Saturday, October 13, 2012

Seeing Serrano

Andrés Serrano's portraits
Andres Serrano: "The Interpretation of Dreams (White Man's Burden)" (2002),
"Nomads (Mary)" (1990), and "Nomads (Lucas") (1990), all Cibachrome prints,
silicone, acrylic, wood frame, 60 x 50 inches, limited editions,
Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery
Because of the hype and the news reports about the exhibit's opening week, I was bracing for a bit of craziness at the Edward Tyler Nahem galleries, where artist Andres Serrano's exhibit, Body and Spirit: Andres Serrano 1987-2012, is showing until October 26. At midday yesterday, however, there was no such excitement. Instead, I encountered a near-empty gallery, the front part of which, facing 57th Street, mostly featured Serrano's large Cibachrome prints. The majority of these were portraits of types: either Nomads, from a series Serrano photographed in 1990, or representatives of "America," some native, some immigrants, from 2002. There were two HIV-focused images, one "The Morgue (AIDS Related Death)," from 1992, that depicted marmoreal crossed hands that could easily have been a close-up of a detail from classical statuary, and the semi-abstract "Semen & Blood III," from 1990, its title self-explanatory, its juxtaposition of artful imagery and materials often eliciting disgust a hallmark of his work. As crisp as these images' colors were, as carefully as he treated such concerns as composition and lighting, as much as each did resonate in terms of the concepts behind them, I have to admit I found them rather uninteresting.

The America series' boy scout, its Playboy Bunny, the queered subjects of the Nomad series...I felt like I was walking into an argument from decades ago, one I'd listened to, even participated in, with variations many times, and though his side (my side) was persuasive and seductive, my response was that it just felt perhaps a bit played out. Obvious. Not that Serrano's works in these modes aren't relevant today, when immigration and immigrants themselves, female, brown and black, Muslim bodies and minds are the subjects of rhetorical and physical attacks, but they did not grab me. There was one Cibachrome print portrait, of a black man in Klan robes, entitled "The Intepretation of Dreams (White Man's Burden)," from 2000, that perhaps once would have induced a bit of shock, but after Dave Chapelle's infamous skit along the same lines, just felt a bit heavy-handed. (And given that Serrano's subject was smiling while cloaked in that infamous costume, I felt like I was seeing the anxiety of influence take a particularly obvious material form.)

None of these images would be likely to spark controversy today. In fact, the piece de la résistance sat in a second room, the back gallery, along the eastern wall, behind a thick sheet of Plexiglas. I am talking, of course, about "Piss Christ" (1987), the 60 x 40 inch Cibachrome print whose beauty, and shock value endures. What I did not know was that alongside "Piss Christ," Serrano also photographed a Madonna in urine (or a substance mirroring its pictographic effects), entitled "Madonna of the Rocks" (1987), its statuary like the crucifix in "Piss Christ" cloaked in haloed light, its subject glowing beatifically orange amid an almost transcendental background gold, nearly the exact reverse of the hues in the more controversial image. The conversation between these two images, and between two others, "Moses" (1990) and "Piss Discuss" (1988), its subject a statue or figurine of a classical athlete, was intellectually and aesthetically invigorating.  But where was the outrage about the Virgin Mother in piss? Had the protesters even noticed it, or seen either work? Or was the whole brouhaha, even in its newest iteration, just ginned up for purposes having nothing to do with the artworks themselves? The quiet of the gallery readily suggested an answer.

Despite being shadowed carefully by a gallery guard, I took advantage of the fact that a crew from a French TV show was shooting footage to snap a few images of the works, including "Piss Christ." I could not get photos of two other photographs in the same back gallery, direct in form and style as the piddled images, but more in line conceptually with the portraits out front. "White Baby Jesus" (1990), which looked like a chess queen covered in milk or chalk, floating in water, and "Black Baby Jesus" (1990), an anodyzed version of the same figurine, efferverscing as if dissolving in its watery darkness, were also, despite their overtness, both striking and memorable. I immediately thought of all those black  and brown Madonnas, of Czestochowa and São Paulo, that have turned up over the centuries, whose presence grounded and reterritorialized the elite power and discourse of the Roman Catholic church in a folk, mystical, popular form that the church later (warily) embraced.

The binarized Christ images made me think about Serrano himself, a Honduran, Afro-Cuban, Catholic-raised, conventionally trained, New York native artist perched between the racial (and racist) and cultural binaries still so dominant in this society, coming of age during the Identitarian and late Conceptual moments, the former of which is now often treated as if an aberration and the latter of which has integrated a few artists of color but mostly not dealt with the range of isms that still course through the societal lymphatic system. I thought that these two images, far more than "Piss Christ" or the quartet here of which it was integral part, suggested the true depth of his work, its power, and its meaning.  I only wish there had been more images of this sort in the exhibit; blessed with skills, he has more than a few times, as these show, been onto something worth pondering over more than once.

Andrés Serrano's "Piss Christ" and other images
Andres Serrano: "Piss Discuss" (1988) and "Piss Christ", Cibachrome prints,
silicone, acrylic, wood frame, 60 x 40 inches, limited editions,
Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery

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