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Actor turned Artist plays debuts with La Mona Risa

La Mona Risa
Courtesy of UTSA Texas Cultures

Pepe Serna's art exhibition titled La Mona Risa


Pepe Serna, an accomplished actor from cult classic movies like Scarface, American Me, and the not readily forgotten Caddyshack II returns with a dozen paintings paying tribute to the women in his life. At the UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures’ upstairs gallery, curator, Arturo Infante Almeida had arranged a small collection of 12 paintings by Serna that are hypothetically created to showcase an artistic appreciation for the women in his life – mother, wife, and other important female companions in a commemorative and colorful celebration. However, these drag queen-esque frontal profiles do not deliver such expected results.

How would you pay homage to your mother or wife--Bulging eyes, overemphasized noses, and post Botox lips? I would hope not, but Serna must think his attempts are artistic ends are justified by the feeble means. Having had no traditional art school training or lessons, Serna started painting during the filming of his first full length feature, Red Sky at Morning- captivated and inspired by his surroundings.

However with his profiled paintings that lack a deliberate exploration into the unique characteristics of people he loves, Serna paints what he thinks noses, lips, and eyes look like, not what they actually look like. Forget what you think you see, paint what you really see—Art School 101! His untrained eye lacks the sophistication that would make these paintings more appealing. The similar facial features of each artwork makes for a mix and match effect- switch the hair, make-up and background; a child version of paper dolls, swapping the clothes for different looks. His backgrounds of swirls and other large décor is simply filler, adding similar outsider aesthetics to try and engage the viewer in the overall composition, bright colors to be attention grabbers - think Teletubbies.

“La Mona Risa”, the title of Serna’s exhibition is a coy-ish and ad lib play off the revered Mona Lisa by Leonard da Vinci. While the real Mona Lisa has enticed art scholars and critics alike, making it one of the most written about artworks in the world, Serna’s portraits lack any kind of resemblance to the name stay of this curatorial endeavor. With stylized facial features, Mexican Folk Art traditions and Naïve Art sensibilities, Serna’s paintings lack a certain institutional credibility for the aspiring outsider art quality of his work.

Almeida’s inclusion of Serna in the Institute of Texan Cultures places him in a higher ranking that elevates the importance of his work, but I think there are a plethora of artists from Texas whose art is more significant in warranting a solo exhibition.

Serna combines Beehive bouffants- a reference to his mother who was a hairdresser; embroidered Mexican Huipil shirts- for the token Latin America reference and cross necklaces - Catholic iconology and the traditional Mexican family values mixed with autobiographical religious appreciation into hue-riffic and hideous headshots.
Hung in no particular order, pieces with titles like “La Esperanza”, “La Guera”, and “Las Triplets” seem to mimic each other in their simplicity and almost comical exaggerations. In a Cher meets Liza Minnelli art explosion, Serna seems to have much to learn in how to swoon the opposite sex.

In La Esperanza, black and white circles contrast the rose and pink skinned women. Minus any color, the application of hair seems reminiscent of clouds in Tibetian Thangka paintings, but lacks any special complexity. Solid blue eyes with dots of black are without pupils making for childish renditions. Individual eyelashes are painted to replicate the designs of the hair and spit-curls. However, no attention for detail is paid to the ears, except for the cross jewelry. We can assume they are ears because of the location, but with two layers of lines that are supposed to allude to ear canals; I can believe in the non-affixed crosses so much more. And nose...Check. Yes there are two small half circles for nostrils amid a quick line drawing, giving more to the lackadaisical attempt of showcasing his muse. Lips that of course are red and complete with straight lines painted in a deeper shade- exaggerated lip lines, adding some sort of theatrical affection for the kiss; instead reverting to a baboon’s ass comical approach.

On the other hand the simple colors complement the Latin American embroidered shirt motif on the left and right breast and flower ornamentation on her head. None the less, all this adds up to a less than respective illustration of someone who has inspired the artist, creating a freakish clown in the process.

A ten minute artist interview accompanies the exhibition where Serna credits his wife, Diane as his lifelong muse- describing her as a “walking piece of art.” A seemingly curious metaphor would seem to promise flattering results, falling flat.

Pepe Serna’s “La Mona Risa” exhibition was the second to final installation of the Institute of Texan Cultures Texas Contemporary artists’ series. Pepe Serna is one of 12 artists chosen by Almeida to exemplify his curatorial vision “showcasing the talents of some of Texas’s premier artists”. He will be part of a group curatorial exhibition at the San Antonio Plaza Club, showcasing all 12 artists in the series.

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