Nomad's Land

"Piss Christ" artist Andres Serrano takes aim at portraiture

"The Nomads are so strong," says Glen Lineberry, the gallery's director and curator of this show, "because Serrano forces us to look at people we've taught ourselves not to look at. And he has found in what most people would not describe as beautiful the dignity and beauty of these human beings." Serrano has said the same about his images. But such talk is nonsense.

Serrano's pictures of homeless "nomads" Mary and Gussie, and Navajos Paul Yazzie and Lyndell Yazzie, have the stark anonymity of stereotypes. They are less about human dignity than they are about his own view of what he and upper-middle-class art patrons see as exotic. Above all, they are about Serrano exerting his power over other people.

Lineberry says that to photograph the Nomads, Serrano and "a flying column of assistants worked the subways in New York. Two of them would hold up the backdrop and two of them would help with the lights." Serrano would position his subjects, take the shots and someone would hand the homeless sitters their modeling fee, which Aimee Linhoff says is typically $10 an hour (the fee paid to the American Indians in his pictures was $50). People who helped Serrano make the pictures of the American Indians here in Phoenix last year were mystified when Serrano asked why the skin colors of his subjects weren't darker, more weathered.

"A couple of times, he wanted them to change into costumes that they just considered to be inappropriate," says one source.

"His preconceptions about what the Indians should look like seem to have been based on cowboy movies and Edward Curtis' pictures," says another. Missing from Serrano's portraits is the subtle improvisation that occurs between good photographers and their subjects. Rooted in empathy, this basic give-and-take is between individuals, not between what Serrano so clearly sees as stereotypical groups or classes of people. This one-on-one exchange not only allows a photographer to see sitters with a fresh eye, it encourages sitters to assert themselves, and to connect with someone who, fundamentally, is trying to catch them. This, rather than in the ad-campaign approach that Serrano has taken, is where dignity emerges.

Whether Serrano will ever open his eyes to that remains to be seen.

Photographs by Andres Serrano are on view through Saturday, December 7, at Bentley Gallery, 4161 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale. For more details, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.

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