f you are looking for art to shock, inspire, and make you think, look no further than Andres Serrano. Serrano’s vivid and often vulgar color photographs push the boundaries of a range of social issues and taboos, including racism, religious persecution, homelessness, torture, death, and bodily fluids.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Biography of Andres Serrano
- 2 Andres Serrano’s Photography: Tracing his Artistic Development Through his Collections
- 3 Where Can You Find Andres Serrano’s Photography?
The Biography of Andres Serrano
We can see the influence of Serrano’s cultural and religious background in his subject matter choices. His experiences throughout his early childhood and adulthood had a profound influence on his artistic expression.
Young Andres Serrano
Serrano was born as the only child in an Afro-Cuban and Honduran household in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1950. When he was still young, Serrano’s father returned to Honduras, abandoning the family. Raised by his Catholic mother, Serrano took holy communion at the age of eight and completed his confirmation at 12 year’s old. Serrano’s artistic aesthetic and world view take profound influence from the rituals and religious iconography of the Catholic church.
Serrano first encountered paintings from the Baroque and Renaissance periods on a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the use of religious iconography in particular that captured his fascination. With his mind set on pursuing art as a career, Serrano left high school at age 15 to attend the Brooklyn Museum Art school, where he trained in sculpture and painting.
Despite his studies, Serrano did not work as an artist for several years. When he left school, Serrano lived in the run-down but vibrant neighborhood of the East Village. Many musicians, artists, and filmmakers lived in here. This neighborhood was also the epicenter of New York City’s drug culture, and Serrano fell into selling and using drugs for several years.
The Start of Serrano’s Shocking Career
After leaving the world of drugs behind in the early 1980s, Serrano participated in a few collective exhibitions in the East Village. Serrano began to show his work more consistently and finally had his first solo exhibition in 1985 at the Leonard Perlson Gallery. Following this, from 1986 to 1987, Serrano had a two-year show at the Stux Gallery. The Stux Gallery was the first to exhibit Serrano’s Piss Christ, his most infamous photograph. With funding from the National Endowment for Arts, this exhibition hoisted Serrano into the international spotlight during the ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s.
Andres Serrano at the 25th Anniversary party of Michael Musto writing for The Village Voice; Andres_Serrano_and_Irina_Movmyga_2010_Shankbone.jpg: David Shankbonederivative work: RanZag, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Andres Serrano’s Photography: Tracing his Artistic Development Through his Collections
Throughout his career, Serrano has taken thousands of photographs, reflecting society’s most shamed taboos. We can see the development of his photographic style through some of his most infamous collections.
Serrano’s style is predominantly large-format photography without any digital manipulation. The idea behind Serrano’s work is to let the subject matter speak for itself. Infused with his Roman Catholic upbringing, Serrano’s photographs are rich with religious iconography. Serrano’s training in painting and sculpture is also evident in his Renaissance-style photography.
His use of immersive light, careful and precise composition and saturated color is testament to his artistic training.
This collection is the one that propelled Andres Serrano to fame. These photographs feature plastic figures submerged in bodily fluids like urine, blood, and breast milk.
Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is the most well-known piece from this collection and is arguably his most controversial piece to date. The image features a small figurine of crucified Christ immersed in Serrano’s own urine. This piece caused great offense to many throughout the world, thrusting Serrano to the center of debates surrounding censorship and the public funding of controversial art. Alfonse D’Amato publically denounced Serrano in the American Senate in response to this photo. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ has been revoked, damaged, and censored many times.
As a Catholic, Serrano was reportedly confused at the outraged response to a work he views as a criticism of the commercialization and trivialization of religion and art by cheap plastic figures. For Serrano, the piece also offers a reflection of the cruelty faced by Christ in his last days and continues to thrive in our social world. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is, for him, a devotional Christian piece.
The Klan (1990)
Following the scandal of Piss Christ, Serrano found two members of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) in Georgia and took a series of photographs of them. This Renaissance-like series of photographs paint the dark side of American history poetically and beautifully. The portraits depict the two KKK members in their full apparel.
