Chad Serhal, WRONG Marfa’s latest artist in residence, to display collage work at closing reception this weekend

MARFA — Chad Serhal, WRONG Marfa’s latest artist in residence, will host a closing reception this Saturday, February 25, from 4 to 7 p.m at Do Right Hall. 

The artist, who also works as an adjunct professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, was in town for the month of February working on his collage, video and musical practices. A native of Indiana, Serhal was recently studying sculpture in graduate school at the University of Florida. 

He is an early career artist and the time devoted to making new work at WRONG marks the first of his major residencies. Serhal said he’d always been interested in traveling to Marfa, in part because he and the town shared a James Dean connection. (Serhal grew up on the same street as Dean, who was considered a hometown hero.) 

“Because of that, Marfa has always been on the map for me as the location for Giant. I’m a big film guy. All the movies that were made here, it just seemed like some sort of mecca that I needed to visit,” said Serhal. 

True to form, Serhal has been uploading a film a day on Youtube, documenting his residency in a series he’s calling his “scüzz vlog.” The artist’s primary medium is collage — his temporary studio space at Do Right Hall is filled with collaging supplies such as collections of paper, glue and scissors  — and said some of his main influences are the styles of artists Kurt Schwitters and Ray Johnson.  

“I’m very into collage and when I went to grad school, I thought that I would be moving on from that, but I doubled down and I got really into it,” said Serhal. “I’m interested in distressed materials and collecting. Collecting cards, matchbooks and things like that.” 

Serhaul has been scouring flea markets and book stores for years, building up a collection of items from which he sources to create collages. “You never know what you are going to use,” he said. His collections and supplies are thoughtfully organized by category — paper and cards, wood and canvas and paints, brushes and markers — in around 30 clear 64-Liter plastic tubs.  

The artist’s taste for others’ discarded stuff tends to verge on the inexpensive, yet is idiosyncratic, he explains. 

“If I go to a comic book store, I’m not looking for new comic books, I’m looking for throw-away $1.50 cent, 25 cent comic books because the quality is what I’m looking for, like ‘84 and earlier, they’re not glossy,” said Serhal. “I can’t really explain exactly what appeals to me, but when I see it, I know.” 

Utilizing printed materials such as comic books and magazines, Serhal often finds himself balancing the power of widely-distributed, known images with the desire to make an interesting collage that people can draw their own conclusions from. 

“There’s one way to look at collage where each piece has a whole world, a whole meaning to it, and you can use that power in the collage, or you can do the opposite,” said Serhal. 

The same goes for the artists’ utilization of words in his work. A small antique wooden box with many shallow drawers — a flea market find — holds tons of cut outs of tiny little letters, words and full book pages. Page 519 from Moby Dick, for example, was littered with precise rectangular cut outs where words used to be. Serhal said he takes his cue from filmmaker Harmony Korine’s one-word poem concept, and the artist often employs the use of words to add a bit of humor or irony to a collage. 

“I need to keep words very vague, so that people don’t immediately know what this collage is about and they can interpret how they want. I love to use puns and just dumb down the statement,” said Serhal. 

The artist works in a “semi-committal,” fashion, gluing as he goes along, rather than rearranging meticulously for the perfect composition then gluing materials down. A small glass jar at the main work station in his studio, lit by mismatched lamps, holds his custom mix of universal wallpaper paste and Elmer’s. “I’m pretty anarchist when it comes to composing. I’ll just go with the instincts, and then there’s no erasing. I can always collage over something,” he said. 

Serhal’s open studio set up at Do Right Hall. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Lately, Serhal has found working small-scale more satisfying, as the materials he uses often dictate scale. His smaller works may be rather minimal, including just a handful of elements thoughtfully placed together. A discarded university collection of glass slides Serhal saved has been useful for giving certain characters the spotlight, he explains.

“If I cut out a little person that’s like, five centimeters tall, and I put them on a 6 x 4 canvas it’s just going to disappear. This little person wants impact so I put it on a 2 x 2 slide. And it’s the main character,” said Serhal. 

Larger works by the artist on medium-sized panels, which act as palimpsests, have been repeatedly painted and sanded down for a tattered billboard effect. Serhal’s tools are often those of destruction as well as creation. Inspired by his major influences — artists Schwitters and Johnson, who developed made up, specific words with which to refer to their art — Serhal came up with the word “scüzz” to refer to his works, describing how a collection of small cards were placed in a tub with paint to get mixed around and “scüzzed up.” 

“That kind of describes the distressed style,” he said.

A student of the history of collage focusing on the past 100 years, Serhal has a theory that collage, despite its reputation as an impermanent medium, could have acted as the precursor to many modern art movements, including surrealism, Cubism and Dadaism. 

“People were painting a certain way and then someone glued paper down, and it just broke the mold of how to do things,” said Serhal. “I think it was a very important medium for creativity in all of those different genres. But it gets left behind as incomplete or unprofessional or not fine art, because it doesn’t last, it’s kind of ephemeral.”