One of the art exhibits that I was most anticipating last year isn’t actually opening until this weekend. Different Rules is the latest solo show by San Francisco painter, Serge Gay Jr and, although we’ve been fans of his work for years now, this is, without a doubt, the most compelling material that I’ve seen him produce to date. The Haitian-born artist’s style is unique enough to be identifiable, but never static or cliche enough to feel lifeless or repetitive. Our first introduction to Serge came in 2010 with his standout piece for the Spoke Art gallery’s big debut, Bad Dads, paying tribute to the work of filmmaker Wes Anderson. But while Gay consistently thrives within the group exhibit format — simply utilizing a theme or any “restrictions” as a jumping off point for something greater — Different Rules is evidence that he’s at his most successful when left entirely to his own devices creating or dissolving the parameters for himself.
This is not the first time that Spoke Art has provided Serge with such a platform; they’ve hosted at least 2 other solo shows of his work previously, the first of which came at the tail end of 2011. Earlier that March, we had the opportunity to interview him. As someone who was born in Haiti, grew up in Miami, and studied in Detroit, before settling into the San Francisco art scene, he possesses the ability to imbue his work with fascinating multi-dimensional perspectives and, as he informed us then, that varied history has helped him “to understand the differences in people and their way of life.” One of his greatest strengths is simply understanding what his strengths are and recognizing that what separates him from his peers — his own differences and individuality — are not only a benefit, but a necessity to his art, even if they can often falsely be misinterpreted as hindrances in any scene. When asked about if he noticed any differences in the San Francisco art scene compared to his previous homes, he acknowledged that it’s hard to tell, because “every city is so different,” but added that “SF and LA have this Juxtapoz magazine feel compared to New York, Miami, or Detroit. Where I feel like Here, everyone is trying to find ways to “Fit in” with their work compared to the East Coast, where everyone’s trying to “Stand out”. So when I came here, I felt out of place and stood out. And I was fine with that.”
Black artists can be widely under-represented in all mediums, and the new contemporary / pop-surrealist art scene is no exception. When asked if living and working in San Francisco presented any “unique challenges,” Serge admitted that it did. “Most people would never think my work fit with this black guy before they would ever meet me. Good thing my work talks for itself. Because looks alone… I don’t think I would have gone far at all even being in a place like San Fran. I’ve learned, I always have to prove myself all the time that I’m capable. Something I’ve learned to deal with and have already prepared myself for in the long run of my career.” He later added, “Most of the time I’m in my own bubble. But I really try to be up-to-date with the art world and I for sure think the scene needs my viewpoint.” With how insular these communities have the potential to become, it’s hard to deny that artists with such widely differing perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences do deserve more seats at the table where they are not only permitted, but encouraged to create freely. By providing these platforms it both injects new life into these scenes and assists in warding off stagnation. If Serge was ever looking to make a case for this argument, or for the legitimacy of his voice within that world, no stronger one could be made than with what’s he’s managed to produced for this new exhibit.
It’s been enlightening for me to look back at that old interview, because it provides a direct connection and an insight into the foundation of where Gay is at right now with his work. Viewed exclusively outside of any greater context, those quotes might lead one to come away with a slightly different impression than that of the lighthearted, enthusiastic artist with the infectious smile that Serge typically presents to the world. But just because he has consistently demonstrated himself to be endlessly humble and appreciative for his opportunities, that doesn’t mean that the painter hasn’t remained bold in his craft, or that he has ever allowed himself to become complacent within it. And his opportunities and successes have been many, including a 2011 Grammy nomination for his work on the Cee Lo Green “Fuck You” music video alongside friend/director, Matt Stawski, whom he’s worked with on similar projects for artists like De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, and Street Sweeper Social Club, as well as an upcoming feature. Many other artists in his position would be likely to stay the course, lock into a redunant theme or image that they’re known for with proven marketing potential, and avoid making waves with anything too risky, but that seems like the antithesis of what Serge is focused on — his success is measured by the art itself, the evolution of his voice and technique, first and foremost.
After getting my first glimpse of Different Rules in the form of “Less Than Human” — one of the many large scale acrylic on canvas pieces in the show — I knew that this would be something a little different, something incredibly raw, and that this was going to be a collection of images siphoned straight from the artist’s core. These were going to be images that he felt a need or compulsion to paint, rather than strictly a series of interesting ideas, or something visually stimulating, yet reserved to a surface level appeal. A young tricycle-riding African-American child is haunted/hunted by terror in the form of swarming phantom canines, the edge of the frame showing a police officer with his weapon drawn. Then there’s “We Matter” where the subject’s dreads are poking out from his back-turned cap with such imagery as riot cops, death, a blackpower fist, and the word “FIGHT” overlaying the neck and face close-up that consumes the canvas. “Golden Ages” is comprised of majestic people of indigenous tribes radiating strength and beauty among lush, colorful nature juxtaposed against city dwelling Caucasian folks in mid-century business attire maneuvering through the streets among billboards of other smiling white people that resemble them. “Safespace” uses that same metropolitan business world as the far right quarter of a split frame contrasting against a sensual hedonistic gay club operating as a refuge for those retreating from the threats and intimidation of a straight world set on labeling them as the danger. There are paintings in this show that are unapologetically black and others that are unapologetically pro-gay, but all of them are unapologetically human.
