A joke: A man walks onto a stage in a sparsely attended theater, proceeds to hop around on one leg and recite every third line from Kafka's "The Penal Colony," all the while smearing peanut butter and crude oil over his naked body. A perplexed first-time viewer turns to his companion and says, "So, this is performance art, eh?"
"It must be," counters his sidekick. "Otherwise the guy'd be sportin' a straightjacket."
Scott Serrano, fortunately, is one performance artist who values playfulness over pretension, who strives for communication rather than confusion. But it wasn't always that way for the San Francisco resident who brings his eclectic mix of theater, sculpture and human puppetry to the St. Louis Art Fair this weekend. His first performance more than a decade ago featured "a weird puppet show; a re-creation of Gray's `Anatomy' including movable body parts; the staged death of an artist; lots of squirting blood, and a wine and cheese party." As improbable as it all sounds, "people liked it, and they laughed quite a bit." But Serrano quickly grew tired of the informal nature that marked his early work, as well as the anti-art aesthetic that surrounded it. "Eventually, I got to a point where I would spend a year on something, and it would be destroyed after one performance," Serrano notes in a recent telephone interview from his Northern California home. "I realized I would never get good at theater if I kept doing that, so I started performing pieces over and over again, and I found that I really started to love that." Trained as a sculptor, Serrano, 33, soon discovered that a move into live theater required much more than just getting on stage and acting out ideas. He decided to work extra hard at his craft, including "getting into dance and making myself learn all about it." And then he took a final turning pointatossing aside his collection of philosophical tracts and post-modern critiques in favor of old-fashioned fairy tales. "My work had become so esoteric that it got to the point where people couldn't really understand it," Serrano says. Lost was the "emotional, guttural" influence that he felt his pieces needed. Then he realized that folk tales dealt with "just as heavy a set of intellectual issues. But the greatest thing is that a grandmother, a philosophy student and a one-year-old child can now come to my performance and all get a level of enjoyment out of it." Mixing his love of sculpture with the dynamic outlet found in stage performance, Serrano himself becomes a movable piece of artwork during his shows, three of which will be performed this weekend. He may be hidden by a mask; his body may become a mechanical pulley; he may change forms and shapes during a show. Anything that is possibleaand often improbableais likely to occur. "There's a really nice dialogue going on between my body and the objects that I build," Serrano explains. In "Containers," he transforms into "someone who literally takes his psyche apart, piece by piece, in what I like to call a psychological striptease." Obviously, concept and theory still play a major role in Serrano's work, but he ultimately sees himself as very much "object- oriented." "I need the sculpture," he admits with the same type of passion that a lounge lizard might exhibit for a stiff, dry-as-dust martini. "I guess you could say that I'm material sensitive." Serrano is also sensitive to the negative criticism that his medium sometimes reaps. He concludes that "what most performance art suffers from is a lack of respect for the rules of timing." "Timing is everything," he continues. "I'm now 10 years at what I've been doing, and getting that aspect down is something that I'm still learning. I know I'm getting better and better, but the only way you can get there is by doing a piece hundreds and hundreds of times." During practices, Serrano often blindfolds himselfaa trick designed to help him discover new modes of movement and expression. …