Looking at Shelter Serra’s work will make you step back, take stock, and question every values system you’ve ever known. Or maybe it will just make you smirk knowingly. Either way, the California-born, New York-based artist is producing some thought-provoking stuff. Since gaining renown and, in some cases, infamy after showing his silicone “Homemade Hermes Birkin Bag” (which was actually inspired by his then-girlfriend’s pricey Balenciaga) at Chelsea’s Marlborough Gallery in 2010, Serra has flipped the script on the concept of luxury. He’s plated a 409 bottle in gold, designed “Fake Roleys” that you can snatch up for a mere $40, and crafted a life-size Hummer from baby blue rubber. But for the skater kid-turned-art world favorite, it’s all about creating a new, valuable experience. That’s something he does well, which is one of the reasons brands like Helmut Lang, Converse, and Chanel have tapped him to dream up art for their stores. And believe you me, the results are just as covetable as any 2.55.
Serra’s fashion-related work may seem like an irreverent dig at luxury and consumption, and in some ways, it is. But he has a deeper understanding of, interest in, and appreciation for fashion and craft than more industry insiders than I’d like to admit. While sipping coffee at a Soho café, Serra spoke with Fashion Unfiltered about his recent show at London’s Coburn Projects, studying math with Tupac, his “surfer uncle” Richard, and why a little solitude can be a breath of fresh air.
Katharine K. Zarrella: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Shelter Serra: I think it happened progressively. I grew up in California in a town called Bolinas. It was filled with old hippies and writers and musicians…kind of cast over from the sixties in San Francisco. Beatniks. Harmony Korine was born there as well. School there was like clay class, wood class, so I think the concept of being an artist was always around, but I started out skateboarding after high school and that developed into something. I actually went to high school with Tupac [Shakur]; he was in my math class. It was before he got his tattoos.
Fake Roleys; Photo: Courtesy of Shelter Serra
KKZ: What was Tupac like in high school?
SS: He was totally hip-hop. He had the stereo and the cutout jean jacket. He was a cool guy. He was what we called a “drama freak.” There were the skateboarders, the surfers, the jocks, the drama freaks, and the goth people. The goths were probably the most fashionable because they wore all black. Looking back, the goths and the drama freaks were the most creative because they didn’t care what people thought.
KKZ: Aside from studying math with Tupac, what was your childhood like?
SS: My dad was a criminal defense attorney. He did cases for the Hell’s Angels and Huey Newton from the Black Panthers. We didn’t grow up with television, so we listened to radio shows, which was pretty cool. The idea of imagination was always really embraced. We would always wear crazy clothes. My mom was not a seamstress but she did a lot of stitching and she always loved fashion. We used to take her nail polishes as kids and paint all over. She could tolerate us, but Bolinas was one of those places. It was dirty outside. It was really kind of a nasty place because it was so raw.
KKZ: Obviously your uncle, Richard Serra, is a huge figure in the art world. Is that helpful? Or hindering? Or both?
SS: I think it helps and it hinders. When we were growing up, he was basically the surfer uncle. He used to come and visit and we had a skate ramp, and he’d look at the skate ramp sideways like it was one of his sculptures, and we’d ask each other, “Why is he wearing all black?” [laughs] Since then, I’ve become really good friends with him and we definitely have an ongoing dialogue about my work and his pieces. But it was difficult at first to make my own voice and get out from underneath his shadow. Obviously I wasn’t going to make work that was metal and abstract. I’m more interested in representation—re-presenting, or re-contextualizing things.
Homemade Hermes Birkin Bag, 2009, cast platinum silicone, 16 x 5 x 15 in; Photo: Courtesy of Shelter Serra
KKZ: My first introduction to your work was your now famous “Homemade Hermes Birkin Bag.” Can you tell me a little about that piece?
SS: At the time, a girlfriend of mine had a Balenciaga bag, and we laughed that, based on the price, we could probably live in that thing for a month—it was more than rent. I was really fascinated by her affection for this object and the smile it brought to her, so obviously it was worth the price. As a man, I couldn’t really replace that feeling. So I thought, Why not try replicating one of these bags, and it became kind of like a joke. I wanted to replicate it out of something that would last for a long time, and the perfect material was platinum silicone, which happens to be the same material they make sex toys out of. So there’s this duality between the material and the longevity and the clarity of the detail. There was a little show at Lit Lounge down in the East Village, and [the piece] was in the corner of the show and nobody saw it, nobody said anything. Then, about six months later, there was a show at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, curated by Karline Moeller. That was when the piece got some attention. All of a sudden, there were these fashion blogs talking about how I was being insensitive and that I didn’t understand the idea of what a real bag meant. But I did understand it.
KKZ: Was that hilarious to you that people said you were being insensitive about a handbag? Because even as someone who’s in fashion, that seems like a ridiculous statement.
SS: I think it was the comment that maybe it wasn’t made with the same kind of quality, and that there’s a price put on it. But all of those aspects were initially thought about because I thought the price should be about the price of the bag. Since then I’ve done some other fashion projects.
KKZ: You did the “Fake Roley” watches.
SS: Yeah. The Rolex watches are basically the idea of replicating something and making it available to the everyday consumer. I liked that a teenager could walk out of a store with a $40 piece of art they could wear for a week and if it breaks, they can buy another one. It really took off a few years ago when Kyle DeWoody pushed the idea of making it wearable for the masses. And then Helmut Lang saw them, and they asked if I wanted to do something for all the stores.
