When she's walking around the city, Ana Serrano is looking out for the little details: A facade paint patch mis-match, the lettering of a hand-crafted, corner liquor store sign, a blooming window box garden. The artist takes it all in, and brings it indoors.
Serrano's cardboard-constructed, three-dimensional worlds are an explosion of color. And in her Highland Park workshop, Serrano is an architect. There, the Mexican-American artist assembles -- and disassembles -- paper-made sculptures inspired by Latino pop culture, and the beauty found in the day-to-day built environment of Los Angeles.
Inside her studio, focusing solely on one neighborhood may prove difficult. In one corner of the room, a row of cotton candy-hued buildings advertise ice cream, milkshakes, raspados, "American and Mexican food." A five-foot, hill-top village with winding roads and vibrant homes stands split in half, lining the back wall of the space.
"Ever since I was little, I was always interested in building, and things that were handmade," Serrano says. An illustration graduate of Art Center College of Design, she was attracted to working with cardboard early on as a primary material in her artistic process because of its accessibility. "I like the way I'm able to manipulate it so fast. I can paint it, and alter it."
In her street explorations of L.A., Serrano pays attention to the type of hues used by certain communities. "I just think it's interesting how different people can have such different taste in color," she says.
But this fascination with paint choice extends beyond aesthetics. "As you go into higher income neighborhoods you'll see that palette is very muted, and very homogenous," she says. "[In] lower income neighborhoods, where you don't have a homeowners association, you see these colors that are really vibrant. I do think they're happier too."
Although most of Serrano's pieces are miniatures, in Fall 2011 the artist's creations became magnified when she took over Rice University Art Gallery in Houston with her "Salon of Beauty" installation. The site-specific work featured an avenue of large-scale structures: homes adorned with container greenery, a quinceañera specialty cake shop, a bargain store, a strip club. Before the exhibition opened, Serrano spent most of the summer working on the commission, constructing all the small pieces required like bricks, and cinder blocks at her studio. She later completed the on-site project during a month-long residency. Today, the only fragments of the project that live on are a "Checks Cashed" sign that hangs above the bathroom door, some potted plants that sit on a shelf, and the bottom half of a brick building.
When she's not designing bold cityscapes, Serrano creates sculptural works influenced by her bicultural upbringing. A first generation American, her family originates from the northwestern state of Sinaloa where she says listening to corridos, and banda music were the norm. Some of her most recent pieces examine the rise in popularity of narcocorridos, Mexican drug ballads, on both sides of the border, and the appropriation of the drug lord style of living in mainstream society. "[The] drug trafficking image is being glorified by a lot of people. That very conflicting image of somebody is what interests me," she says.
Images of narco-saint Jesus Malverde appear in many of Serrano's sculptures. Her mixed-media piece "Road to Malverde" captures the journey of a drug trafficker in stop-motion. Chased by police after his home is raided, the character in the piece ends the pursuit at Malverde's chapel to plead for protection. Equipped with a side firearm, and signature hat, Serrano also depicts deceased singer-songwriter Chalino Sanchez. Murdered at 33 years old, the vocalist was widely recognized as El Rey del Corrido. The artist gives life to the king in a detailed, life-size, cardboard rendering.
Serrano was raised to the sounds of Sanchez' melodies. Like many other first generation Mexican Americans, she was brought up watching performers like renowned pop artist Juan Gabriel, and celebrated actor, director, and producer Roberto Gómez Bolaños "Chespirito" -- creator of beloved personalities El Chapulín Colorado, and El Chavo del Ocho -- on Spanish-language television. On weekday evenings during prime time, she and the women in her family welcomed telenovela stories into their living room.
"It's funny because, there's always [a telenovela] at seven, and the one at eight, and the one at nine. You had to watch all three," she says.
From time to time, Serrano will still stream a classic soap opera from her computer. One of the sculptures in her new piñata series, which pays tribute to several of these influential figures, honors Maria Mercedes, a character from a 1990s hit telenovela personified by well-known actor and singer Thalía.
Serrano says it is important to celebrate the faces that influenced her childhood. "These are the characters that we saw growing up that are so recognizable for kids that are Mexican, and grew up here," she says. "I think that all informs our own dialogues."
Ana Serrano's paper sculptures are currently on view in group exhibition "This Is Not A Self Portrait: Reflections of Erasure, Solidarity and Belonging" at the Main Gallery of California State University, Northridge until March 29.
All images courtesy of the artist.
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