Serge has long proven himself adept at injecting symbolism and hidden subtleties into his work — “Safespace” even includes an anthropomorphic bear in bondage gear and a small George Michael tribute in the form of a “Freedom” shoulder tattoo — but while these new pieces are still remarkably layered, both texturally and thematically, the subject matter is definitely front and center. His style has become more refined, the imagery more defined. A nearly cinematic deftness of composition remains where often dioarama-like compartmentalization techniques integrate scenes within scenes and experiment with depth and space on an interdimensional level. There is still interplay between the more abstract, spiritual elements and dreamlike imagery infiltrating and woven throughout the more corporeal world; the fluid mingling with the grounded and stoic. These aspects aren’t new for Serge Jr, but the shadows just seem that much more intense, the contrast more effective, and the lighting more affecting. There’s bold, effortless balance in this show, with the pieces feeling exploratory and fresh, yet sure of themselves while trudging forward through that unknown. But at the core, there’s a lot of unmistakable truth presented here and that can be an intimidating, even terrifying, direction for any artist to plow head first into. In the situation of Different Rules, however, that truth seems to fuel the work more than anything. It’s a belief and knowledge in that truth that smothers any apprehension and why the pieces feel so sure of themselves. That confidence pulses through them and pours the concrete of their foundation, illuminates them and supplies them with breath.
During that same 2011 interview, Serge Gay Jr told us the following:
“… I just discovered recently that my work is a diary. This overview timeline of all my life’s experiences and the journeys that I’ve seen or felt strongly about at that moment of time. So therefore, I love to create that world for people to see visually and to be touched in some kind of way or relate to. That’s the only way I can let people understand who I really am as a person.”
Of course, there has always been social commentary and personal truth in Serge’s work — that first show, “Absolute Happiness” explored the greater idea of happiness and identity by incorporating imagery of natural disasters, death, and abuse, even then — but it’s hard to deny that the themes being showcased in his latest exhibit are a bit weightier than something like his 2014 solo show, GOLD, which paid tribute to his love of music and the legends that have inspired and influenced him throughout his life. But even in paying credence to the potential importance of music in one’s life, this past year becomes even that much more of a brutal entry for Serge‘s diary, considering that at least three of the musical figures that he’s painted in the past — David Bowie, Phife Dawg, and Prince — all tragically passed away in 2016. Besides a particularly vicious presidential election cycle, the group of celebrities that were lost was overrun with prominent figures whose life’s work helped challenge archaic notions about everything from race (Muhammad Ali, Afeni Shakur, Harper Lee, China Machado), to gender and sexuality (Carrie Fisher, Prince, Bowie, George Michael, Alexis Arquette, The Lady Chablis).
It’s pretty clear why the exhibit is being titled, Different Rules, but as that seemingly otherwise humble and enthusiastic artist, Serge could have just as easily called it, “Don’t Get It Twisted.” He’s doing well for himself and he’s been fortunate in his success, but this past year, as much as any in recent memory, operated as a reminder that, regardless of how much you may achieve or move throughout this society, there are still different rules and obstacles for those of us that make up these marginalized demographics. Meanwhile, social media platforms have provided those around us opportunities to vocalize opinions and perspectives that we may not have expected, often exposing their own contradictory viewpoints or ignorance pertaining to the challenges faced by those outside of themselves, and an inability or unwillingness “to understand the differences in people and their way of life.” With this show, Serge again moves forward, going well beyond proving himself and that he is “capable;” at once, aware that “proving himself” may likely never be enough, while knowing that delivering his uncompromised vision to the greatest of his ability is all that matters. Whether he’s addressing police brutality, female empowerment, the injustices surrounding standing rock, or even our quests for validation by escaping with mutated identities into digital landscapes and cyber culture, Gay manages to synthesize such complex, nuanced subject matter without offering up the same tired cliches. These paintings aren’t slogans or protest signs, and they don’t simply rely on the idea of references to “deep” and “important” social commentaries to carry them. The work is successful, because it is genuine and birthed with conviction. Serge isn’t simply tackling heavy topics, he’s painting the feelings and the humanity that permeate from and envelop them; a murky spectrum of emotions encompassing fear, courage, shame, pride, desperation, and love. Different Rules operates as a prime example for why this art scene does, in fact, need Serge Gay Jr‘s viewpoint, especially with the continued voices of so many vital figures falling victim to mortality, as of late. I, for one, couldn’t fathom a more ideal time for the world to hear it.
If you’re in the San Francisco area this weekend, please make sure to hit up the opening reception this Saturday where the artist will be in attendance.
Check out a selection of preview images below the following event details…
A Solo Art Show Of Serge Gay Jr
Opening reception: Saturday, January 7, 2017
Spoke Art Gallery
816 Sutter Street
San Francisco, California 94109
Opening is ALL AGES w/NO COVER
Artist will be in attendance
Show on view until Saturday, January 28th
Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1628042327489555/