Serrano manages to combine the atmosphere of violence and death rightfully associated with the Klan with intriguing beauty. The photographs mirror something seen in a fashion magazine, and the mystery of the hoods and robes communicate the seduction of the Klan that even today lures people in.
Serrano faced many barriers in gaining access to the Klan members. His race and the Piss Christ scandal did not endear him to the Klan. Serrano reached the members through the Civil Liberties Union, an organization defending the rights of Klan members. Many in the Klan and beyond saw this series as a provocation while Serrano believed it to be a confrontation. As an outsider himself, Serrano saw the Klan members as outsiders too. Regardless of the stark racial tensions, he believes this to be a fundamental and fascinating similarity.
Objects of Desire (1992)
One of the reasons as to why Serrano’s photography is so powerful is how he presents the most hidden, shameful, dangerous, and ugly parts of society’s underbelly in a beautiful, almost romantic style. This contradiction saturates his 1992 photographic series titled Objects of Desire.
In this series of 12 photographs of loaded guns, Serrano captures the admiration for and beauty of guns to those that love them. Taking the name from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), a Bunuel film, Serrano tackles the obsession with guns that he saw around him in New Orleans. Several photos within the series look directly down the barrel of a gun, which is both haunting and intriguing. Serrano said he likes the idea of coming face to face with danger and looking directly into the eye of death. The view we get of these guns through these photographs is one we would never want to see in reality, and in some ways, it is hard to look away.
In this series, Serrano challenges us to consider our casual and desire-filled relationship with weapons that can so easily cause death and destruction.
The Morgue (1992)
In the late 1990s, Serrano’s focus shifted towards death and the way we relate to it. For most of us, death – particularly violent death – is painful and devastating, but quite a different side is captured in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue.
Serrano captures images that communicate a classical beauty, peace, and purity associated with death. The privacy of all subjects was preserved by covering their faces with cloth. The cloth coverings have echoes of Baroque paintings and add to the beauty of these images. The title of each photograph is the cause of death. Interestingly, while the subjects remain anonymous, they become identifiable only by the wounds of death. This feature almost strips them of their personhood, reflective, perhaps, of the soul leaving the body as they subdue to nothing more than death.
Many of the photographs in this series have a close-up focus on single body parts, unveiling the magnitude of their injuries. Perhaps the most profound images for us are the ones that capture facial fragments with open eyes and lips paling to blue. Looking into the eyes of death is particularly unarresting, quite literally looking death in the eyes and having it look right back. Andres Serrano’s the Morgue’s composition of limbs and solitary bodies captures the loneliness and dehumanization of death. Death is an inevitable part of life, like sex, pain, and defecation, but like these aspects of life, we rarely come face-to-face with it.
The History of Sex (1995-1996)
Using both conventional and unusual people, Serrano created a series exploring the range of human sexual expression. Serrano chose the subjects for their bravery and distinctiveness. To many, these photographs may be quite shocking as the subjects boldly act out their sexual preferences in front of the camera.
By placing people not typically represented as sexually desirable in popular media, including the disabled and elderly, Serrano challenges society’s sexual taboos. What do we consider to be acceptable sexual practices, and why? Serrano offers no answers, simply challenging us to introspect and consider where the line lies, if it exists at all, between the erotic and obscene.
The title of this series is a simple and effective descriptor of its subject matter. Once again, Andres Serrano is unflinching in his desire and ability to confront us with the parts of ourselves we would rather flush away. This series features 66 strangely stunning photographs of shit from bulls, dogs, jaguars, and Serrano himself.
For us, this series is emphatically metaphorical of his oeuvre as a whole, looking uncomfortably close at our shit. Our social shit, like our actual defecation, is never examined closely due to our perceptions of it being unsanitary, gross, and not worth our time. The homeless, poverty-stricken, mentally ill, and refugees are natural by-products of our way of life, and yet we cast them away as we do our shit. Despite our resistance to examining our naturally produced shit, there are members of our society who have to deal with it.
