Taking the Piss Out of Art

"I'm basically interested in the big ones," Andres Serrano tells a group of local artists gathered to meet him at the South Florida Art Center on Lincoln Road. "Life, death, and everything in between."
Serrano visited Miami recently to attend the opening of a ten-year retrospective of his work at the Center for the Fine Arts. Andres Serrano: Works, 1983-1993, on view through July 30, includes the artist's softly lighted portrait photographs of the homeless, the clergy, and the dead; abstract photographic compositions made with blood, semen, and urine; sexy closeups of guns; dramatic photographs of quasi-religious tableaux; and photographs from his immersion series, featuring Serrano's controversial Piss Christ, which shows a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of urine.

Serrano's best-known work to date, Piss Christ engendered a furor when it came to public attention. The firestorm began in 1989 with a letter to the editor in a Richmond newspaper protesting its exhibition in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; it culminated not long afterward in a Congressional debate. The religious right's outrage over Piss Christ fueled arguments for cutting federal funds to the National Endowment for the Arts, and led to the passage of the Helms Amendment, a measure that barred giving tax dollars to support materials that could be deemed "obscene" or "lacking serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." (For detailed coverage of the Piss Christ case, read Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions, Steven C. Dubin's excellent study of art and politics in the U.S. from 1988 to 1992.) In these Contract With America times, Sen. Jesse Helms and others continue to cite Serrano as a reason for abolishing public funding for the arts altogether.

A sublime image with a dirty name, Piss Christ, like much of Serrano's work, questions Western society's taboos about the body; but it also deconstructs our contemporary belief systems and corresponding structures of power. Serrano confronts us with our own contradictions by framing what we deem unacceptable within a widely accepted format. To accomplish this, he uses large Cibachrome prints, which have the same seamless, glossy surface as upscale magazine advertisements or billboards. Their seductive beauty sets us up for the realization that, upon reading the works' titles, what we see is urine or semen or blood, and not paint; and that on closer inspection, the subject of a photo is a mutilated cadaver or a sensually posed nun. Questioning the definitions of the sacred and the profane, Serrano delights in upending the conventional concepts of man and God, body and belief, insider and outsider.

"Rather than seeking out to destroy icons, I'm just making new ones for myself," Serrano explains to the South Florida Art Center artists during an informal discussion the day after the CFA exhibition opened. "I'm always really amazed at how the work engages people." The 44-year-old artist speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent, and wears his thick black hair cut in a high fade.

When someone asks if he purposefully positioned himself as an art-world enfant terrible, he laughs, saying, "That sort of provocation can't be strategic, it just sort of happens. I just feel that you have to stand your ground as an artist, and do what you want to do. I've always felt I had to make my own way."

Serrano grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn with his Afro-Cuban mother, his Honduran father having left the family when the artist was still a child. A high school dropout, Serrano made frequent visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at age seventeen attended classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School. By age twenty he had become a drug addict and a dealer. Eight years later he kicked his habit and returned to making art.

Although Serrano had painted as a teenager, he found he was more comfortable with photography after experimenting with a girlfriend's camera. He now likes to refer to himself as "an artist with a camera" rather than as a photographer. In the early Eighties, Serrano and his wife, Julie Ault, became closely associated with the artists' collective Group Material, which promoted the making of social and political art directly involving the community, independent of art institutions. Unlike other members of the group, Serrano maintains that beauty is an essential part of art, whatever its sociopolitical function.

The earliest works on display at the CFA are part of a series of contrived tableaux that Serrano put together with live models, ecclesiastical props, and raw meat. One such photo, Heaven and Hell, features the artist Leon Golub posing in a red cardinal's outfit, and a young woman naked to the waist with her wrists bound together, animal blood dripping down her torso. Serrano acknowledges the influence of Spanish film director Luis Bunuel, and nowhere is it more evident than in the surreal, sacrilegious absurdity of these early images. But these takes on classic religious pictorial themes seem obvious when viewed next to the the artist's more evocative later endeavors.

Take Serrano's mid-Eighties experiments with body fluids. These works include a series of abstract color fields -- photos of square or cylindrical Plexiglas containers filled with milk and blood. Urine added another color to his spectrum. The photos in his Ejaculate in Trajectory series capture what look like beams of light or abstract splashes of paint jumping across a black background A in reality they are photographs of the artist's shooting sperm. The provocative titles of these works make clear Serrano's intended critique of the ideal of a modernist purity in art. "I want people to know that it's blood and piss, not paint," he emphasizes. Looking at these gorgeous, richly colored images, one can't deny that the life substances that we have defined as revolting are as beautiful as oil on canvas -- even more so.

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