Andres Serrano at Yvon Lambert: New York and Paris

Cut the Crap

By: - Oct 17, 2008

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Andres Serrano "Shit"
New York; September 4 to October 4
Paris: September 12 to October 16, 2008
Yvon Lambert Gallery
550 West 21st Street
New York, New York

           In the dimly lit space of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea, simultaneously with its other venue in Paris, there was an installation of super scaled, digital prints of various formations of excrement. Or at least so it appeared. Perhaps the shock artist, Andres Serrano, who has made a career of assaulting the senses, uses some materials with similar color and texture to sculpt and then photograph these formations.

            If he is using the real materials, as in the past employing urine, blood, and semen, one might imagine working in a rather stinking studio. What might the neighbors say?

           Not that the use of human waste is new or unique in the field of fine arts. There are the famous "Cans of the Artist's Shit" created in 1961 by the Italian, avant-garde, artist Piero Manzoni. There was an installation for the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston where Mike Kelly created an illusion of shit smeared on the wall. It was a reference to a strategy of Irish Republican Army soldiers  in Britiain who demanded to be treated as Prisoners of War. They protested by refusing to wear prison uniforms, wrapping themselves in blankets, and fouling their nest.

               During an interview with Cindy Sherman I asked how she created the illusion of vomit in her work. It was surprising to hear her candid response that what appeared to be vomit entailed the contents of a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

             There is a long history of the scatological in the arts. Perhaps the most important instance was the first word of  Alfred Jarry's 1896 play "Ubu Roi."  The actor shouts at the audience "Merde." Apparently, a riot ensued and it is now a tradition when the play is performed, as it was in a rock musical version at the American Repertory Theatre, that the audience pelts the actors with fruits and vegetables. All in good fun like an avant-garde, midnight screening of the "Rocky Horror Show."

               But is this latest exhibition by Andres Serrano (Born Cuba, 1950) really intended as good natured fun and games? Or is it yet another instance of his deadly serious strategy to shock audiences? Is he simply sustaining the controversy that occurred with his image "Piss Christ" (1987) a crucifix immersed in the artist's urine and then photographed.  Along with performance artist, Karen Finley, and the deceased photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, the works of Serrano were denounced as obscene from the floor of the U.S. Senate.  The three artists had been awarded grants from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. It led to a resolution that ended individual grants to artists.

                       Not that Serrano has needed such support since the controversy surrounding "Piss Christ" made him a household word representing, for the average Americans, everything that was terribly wrong about tax payers supporting art that violated common sense, family values, and decency. In 1999, a print from the "Piss Christ" edition sold for $162, 000 at auction.

                 The work of Serrano first came to my attention in a group exhibition "Fact, Fiction, Fragment, Fetish" at the Stux Gallery in Boston in 1986. The images, which seemed bold and tough at the time, included a Coyote being lynched, a pile of beef hearts forming a hill topped by a crucifix. One image "Heaven and Hell" depicted two figures. On the left was a bound, nude woman with blood splashed over her body, and, on the right, a Cardinal in scarlet robes. The Cardinal was the artist Leon Golub who posed for the image. At the time, it seemed this was an artist to keep an eye on.

               It proved to be one of the last exhibitions in Stux Boston before Stefan and Linda departed for New York. For a time, they maintained operations in both cities but soon closed the Boston venue. Later, when Stux enjoyed the short lived boom of the late 80's, Stefan delighted in taking visitors on a tour of a labyrinth of spaces on two floors of Soho galleries. There was a room devoted to Serrano who was among the top sellers for the gallery as well as the Starn Twins,  and Lawrence Carroll.

                Following the controversy of "Piss Chris," and a series of  religious artifacts immersed then photographed in urine, Serrano went on to use blood as well as images of his ejaculation. It was amusing to hear Stefan describe the challenge of that work. Andres has to "Come and shoot at the same time."  Presumably, there was only one such opportunity on a daily basis, so it would take time and patience to create a body of work.

              Serrano and Stux parted ways and the artist went on to create series that involved portraits of the homeless, the Ku Klux Klan, stiffs in the morgue (a subject in the work of photographer Joel Peter Witkin), and the memorable sex show at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. Of course Jeff Koons had previously shown explicit self portraits with his former wife, the porn star, Cicciolina. Sex sells. For Koons as well as Serrano.

               One might wax moral and indignant about all this. To deplore the devolving of contemporary art into piles of crap at impressive scale with big prices. But there is some irony to the notion that it is a tough job and somebody has to do it. There is a role and need for bad boys and girls to push the limits. To tweak the nose of the bourgeois. But if there was something outrageous and memorable about Jarry and Manzoni the work of Serrano seems obvious and predictable. It might be used to make a case for the excess of the contemporary art world and a symptom of the Rise and Fall of the American Empire. A culture that wallows in such decadence would appear to be doomed. But such an argument would unduly empower and dignify the artist.

              Were Serrano just another struggling artist we would take little or no notice of this work. Truly, who really gives a ______? But, again, it is the enormous scale, and superb production values, to say nothing of simultaneously showing with a prestigious gallery in New York and Paris, that induces this dialogue. Serrano shoves it in our face, so to speak, and forces us to deal with his... Perhaps, the interesting question involves just who would buy this work? Can you imagine these images on the elegant walls of  mega rich collectors? Certainly it would be a conversation piece for their sophisticated guests. The Museum of Modern Art owns and displays an example of Manzoni's can of shit, and rightly so. It is a masterpiece of the 20th century avant-garde. But it may be a stretch to ratchet up Serrano to that level. Art history may remember Serrano for a single work "Piss Christ." After that, well, it was all a pile of crap.