Edgar Serrano's paintings refuse to be categorized into a single style, and that's what makes them so exciting. Energetic, occasionally grotesque, and usually quite bright, they are Serrano's critical look at the world through a composite of images, with a touch of humor. We talk here about following intuition rather than style, collaboration, and ideas surrounding history, culture, and identity. More at the links below!
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First, I'd like to know a bit about you -- can you introduce yourself? What first interested you in making art?
Hi, my name is Edgar Serrano I am a painter currently living and working in New Haven, Connecticut.
I didn’t encounter many paintings growing up. My parents are Mexican immigrants and they for a lot of reasons didn’t really have much interest in high art or culture, so a lot of the images that populated my childhood were reproductions on album covers and magazines.
Reproductions became my museums and inspiration. Even as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I felt weirdly uncomfortable in the museum. Instead of standing in front of paintings as instructed by professors, I bought postcards from the gift shop and wrote my art history papers from these reproductions. Despite what Walter Benjamin would have me believe, these cheaply printed mass produced images still carried an aura.
These experiences helped me to make my own way of seeing, independent of how most art schools teach.
In your statement, you describe your role as an artist as taking a position, or a series of positions, which in turn respond to other positions and situations. You describe this as a goal "to collapse the historical and the personal." Can you elaborate on this?
Politics, history, images, and questions of the present-day world are the raw materials from which I construct my work. My paintings advocate for a deep engagement with the world, despite its frustrations, disappointments and endless conflicts. My critical gaze is convoyed by a sense of humor and optimism, suggesting that the personal account of the historical is imperative and as prescient as ever.
My quest—personal and artistic—is to unearth and question the histories and identities I have been conditioned to understand as absolute. This will, I hope, reveal the possibility of a different present—and a different future. An amended version of Social Sculpture.
Congruently, your imagery and style varies greatly from piece to piece (or even within a single piece) -- where do you derive your ideas or imagery from? What kind of research do you do?
I have sort of a freewheeling way of working in that I have a strong tendency to fight against cementing a signature style, or assuming a set role; which some might condemn, but all that really matters to me are my ideas, and how to stay engaged, and how to keep things interesting by contradicting concepts and letting some failure into my process. This might be rooted in my personal sense of race and class inequalities, growing up without a real understanding of where I fit in and subsequently discovering that I identified outside of my caste.
My work is also invariably collaborative. It includes appropriating pictures from Instagram, newspapers, archives, manipulating images in Photoshop, outsourcing labor, digital scanning, and large format printing. I negotiate across borders, both literal and figurative. Although my work appropriates and responds to representations of a specific moment in time, it is also deeply personal, weaving together my own subjectivity with a visual vocabulary that interprets and responds to the mythologies and matter of popular culture. The result is what I hope is a-stylistic yet deeply personal body of work.
What is the thing that intrigues you or challenges you the most about your painting practice, or the ideas related to it?
I like how painting can carry an experience that has the potential to say: other things are possible. Through a simple craft, there is a sort of alchemy that happens through paint that can potentially affect the viewer.
I see my work as needing to continue to make paintings that challenges and broaden my audience and include communities that often inform my work: lower-working class people, people of color. Coincidentally these are the same people who historically don’t have access to museums and galleries and things of that nature. With this in mind, my work inherently addresses: How can I cultivate a language that speaks to my critical interests and is also accessible to people that have a varying awareness of art and art production?
How would you describe your workspace or studio?
My studio is located inside the old Erector Set Factory in New Haven that has been converted into yoga and retiree artist studios. I am usually there in the evenings once all the weird psychic energy has left the building and I am pretty much alone in my meditative void.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio that help you get into the mode to create?
Inside the studio I am like one of Harvey Harlow’s monkeys in total social isolation and my only “contact comfort” is listening to audiobooks, norteñas, or ‘90s R&B.
What do you consider the most challenging or daunting aspect of pursuing an art practice?
My work is embedded in questions regarding history, identity, and borders. These are by their very nature really difficult and constantly shifting questions. By making paintings that reflect the complexities, labor, and bodies not usually represented in traditional art spaces or that have often been rendered invisible--that’s the only way I could ever hope to answer them.
Can you recall the best advice you've received so far? Any that you received, but knew it wouldn't work for you, and are glad you passed it up?
Sadness is a blessing. This is something I took from the great 21st century tone-philosopher Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson, more popularly known as Lykke Li.
As to your second question: I guess at some point I was being told to be much more transparent in my narrative and make autobiographical paintings. Which I rejected since the advice was to over simplify my experiences for palatable analysis and digestion. Basically the idea that a critic or collector could buy or understand my circumstance was deeply concerning and uncomfortable to me. I always felt my identity was a lot more complicated than just binary thinking a low-income son of immigrant parents. I couldn't paint dull signifiers to illustrate my experiences and profit from it in good conscience.
You earned your MFA from Yale in 2010; is there anything you've learned since then, that you may have not been taught in the university setting, that you've found useful in pursuing a practice?
Si no hay un hombro donde apoyarse, apóyate en tu hombro.
- Hechos que no deben olvidarse, Juan Ramírez Ruíz
If there is not a shoulder to lean on, lean on your shoulder.
- Facts that should not be forgotten, Juan Ramírez Ruíz
What do you need most as an artist?
Time, a pomegranate tree, and a singing canary, respectively.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently teaching my two-year-old son how to form bi-lingual sentences and ride his tricycle.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for this opportunity and interview.
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