The Art of The Comeback: Highland Park artist seeks a return to the spotlight

Rafael Serrano at K-York Studio/Nathan Solis

Story & Photos By Nathan Solis

The life of an artist is difficult. The art scene is fickle. Rafael Serrano of Highland Park knows that first hand.

“I should be much further ahead in my career today. If only I didn’t drift away for those twelve years,” artist Rafael Serrano says inside K-York Studio in Highland Park, reclining on a couch, surrounded by elegant furniture and his most recent art.

Like his collages, Serrano’s career was scattered about up until a few years ago. In the ‘80s, he was an up-and-coming artist who worked with photography, made the shift to painting and began to show in world renowned galleries. In the mid ‘90s the praise he received began to wane as the art world began to ignore more traditional artists and by the early 2000s Serrano was done with showing his work. One of his last solo shows was at a hair salon in Woodland Hills.

“The scene moved away from realism,” said associate editor of Fabrik magazine Peter Frank. “It wasn’t cool to be a painter anymore.”

Now that 58-year-old Serrano is drifting back into the art scene, he’s styling a comeback from his own backyard – local gallery show in his neighborhood, his newest work posted to his Facebook feed, along with a self-portrait and a picture of his dog.

With Nidhi Agarwal and Ritu Aggarwal/Rafael Serrano

His recent paintings are like a series of personal conversations, colorful, unique painting/collage and similar in their presentation, unlike Serrano’s paintings from the ‘80s, which were life-size, grand canvases that reached to the ceiling or his photography of stylized miniatures that looked like mysterious landscapes, places he wished he could visit. He stayed in Los Angeles, built a name for himself.

“He was ahead of his time,” says art curator Robert Berman of Serrano’s set pieces and photography. “He was working at an interesting place, doing work that spoke to a lot of people, and is still influencing them today.”

Around 1982 Serrano’s paintings were morphing from hyper realistic to a more abstract style. “When I can’t paint something I photograph it, and when I can’t photograph it I paint it,” Serrano said.

There were a series of shows after college that featured his photography work, including a show at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

“I was so excited for that show,” said the Cuban-born artist who speaks with a slight accent. “I called my mom up and told her, and she was proud, of course, but my family are all in the medical field. They knew I was in art school, but they never saw what I was doing. Then came the show at the county museum,” Serrano said with enthusiasm.

His paintings began to grow larger, set in mystical landscapes, with phallic allusions to war and bombs. A picture of Serrano at the time would look like an artist enjoying his fame, the recognition he received, his smile pulled taught across his face.

“I certainly partied. We were all making art and expressing ourselves. It was drinking, taking drugs, letting it go to our heads. It was ego. We were putting ourselves up on the canvas so to speak. We thought we were invincible,” Serrano says.

When he left the art scene in the 2000s, Serrano continued to create art, but he didn’t show his work to many people. For some time he was depressed, anxious about his work, nervous about his craft deteriorating. He began using up a digital camera, wrote political poetry, and became a father. Serrano attributes the birth of his son to getting his career back together. He started off small – sketches, a few photographs, some interesting collages.

Several times during our interview Serrano says, “I feel that I have some catching up to do.” And he makes this claim as though some other artist were arriving at the same ideas he should have had years ago.

His current work ranges from monochromatic to colorful. Some pieces are busy like biology diagrams of plant cells, while others are bleak and speak to that period where Serrano was battling depression. “I find myself much more happy with my current work,” he says.

“Collage is good to me,” Serrano says, “But I have a lot of catching up to do.”

Serrano’s work will remain on display at K-York Studio through June 7.

Artwork by Rafael Serrano


The Garden of Unearthly Delights/Rafael Serrano

Rafael Serrano in 1986

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.


  1. Rafael Serrano is one of the most important contemporary artists. I am glad he is pushing himself forward. He will shine.

  2. HatBox Floating in the Lake

    It’s so good to read about a local artist of such great skill with this kind of reporting, thanks to EastsiderLA and Mr. Solis and congratulations on the show Mr. Serrano.

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