Visual Arts

Nomad's Land

The case of Andres Serrano, whose photographs are on view at the Bentley Gallery, suggests that your household variety of aversion doesn't get artists anywhere anymore; that it takes a downright revulsion to make their careers. Up until 1989, when his photograph "Piss Christ," depicting a crucifix immersed in two and a half gallons of ethereally lighted urine, became a sore subject around the United States Senate, Serrano's career had been on a gradual rise. A New York gallery was hustling his wares. He had received a couple of grants, and had been included in a score of group shows with such titles as "The Sacred and the Sacrilegious," "Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables," "Indigestion," "Female (Re)Production" and "Acts of Faith." Then North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms called him a "jerk . . . taunting the American people," and New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato denounced "Piss Christ" as "a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity."

Even Serrano has acknowledged that the good senators were the finest pitchmen he and his work are ever likely to have. Once the shouting died down, the only ringing in his ears was the "cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching" of the steadily increasing sales and prices of his works.

In the seven years since the controversy erupted, the asking price for the 45" x 65" version of "Piss Christ"--the edition is limited to four--has jumped from $3,600 to $65,000. The last of the four copies that Serrano produced is currently included in the Bentley Gallery's small show of Serrano's works.

"It's marked 'sold,'" says Aimee Linhoff, the gallery's director of photography (she did not select the works in this show), "but it's really Serrano's copy. And he will do what he wishes with it. I would assume that while he makes very good money, he would probably sell it if someone made him the right offer."

What the "right offer" might be is hard to predict. The art market is fickle, and notoriously leery of reputations that inflate, as Serrano's has, on the delicate balloon of political disputes, or at a young age--he is 46 now.

Serrano's case is complicated by the fact that the strength of his approach to making "Piss Christ" and his other bodily fluids photographs of the late 1980s has emerged as a weakness in the works he has done since.

Serrano is one of a growing breed of artists who have shed the traditional photographic faith in the eye as a decisive experiential sieve. In fact, the show's "Piss Christ," "Piss Light" and "Blood" suggest that his photographs don't begin in the eye at all, they begin in the mind. Like a two-part epoxy, the images jell with captions, solidifying into meanings that teeter between description and provocation.

Art magazines have portrayed Serrano as balancing the sacred and the profane. But once you strip away such self-serving art rhetoric, you really find him tiptoeing his art between political and commercial advertising. In that realm, the visual and audio glut has neutered the power of images and words to stand alone. So sound bites and eye bites are united to form hybrid slogans that command the mind.

This may explain why so many Fundamentalist Christians--accustomed as they are to accepting "The Word"--were so quick to say of those two simple words "Piss Christ" (apologies to Coca-Cola), "It's the Real Thing."

"What this Serrano fellow did," said Senator Helms, who has never seen the photo, "is he filled a bottle with his own urine and then stuck a crucifix down there--Jesus Christ on a cross. He set it up on a table and took a picture of it." Those who believe this would be surprised by the picture itself. There is no bottle visible, no whiff of urine. In fact, the picture is a close-up of a crucifix, showing no container edges at all. Aside from bubbles catching the light, it's difficult to see how urine has any part in the scene. It's even conceivable that the only piss is in the caption, and to think that the extraordinary orange-yellow atmosphere of the scene is the glow of resurrection.

But whose god is rising here? The ancient one who created the world in six days? Or a less reliable, modern one whose reality is created and re-created every other day by some artist in Brooklyn?

"Piss Christ" is less an assault on existing gods and icons than it is a reflection of Serrano's interest in creating new ones, and insisting that his reality is more persuasive, more real than any other.

The strength of his bodily fluid pictures stems from his control of every visible aspect of . . . well, his fluids. He framed the views of them and lighted them so precisely that the abstract power of their colors, interactions and patterns begins to suggest the discovery of an overlooked or hidden world.

Yet this same obsessive urge to insinuate himself and his reality into his photographs is the obvious weakness of his more recent portraits of American Indians and homeless people, which he calls Nomads.

Like "Piss Christ," the images are large, and they rely heavily on viewers' expectations for them, especially for the kinds of people they depict. But unlike his "fluid" photographs, there's a peculiar sameness and formula about his portraits. In his pictures of homeless people, for example, the lighting tends toward a dramatic Hollywood-blue. The figures are caught in profile. His shots of Indians show them looking off to the distance and the tone tends toward--what else?--red.

"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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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow