May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Lake Elsinore, California


Oil on board

45 3/4 x 29 1/2"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Blanchard-Hill Collection, gift of M. Anne Hill and Edward V. Blanchard Jr., 1998.10.45

Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Jon Serl (1894-1993)

Saints at Play

“I don’t like red and green lights. I want to get in there and fight—or not fight. But not ‘Do this!’ ‘Do that!’ . . . Leave me alone. I don’t want to do anything. I want to sit here in the middle of the road and let the traffic go round me.” Jon Serl’s disillusionment with the status quo was seemingly enacted through a profound disengagement, reflecting his uprooted childhood, which was marked by the constant travel of his carny-cum-vaudeville family. Serl’s “outsiderness” has been exhibited at large, in many different situations. His first hasty attempts at painting were made around the time of World War II. By that point, Serl had already experienced a full life, working in vaudeville and film and as a laborer in California and the Southwest. A pacifist, he fled to Canada during both world wars to avoid military service. He was married and divorced three times. Eventually Serl settled in several California towns, and devoted his time to painting for the rest of his life, keeping alive his many personal stories and “angry, gritty memories,” as wrote author Randall Morris. The figures in his artworks frequently express dualities: male and female, nature and technology, good and evil, parent and child. Often compared to theatrical stages, his canvases usually have a double narrative exploring both inner and outer worlds. The dramatic pictorial space in Saints at Play is the scene of a peculiar bowling match, taking place on stairs, among four expressionistic figures dressed in religious attire.

Valérie Rousseau, “Saints at Play,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.