Andres Serrano, Artist
Andres Serrano is showing 'Selected Works 1984-2015' at The School in Kinderhook, NY, in tandem with a multimedia group exhibition, 'Home Room', which contemplates relationships between familiar people, places, and things and the inner life of the self. It features work by artists such as Huma Bhabha, Nick Cave, Turiya Magadlela, Enrique Martínez Celaya, Claudette Schreuders, Laurie Simmons, Michael Snow, Becky Suss and Carlos Vega.
Interview by Chris Hartman
Portrait of Andres Serrano by Guzman
On view through April 2017 at The School in Kinderhook, NY.
All photographs courtesy of© Andres Serrano and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
During the 1980s, Serrano created large-scale, color photographs that were heavily influenced by Christ’s Passion; his youth in a Cuban-American, Roman Catholic home, and his love for the Italian Baroque era painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. One of his definitive, most provocative and most misunderstood works, 1987's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in the artist's urine, caused a firestorm in conservative Washington politics, and made him a primary target of an intense national debate on artistic freedom and funding — the so-called "Culture Wars." Antagonists of his work focused on the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts, which Republican senators, including Jesse Helms (North Carolina) and Alphonse D'Amato (New York) sought to defund. Congress eventually decided to cut the NEA’s funding by two-fifths.
Serrano's later photographic series centered on the Ku Klux Klan (Klansmen, 1990); the homeless (Nomads, 1990); the Morgue series (1992); History of Sex (1995-1996); a post-September 11 portrait series, America (2002); homeless New Yorkers (Residents of New York, 2014); Torture (2015); and the homeless of Belgium (Denizens of Brussels, 2016).
Chris Hartman: For your America exhibition following September 11, 2001, you photographed our current President Donald Trump. How did that come about and what made him sufficiently compelling for you to include him?
Andres Serrano: I wanted to document America and its reaction to September 11 — to discuss who the enemy was, and also the people of New York who had real and genuine connections to September 11. My subjects included people from all varieties of professions and economic levels of society — notables including Arthur Miller, Anna Nicole Smith, Snoop Dogg, Yoko Ono, and Donald Trump. I was born and raised in New York City, and I knew that Trump was a successful businessman who symbolized success in New York. I can't put myself in his place in imagining what he thinks and feels. He's a showman. It's highly possible that even those who work with him don't know him that well. My friends and I had read about people abandoning the city and moving upstate and elsewhere; but for us, there was nowhere else to go. New York was our home. It was a unifying event in American history, and I was hoping to tap into this great meditation on America in the wake of a national tragedy.
CH: In that same line of thought, with a new incoming administration, do you feel as though we in America are entering a period in which artistic expression could be legally curtailed? It's been reported by the Washington Post that the Trump administration will seek to severely cut both NEA and NEH funding. This has to be déjà vu for you. Do you see many of the same forces at work today as you did during the Reagan years when you became a controversial figure with your art?
AS: It's another strange and bizarre period for artists these days. These times are unpredictable and shaky. But the fact is, there's always an opposite reaction to a reaction in cases like this. What's very encouraging is that we're seeing instances where those who felt it was ok to be racist or homophobic are being punished for those views. My spouse, Julie Ault, (co-founder of Group Material, a New York-based artists' collaborative that has produced over fifty exhibitions and public projects exploring relationships between politics and aesthetics) has featured several group shows addressing issues like AIDS, women's rights, and others. For my own part, I'm a bit of an isolationist — I live in my own bubble. I've seen efforts like the current discussion about the funding of the arts come and go. But I will say it would be a very dangerous thing for the government to antagonize the artistic community — poking them — when you consider it's not just about the artists; but writers, filmmakers, and other creative people will also come out in force. America is a strong people and they are fair and understand this. Take, for example, the Women's March from this past weekend. It was something out of the 1960s – they, as much as anyone, realize that you have to go through hell to win freedoms.
CH: Your Torture series is an important reminder of the capacity of human beings to inflict suffering on others. This was made vividly apparent during the Iraq War, and has been revisited in the lead up to the current administration. As with artistic expression, do you fear a return to this inhumane policy? Some have said the only thing we've learned from history is that we don't learn from history. In light of this, what do you think of the current President Trump advocating for it?
AS: We have to first understand that America is not alone in torture. Anywhere you go in the world and throughout history, there have always been bad guys to go after. With this in mind, art movements are born from these phenomena. In 2005, I was asked by the New York Times to provide a photo of a hooded man for an article for their magazine, “What We Don’t Talk About When We About Torture.” The article looked back at the scandal involving the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers took humiliating photographs of Iraqi soldiers being tortured.
I didn't think of it again until ten years later, when I was approached by a London-based arts organization with a socio-political focus that said they'd be happy to sponsor my work if I had a theme of some kind in mind. I suggested the torture theme, and it turned out to be a huge project for me. In addition to the selections from the series in the present show at Jack Shainman Gallery in Kinderhook, I'll be exhibiting at his gallery in New York this coming September.
CH: Other interviewers have remarked that you radiate humor and kindness. And yet your controversial art seems to emphasize the antithesis of this with regard to the human condition. How do you reconcile these two contrasting realities?
AS: Every artist wants a reaction. No reaction is the worst reaction. More than almost anything else, you want your audience to engage with the work. And for each viewer of my work, the reaction is different, very personal. For my part, I try to elevate the way my subjects are presented, such as with the homeless (from his recent series on the homeless of New York City, Residents of New York; and Denizens of Brussels, which had a similar theme). I want people to notice them, but not in a political or ideological way. I really do identify with those photographs. I try to give them dignity and humanity. But I also want to be invisible in the process. I don't take self-portraits. My work is my self-portrait.
CH: You are a fan of Hieronymus Bosch, Caravaggio, and other Baroque era artists who specialized in depicting the human condition. Do you see a parallel between their work and yours?
AS: I love Bosch and Caravaggio. Let's talk about Caravaggio for a moment. He wasn't an art student. He was a brawler who reportedly killed someone. His art has that character and power. This isn't unlike the character of someone like Picasso or, more recently, Frank Sinatra. Many have tried to emulate the singing of Sinatra, but it just doesn't have the power and character of Sinatra's own voice, which is informed by his own authentic personality. The greatest artists are bigger than life — they've traveled roads no one else has traveled; they've all carried a certain amount of baggage with them; they follow a different drummer, and the strength of their work reflects that.
CH: In selecting the works for this show, did you collaborate closely with the Gallery, or did you select them yourself?
AS: The opening was wonderful. It's a great exhibition. It features some of my favorite work, including the Nomads series and Immersions (which included 1987's controversial Piss Christ). Jack is great. We collaborated in selecting the images, including pieces from the Torture series that were exhibited in Paris's Galerie Nathalie Obadia in 2016. We worked hard to select the best of the best, as we saw them.
CH: Can you talk about what project are you working on now?
AS: Actually, over the past few months, I've been writing. I'm working on a memoir. Some of it, I'll confess, is meant to correct the record about me personally. Not unlike as it was with our former President Barack Obama, there's been a tendency to cast me as an "other"; people insist I'm from somewhere else. For example, they've written that I'm Cuban; that I'm Honduran, or Puerto Rican. It's true that I have Cuban heritage, but I was born in the U.S. and my mother was born in Key West, Florida during the Depression. And that makes us — Americans!
Andres Serrano 'Selected Works, 1984-2015' is on view through April 2017 at The School in Kinderhook, NY.