Andres Serrano grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, without a father, and raised by a hard-working mother subject to psychotic episodes that would remove her from his life for weeks at a time. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a normal family, and being an artist you don’t know what it’s like to be normal, so for me normal is in the eyes of the beholder.” As an artist, this might be seen as an asset conferring a fresh vision not accessible to those whose lives have been more conventional. From the beginning of his career as a photographer (after faltering as a painter and sculptor), Serrano wielded his camera as an artistic tool to help him understand and comment upon a world he viewed without the “normal” boundaries of decorum. Thus evolved an extraordinary body of work that, for better or worse, has branded him with a reputation as a shameless provocateur — even though his art takes on universal subjects in a diligent, devoted, and technically flawless manner.
Andres Serrano received his 15 minutes of infamy in 1989 when Senator Jesse Helms, a notorious old-school right-winger, denounced him as indecent and sacrilegious for his controversial photograph Piss Christ. The brazen color image was as boldly straightforward as most of Serrano’s work throughout his career: a 13-inch plastic-and-wood crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine. Although the effects of golden light that were captured rendered the object in a spectral, almost reverent manner, many were inevitably offended. It touched off a firestorm that threatened the NEA, which had co-funded the group show in which the photograph appeared. It didn’t matter that the image was part of a serious consideration of classical religious art, fused with an ongoing exploration of photographic abstraction made performative and slyly visceral by using bodily fluids. It was undeniably provocative, but that has been Serrano’s signature — as far as most of the media coverage he has garnered from early on — in series that grapple frankly and fearlessly with sex, religion, violence (and guns), race (and racism), death, poverty, identity, and the human body. Along the way, he has perforce dealt with the issue of censorship as well.
Today, Serrano actually feels a perverse gratitude toward Helms for “putting me on the map.” The question is, on which map? Although he has had 15 major retrospectives and mid-career surveys around the world in the last two decades, only one took place in the United States. “I’m not a hot trendy artist. I’m not part of the art world network in the sense that I’m not one of those artists that gets carte blanche, like Cindy [Sherman]. I’m not a black artist, I’m not a Latino artist, I’m not a Cuban artist, I’m not a Chinese artist, I’m not a gay artist, I’m not a woman artist … I’m nothing but Andres Serrano, an American artist — and that’s not good enough for America. When I’m abroad I feel very much like an American artist, a New York artist. I think they appreciate that there.”
Serrano recently had a show of his “Torture” series at the Fondation Lambert in Avignon — curated in tandem with Goya’s “The Disasters of War.” His shot of a hooded prisoner for a New York Times Magazine cover (illustrating a story on Abu Ghraib) had eventually led him to produce an elaborate series on torture around the world. It was comprised of two parts: implements of torture as sculptural objects found in various museums, notably at the Hever Collection in Kent, England (authentic Medieval tools of the trade rather than reproductions), and reenactments of actual torture scenarios using paid models who in some cases endured if not pain, then protracted discomfort. Many of these terrible tableaux were staged at The Foundry, a defunct dungeon-like munitions factory in Maubourguet, France, that has been converted to an artists’ space. Serrano’s depictions of real-life atrocities included those discovered at a Stasi prison in East Berlin, a woman who had been tortured and raped by the Sudanese Security Forces, the IRA suspects known as the “Hooded Men” enslaved for years by the British, and his visits to Dachau and Mauthausen concentration camps. He even met an American mercenary who had been a torturer during the Congo’s civil war.
Some critics decried “Torture” as an unseemly aestheticization of heinous crimes. Serrano has said that it has existed as a fact of the human condition for millennia and is therefore fair game as a subject for artistic treatment, as disturbing as it is, and he approached it as unflinchingly as he does all of his topics of inquiry. He was enthralled by the dark, unintended beauty of the devices, haunting specimens of oppression and sheer cruelty. It takes a particular kind of artist to locate aesthetic gratification in the realm of the sadistic, and it may help explain why European curators are less skittish about mounting shows of his work. That macabre blend of the sinister and the visually alluring is perhaps easier to confront in places that have had a thousand years of bloody conflict and the art history to match. Serrano will often choose to look at that which compels many others to look away.
Serrano was also recently included in an exhibition about 9/11 at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, with a selection of wide-ranging portraits from an earlier series, “America.” Serrano still lives in New York with his family, and in the months following 9/11, he was moved to produce a kind of ongoing typology of American citizenry — meant to contain a multitude of portraits that might define the national fabric. He has shot large vivid pictures of people of every class, race, age, and wide range of profession (that even included a prescient 2004 head shot of Donald Trump). It’s an exhaustive mosaic of the diverse American soul that rivals the famous undertaking of August Sander in 1920s Germany, People of the 20th Century. “Not only was Sanders great at portraiture, but compositions in particular. What I loved about his work is that it seemed effortless. I don’t know if he posed them but it seemed as if they assumed these poses by themselves. They’re so fluid and natural and great.” Serrano is also drawn to the portrait work of Edward Curtis and Richard Avedon. What these photographers all have in common, he says, is a body of work that is simple and direct, accessible to viewers who are not necessarily steeped in art. This is a key to the power of Serrano’s own images, which always distill the essence of their subject in a lucid, unfussy, unmannered fashion.