“taken through back entrances subtle fate matching matte thing soiled …” by Ser Serpas at the Whitney: Art Installation Review

I sat with the large installation crafted by artist Ser Serpas that is part of this year’s Whitney Biennial on a recent Friday night, which at Lower Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art is always a busy time. They have a special offer for free admission.

That means there were a lot of people — many more than the crowds present during my afternoon visit the previous day, but the gallery housing this Serpas installation was, blissfully, not really that crowded. It’s slightly hidden on the first floor, around a corner of sorts from the central elevators, which house — I eventually realized — their own artistic interventions.

The comparative quiet for the gallery with Serpas’ work heightened a contemplative atmosphere.

The Installation’s Ingredients

I’d never actually seen a work by Serpas before venturing into this Whitney gallery that evening, though I’d seen images of the artist’s practice, so I knew I’d be interested.

In short, the installation at the famed Whitney exhibition (which has a very long name that I’ll share later) is part assemblage and part visual manifesto, considering the oil paint spread on a vast swath of plastic that frames the whole thing.

The plastic sheeting forms a base and backdrop, while actually filling out the piece is an assembly line of found objects that are clearly weathered, worn, and stripped from contexts of their normal use… though they still seem, to me, to suggest well-to-do living.

There’s a yoga ball, a metal cart, and a disco ball, among other components — though none of it seems presented in a manner most functional. The metal frame to a portable canopy made a particularly memorable appearance, mid-squeeze — meaning it was left in between the full compression of storage and its broadest reach, teetering as though someone who was trying to put it away (or open it up?) was raptured. The overall piece is very large, feeling like it sweeps in basically the entire gallery.

Grouped items form their own sculptural pieces of sorts, several of which dot the plastic. It’s richly fascinating to imagine a disco ball and metal cart atop a seeming piece of exercise equipment as a visual analogue of famously ambitious statues from various historical periods. And with two pool cues stuck into a metal step stool, I can’t help but start imagining the most rhythmically energetic of these stone icons.

You feel, somehow, that Serpas is on that wavelength — catching up with the beings and sensations memorialized in that art made in times past and finding these thought-structures have flown right off their hinges, though they’ve not really stopped spinning.

Everything, Anything

The textures of these consumer products are, when centered like this, jarring, whether it’s the chill of metal or the arguably uncomfortable crunch of plastic. And the color palette centers on tones of black and gray. It’s decently lit up (and the gallery itself is brightly lit), but there’s a certain lack — a void — that Serpas seems to capture behind whatever visual propulsion is present.

Within the isolated contexts of those individual assemblages combining into the larger installation, the visual rhythms are sweeping and bold, as though asserting an imagined right to be here, wherever that “here” is, in context. Here specifically, it feels sure of itself — the certainty of someone who doesn’t even contemplate their certainty anymore, with a real suddenness to the turns that this thing takes. That’s essentially by default, considering Serpas is using the hard edges — visually and literally — of items meant, generally speaking, for specific uses that weren’t making art.

To me, it’s the economically aspirational living — from which Serpas has captured and repurposed evident waste — brought into some serious focus.

Plastic Sheeting, Reaching the Ceiling…

The framing provided by that plastic sheeting seemed to me a rather impactful factor in actually defining the piece as I pondered its reach. The sheeting rises high above the twisting assemblages featuring those everyday objects ripped from their routines. I was imagining the installation, in full, like a loud boom specifically combined with the sudden veer into silence that might come after — an artistic capture of reaching into the sky, literally or figuratively, but just crashing back to earth.

Poignantly, the figure-suggesting, sculptural assemblages on the ground seemed to just not quite connect, on a rhythmic level, with the more sweeping, literally ceiling-reaching plastic.

And it matched up conceptually. Most of what we as visitors were seeing was out of its habitat in a way that paint on a canvas really isn’t. You walk into an art gallery, and you’re not really going to be surprised to see paintings. What about an upside down piece of living room furniture and a “No Parking” sign laying flat on the ground? Whether you consider it in terms of the life of these varieties of objects, our usage of such objects broadly, or our emotional and cosmic ambitions arguably reflected by that, Serpas is capturing something tart. It’s pretty cool, frankly.

And Now, Here’s the Title:

Also, the full title reads as follows: “taken through back entrances subtle fate matching matte thing soiled co fated birch and test one sacked box twenty something flying in the face of burning hard to forget time is dealing soft on myself its enticing cant be there for anything at all finding myself over lakeside prat fall buttercup symbol place in shambles waited till last thing i stall where did i go breath huff heavy forget this song the hell i see whither anon make it right girl for one nightly fuck this on site hurl back and forth my teeth keep staining astonished and sick breath now its fading maybe i will find another big milky peaches this trap its better.”

Image: Installation view of Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 20- August 11, 2024). Ser Serpas, taken through back entrances subtle fate matching matte thing soiled …, 2024. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

The Whitney Biennial is on view until August 11 in southern Manhattan.

Installation view of “Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 20- August 11, 2024). Ser Serpas, “taken through back entrances subtle fate matching matte thing soiled …,” 2024. Photograph by Ron Amstutz