s I walked into his New York City apartment, I had to catch my breath. I thought to myself: “Have I just been transported into a Medieval church in Europe?” The dark wood of pre-17th century Italian, Spanish, German, French, English, and Flemish furniture surrounded me everywhere. I took a seat on the-old world Italian bench and marveled at the collection of antique mirrors, religious paintings and sculptures that loomed over me.
I was about to interview a contemporary artist who has been called an “anti-Christ,” and whose work has been slandered as being “blasphemous” and “sacrilegious,” yet his apartment is overflowing with religious memorabilia. Ironic, isn’t it?
When he was 8 years old Andres Serrano and his family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “It was an Italian neighborhood. I started going to religious instruction to prepare for my communion, and then later my confirmation. I was raised a religious catholic, and I’ve been a Christian all my life,” he explains. So why the notorious reputation? Well, let’s take a look at his work.
Serrano studied painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. “After school I realized I couldn’t really paint or sculpt,” he says. At the time he was living with a girl who owned a camera, and he quickly picked up photography. “I always see myself as an artist who chose to use a camera instead of a paintbrush. I don’t like to be called a photographer. No, I’m an artist who happens to use the medium of photography as my art practice,” he explains.
He started by dabbling with street photography, but over the past 25 years he has (unintentionally) gained an international reputation as one of the most controversial contemporary artists of today. Growing up in the no frills, concrete jungle has certainly influenced Serrano’s artwork. “I feel I am a product of New York City. It’s a certain kind of person, a certain kind of attitude. As a New Yorker I make work that is quite simple and easy to read, and direct. Those are very New York characteristics… being to the point,” he says. Through his portraits Andres Serrano acts as an outside witness to the events unfolding around him. Despite his intention to keep his work simple, much of it has come under the scrutiny of the public eye, and often people apply a meaning to it that never existed.
In 1987 he created Piss Christ, a red and yellow photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. The work was debuted at the Stux Gallery in New York City, and then went on tour as part of the show “Awards in the Visual Arts 7,” for which he received a $15,000 fellowship. Controversy ensued.
Twenty-five years later it still causes uproar. At a retrospective at the Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria in Australia in 1997 the photograph was removed from the wall and kicked. In 2011 it was permanently damaged by Catholic fundamentalists in France who attacked it with hammers. And in 2012 Christian New Yorkers protested the photograph outside of the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery where it was being exhibited.
The photograph was met with outrage and disgust, but it was never Serrano’s intention to stir up controversy, the artist insists. “A lot of times my work is purposely misconstrued or misused, particularly by right wing conservative religious people, or far right politicians. The people that come after me have their own agenda. It benefits them to stay ignorant where my work is concerned and to use me as a political football,” he says.
The heated reactions he received for Piss Christ did not discourage Serrano from continuing his work. On the contrary, his subsequent projects continue to feature the most provocative, disconcerting subjects. “I see my work as a mirror. You might not see me in it, but you’ll see yourself in it, and how you react to the work depends on you,” he says.
In the early 1990’s, in his unsettling series titled The Morgue, Andres Serrano photographed dead people, challenging the viewer to think about his or her relationship with death. He placed cloths over the faces of the corpses he photographed so they would remain unidentified. The photographs are difficult to look at, yet there is elegance in their stillness that is hard to deny.
Then there was the project in which he photographed the members of the Ku Klux Klan, the infamous secret organization of White Protestant Americans living in the South, who terrorize and use violence against Black people, Jewish people, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups. “[After The Nomads] I wanted to do a different kind of portrait. I thought, if someone had a mask, that would be different. I immediately thought of the Klan,” he says. The portraits of these masked Klansmen and women are bone chilling. The figures sit confidently. In one shot a Klansman boldly stares out at the viewer, in another he menacingly turns his head towards us. The white masks of the figures glow when set against the black backdrop, and it seems as if Serrano is glorifying this notorious group of people.
“Whether it’s dead people or the Ku Klux Klan, whatever I photograph I try to make beautiful. The controversy comes when I deal with issues and things that are not seen as beautiful, but to me, that is my role as an artist, to make it beautiful no matter what it is,” says Serrano.
Most recently he has been focusing his attention on the homeless people living on the streets of New York. After Bloomberg left office, Serrano explains that he began to notice a significant increase in the number of homeless people he would see on the streets on a daily basis. He embarked on a project in which he would offer homeless people $20.00 for the cardboard signs they use asking passersby for money. Each sign told a different story. They read things like, “Obama doesn’t accept change but I do!,” “Need a miracle,” and “Giving is easy, asking is hard.” Some were humorous, others serious and sad; some were written by war veterans, others by pregnant women desperate for money and hungry for food.
“I bought over one hundred signs,” he says. “I walked every day. I never took the train. Sometimes I walked thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred blocks a day looking for signs.” He gathered the signs and with them created a video titled “Signs of the Times.” The voice of Martin Luther King Jr. rings in the background.
He was also recently asked by MoreArt to create an installation that was on view at the West 4th Street subway station. He photographed over 100 homeless people living on the streets of New York City. Before taking their portrait, however, Andres Serrano established a relationship with each and every subject. He asked for permission to photograph them and paid them in exchange for their time. “Someone would come along while we were setting up and start taking pictures, and more then once the homeless person would turn around and say, ‘Hey, hey! This isn’t a free ride, we’re working here. I’m getting paid, I’m working here,” recalls Serrano. He used the name of the individual photographed as the title of each large-scale portrait.
Serrano’s work often addresses provocative themes such as sex, poverty, religion, violence and death, but the artist maintains that despite people’s misconceptions, he has many interests that are not controversial. For instance, last Easter he did a story for the New York Times Magazine on the Angora bunny. “It was a big hit,” he says. “I would love to photograph bunnies and kittens, but no one’s expecting it from me. Because of who I am, and because of my reputation, anything I do can be seen in a sinister way, but it’s not meant to be.”
Andres Serrano is now preparing for a trip to Europe, and for what will be the largest exhibition of his artistic career thus far. From March 18th – August 21st, 2016 Serrano’s most symbolic photographs will be on view at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Included in the exhibition are portraits from his new series titled “Denizens of Brussels,” in which he photographs the homeless people of Brussels.
As for what the distant future holds, Serrano hopes to some day work on a project for the church. “I would love to appeal to Pope Francis. I want his blessing. I’m tired of people maligning me and calling me kinds of horrible things and calling me an anti-Christian bigot when it’s far from the truth. I am a Christian. I don’t like being attacked as the devil, or anti-Christ when I’m not. After all these years some people still want to believe that I’m the bad guy,” he says.