Chanel camellia flower, 2013; Photo: Courtesy of Shelter Serra
KKZ: You did silicone engine sculptures for Helmut Lang, but you also did some work for Chanel.
SS: Yeah. I had the opportunity through, once again, Kyle DeWoody, who had shown Peter Marino a drawing of a Chanel watch that I had done. This was about five or six years ago, and I had done a series of watches that showed the time as 10:10, like a watch advertisement. I did Rolex, Chanel, Gucci…it was about the idea that all these fashion companies were making watches, which I thought was kind of bizarre. So he saw one of the Chanel watches and called me into a meeting. He explained to me that the whole concept of Chanel’s stores is based on Coco Chanel’s apartment, which I thought was amazing. It was gold, silver, mirrors, pearls, chains…so I thought, Let’s do something with the camellia flower, because it was her favorite flower, and from there we developed imagery. I did drawings for a least a dozen boutiques. It’s interesting because for me, what it does is it contextualizes fashion, which can be very commercial, but in that context [a boutique] is very similar to an art gallery.
KKZ: Well, if you go into a luxury boutique, half the clothes in there have art gallery-worthy price tags.
SS: It does start to cross over there. Somebody once said to me a long time ago that fashion was the bastard child of art and I didn’t quite understand it, but they’re definitely linked because things have to be made with a knowledge of the past, and a respect for the past, but you can’t replicate things that other people have done and pretend that it was your idea. I think talent and technique will always be a part of art, and I think combining the arts like fine art, fashion, and architecture, that’s a direction I do see things going—the combination of all of the disciplines.
KKZ: From where I’m sitting, your Birkin bags and Roleys seem like a commentary on the indulgence or frivolity of the fashion industry. Do you think it’s ironic that the fashion industry is in love with your work?
SS: I think that by embracing something and its success in one realm, be it the Birkin bag or the Rolex, it becomes iconic. And once something becomes iconic, a replica carries some of the essence of the original object. That’s what I’m embracing. That essence is an experience, and I think fashion really needs those emotional experiences. When someone puts on a pair of shoes or a dress, they want to feel amazing. So owning an artwork—even if it’s tongue-in-cheek—that brings up a commentary about that object or a dialogue about the relevance of that object…that’s very valid. I was aware of fashion in its higher echelons, but I didn’t grow up with a huge amount of material objects, so I think part of my commentary is that objects are very important, but also they’re not. An object that carries a cultural status interests me.
Photo: Kate Owen
KKZ: Social media is a huge part of the fashion world, and it’s become increasingly important to that art world, too. What are your thoughts on that?
SS: I think Instagram has been a huge part of this, but people experiencing things on their phones replaces the experience of going to an art gallery and seeing the art.
KKZ: Are those types of virtual experiences authentic?
SS: To a degree. You can probably equate it to shopping on Amazon or eBay. You see a replica of something, maybe a replica has value, but it’s up to the viewer to decide that. But when you go into a gallery or a store and see a dress or a jacket or a painting, and you can see and touch it, that experience is irreplaceable—and that experience will always be tangible.
KKZ: I have to ask you about the bunny paintings you’ve been doing of late.
SS: They actually relate to the idea of technology directly. The Stanford Bunny was the first object that was three-dimensionally scanned at Stanford University, and it’s become the archetype of computer graphics culture. So, the Stanford Bunny is kind of my solution to the increasingly digital world. I wanted to make a digital analog family that would constantly replicate. I started out with 20 paintings of one size, and the second family was another size, and it’s all based on the same structural format of the Stanford Bunny at this one angle, but they all take on very different lives with the color combinations and the textures. To me, that really speaks of individuality and how even if you have the same structure, or grow up in the same world, you can be an individual. The Stanford Bunnies represent this homogeneous world of individuality, and how it can constantly be renewed and replicated.
KKZ: Last month, you debuted your show Array at London’s Coburn Projects. It felt quite different from your previous work, in part because it predominantly featured black-and-white paintings.
SS: It was a shift. The last few years, I’ve been working on sculptures of everyday objects, but the paintings are coming out of a different interest. Where the sculptures were about everyday items, the paintings are more about everyday experiences, and isolating experiences. They’re things that have subtext, and some of the images come with a certain mystery. They’re all painted in black and white, which I think is a little bit like film stills. If you take a film still out of a narrative, it starts to tell a different story. I was interested in not telling a story, but representing certain experiences taken out of context and putting all those experiences together to create a new experience.
Rising Light, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 in; Photo: Courtesy of Coburn Projects
KKZ: What kind of new experience did you hope to create?
SS: It definitely [wasn’t] a bright and colorful show, but in our world that’s so overly bombarded with media, advertisements, for sale signs, sounds, and lights, I thought that looking at a painting and thinking about the history of the painting and having that experience of this portal or this window that’s actually on canvas creates an experience that is new. Some of the imagery has to do with being alone, and I thought in contrast to being constantly bombarded by advertising, that’s maybe a breath of fresh air.
KKZ: It’s almost as though these paintings transport you to a different, and perhaps less complicated, reality. Do you think that we’re heading for some kind of a reset or backlash?
SS: I hope so. I think it’s quite possible. There’s a painting I did of the moon, and I think that has something to do with it. The moon has been a guiding light for centuries. Its place in the sky hasn’t changed, it’s just that we haven’t been able to see the sky as well, and I think we should take that as a metaphor. It relates to where we are now. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to see where we’re at.
KKZ: Is there anything in particular you hope viewers take away from these works?
SS: If I can present somebody with a new way of looking, I think my job is done.