfully earned the reputation as one of America’s most important self-taught painters.
Serl’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the American Folk Art Museum, the National Museum of American Art, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. He died at age 99 in 1993 in his home in Lake Elsinore, California.
Bibliography: “American Folk Art from the Collection of Herbert Waide Hemphil, Jr." Oceanville, NJ: The Noyes Museum, 1988; “American Mysteries: The Rediscovery of Outsider Art” San Francisco: Art Commission Gallery, 1987; “Cat and Ball on a Waterfall: 200 Years of California Folk Painting and Sculpture” Oakland, CA: The Oakland Museum, 1986; “Collecting Folk Art Behind the Redwood Curtain: Selections from the Ted Kimmer Collection” Eureka, CA: Humboldt State University, 1985; “Collecting Folk Art: A View from the Outside” Boca Raton, FL: Adolph & Rose Lewis Community Center, 1995; “Flying Free: Twentieth Century Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Ellin and Baron Gordon” Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997; “Folk Art Then and Now” Stamford, CT: Stamford Museum and Nature Center, 1984; Hartigan, Lynda, “Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection in the National Museum of American Art” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990; “Inner Focus/Contemporary Visionary Art” Santa Fe: Challenge New Mexico, 1997; ”Inside the World of the Outsider: The Charmaine and Maurice Kaplan Collection of Self-Taught Art” San Diego, CA: University Art Gallery, 1999; “Jon Serl” Portland, OK: Jamison-Thomas Gallery, 1988; “Jon Serl: Painter” Mahwah, NJ: Art Galleries of Ramapo College, 1986; Larson, Susan C. “Jon Serl in Person,” Folk Art 22, no. 4 (Winter 1997/1998): 52-59; Maresca, Frank, and Roger Ricco. “American Self-Taught: Paintings and Drawings by Outsider Artists” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993; “Muffled Voices: Folk Artists in Contemporary America” New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1986; “National Museum of American Art” Boston: Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown, 1995; Ollman, Leah. “Jon Serl,” ArtNews 88, no. 4 (April 1989): 218-219; “Personal Voice: Outsider Art and Signature Style” Chicago: American Center for Design, 1991; “Personal Voice: The Ruth and Robert Vogele Collection of Self-Taught Art” Urbana-Champaign, Il: University of Illinois, 1997; “Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen” Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1995; Prince, Dan. “A Good Likeness: Techniques in Self-Taught Portraiture,” American Art Review (October-November 1994): 90-95, 159; “Psychological Paintings: The Personal Vision of Jon Serl” Newport Beach, CA: Newport Harbor Museum, 1981; Russell, Charles, ed. “Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001; “Spirits: Selections from the Collection Geoffrey and Carmen de Lavallade” Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1991; “A Time to Reap: Late-Blooming Folk Artists” South Orange, NJ: Seton Hall University/Museum of American Folk Art, 1985; “Unsigned, Unsung . . . Whereabouts Unknown” Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1993; “Visionaries, Outsiders and Spiritualists: American Self-Taught Artists” Horsham, PA: Entourage Exhibitions, 1993; “Visions of the Left Coast: California Self-Taught Artists” Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, 1995; “West Coast Folk Artists” Eureka, CA: Humboldt Cultural Center, 1985.
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