For Serrano, this series was about exploring and owning his own shit, and hopefully, encouraging others to do the same.
Serrano, whose mother was Cuban, always longed to visit Cuba himself. After waiting years for relations with Cuba to be normalized, he visited in 2012 and documented his trip. From the thousands of photographs he took, he created the Cuba series. These photographs capture Cuba in its entirety, from the rich to the dirt poor. Serrano wanted to capture the real Cuba, not the romanticization he had always seen in magazines. The Cuba that Serrano captures is gritty and authentic. There are no glorified colonial houses or people dancing and singing in the streets, but rather, there are people who live with dirt floors and broken walls.
Residents of New York (2014)
True to his challenging style, this photographic series by Serrano does not feature the glitz and glamor of the fast-paced life in New York City. The residents he captures are not the rich and famous, but the poor, destitute, and homeless. Serrano’s centralization of the homeless, who live beneath the radar of what we deem important and worthy, is confronting.
Rather than inviting the subject into his studio, Serrano captures them where they live, on the streets. These streets were also the exhibition setting for this series, with installations in Washington Square, LaGuardia Place, as well as kiosks and phone booths. Whether it is due to a lack of consideration or to the guilt we would rather ignore, we are all guilty of turning a blind eye to the suffering of those on the streets. The scale on which Serrano exhibited these works demands our recognition of these individuals, whether we want to sit with the discomfort it brings or not.
As part of his eternal quest to confront humanity with its cruellest parts, Serrano created the series Torture in 2015. Featuring authentic historical torture devices from throughout Europe, this series confronts us with our deep-seated and often suppressed ability to cause each other pain and suffering.
Some photographs present the torturous devices on their own, as evidential artifacts of our historical violence and cruelty. Others include actors with covered heads in tableaus vivant, bringing home the solitude, fear, and disregard for individual humanity.
Part of the series is that of a photograph featuring four hooded men. The men underneath the hoods are members of the Irish Republican Army held in torturous and hooded isolation for years after being arrested by the British police in the 1970s. These subjects bear testimony to the long-lasting pain and mental martyrdom that experiences of torture create.
The Game: All Things Trump (2018-2019)
Breaking away from pure photography for the first time, this multimedia installation features over 1000 objects related to perhaps the most infamous international leader of our generation, Donald Trump. The collection includes signed photographs and magazine covers, American flag boxing gloves, Trump merchandise, and newspaper articles documenting his presidency.
One possible reading of this collection is a complex portrait of Donald Trump, from his years as a cadet in the New York Military academy to his self-constructed personas as a reality TV star, tabloid sex symbol, master businessman, and leader of the ‘free’ world. The collection is underlain by a rock and roll soundtrack, placing Donald Trump and all he stands for firmly in the era of Baby Boomers.
Importantly, the collection emphasizes the extended time that this man has embedded himself and flourished in the American consciousness as the ultimate symbol of a twisted interpretation of the American Dream.
Not simply a portrait of Donald Trump, this collection, like a Rorschach test, reflects our own internal milieu. In his self-obsession and greed for fame and fortune, Donald Trump offers a mirror to American society’s obsession with power, wealth, celebrity, and glamour. The title inspires questions about the competition that underscores all aspects of our modern capitalist society, from politics to sport and even art.
Where Can You Find Andres Serrano’s Photography?
If you want to explore Andres Serrano’s art further, we suggest visiting his website here. On this site, you can find out about Serrano’s latest exhibitions and find several books and catalogs he has produced over the years. On his website, you can also view the photographs from all of the collections we have looked at in this article in addition to the many others he has produced throughout his illustrious career.
Nobody said art should be easy to view, and Andres Serrano’s art is certainly not. It is, however, important. The world we inhabit today is rife with things we would rather not consider, but if we fail to take heed and look at ourselves directly, we will only continue to perpetuate the horrors we ignore.