Over the past decade, the Bolia, California-raised artist Shelter Serra has recreated the Birkin in platinum silicone (2009’s “Homemade Hermes Birkin Bag”), transformed the Hummer into a baby blue rubber replica, and made “fake Roleys” available to the masses—selling the art items at just $40 each. This evening, Serra is celebrating the opening of his first solo exhibition, House on Fire at Baahng Gallery in New York City. The series is comprised of oil paintings and sculptures, works that address the direction—and implosion—of the American Dream, drawing in issues of luxury, surveillance, nostalgia, and classic Americana in its examination of what this consumption-driven ideal means in contemporary American society.
We spoke to Serra by phone—he was with his wife in Tokyo—on the night of the presidential election as returns were pouring in, and talked about how he came to these subjects, why the image of the “House on Fire” is so specifically American, and what we can do in the face of such anger. The timing of the discussion and exhibition opening couldn’t have been more harrowing, or relevant.
Ashley W. Simpson: I’m glad we’re talking now. I’m trying not to have an anxiety attack watching the results.
Shelter Serra: I was getting nervous and anxious.
AWS: I stopped looking. Anyway, I want to talk to you about this exhibition.
SS: Well, I guess it’s even more apropos now. I had been working on this group of work for eight or nine months, and one of the key paintings is called “House on Fire.” My idea behind it was the metaphor for the American consumeristic dream that either backfires or resets itself. The image came from the post-mortgage meltdown of 2007. Someone had actually burned down their house and committed suicide [inside it]; it was a foreclosure instance where it was like, he didn’t want the bank to have the house. It was in Georgia. And I just thought, Wow, that’s such an American “fuck you” to the system. [It also brought about] the idea of a country almost catching on fire. I hope Hillary wins, but I’m interested in how everyone has this perspective of the American Dream and what it has to do with commodification and dreams, and that’s different for every culture.
The oil paintings came out of working with sculpture and really wanting to go back to a more traditional medium that challenged my own personal technical abilities. Images are read, but the technical aspect should have a background of history. I try to make [the images] my own, but I do take from popular culture, different notions of American perspective— which is different from [that of] somebody from Tokyo or Germany or Spain. It has to do with the context. I always think that the context is an important factor in how people read things or how people interpret their experiences.