Andres Serrano

Luther, the lumbering Dalmatian, meanders across the hardwood floor, nails clicking, and vies with me for the attention of Andres Serrano. How could I be jealous? A sweet beast with mischievous eyes, Luther has the run of Serrano’s private sanctum and is most likely oblivious to the religious figures, dark red velvet, and stuffed Siamese cat that captivate me the instant I walk into the apartment. One might expect that the home of an artist of Serrano’s caliber would be a refuge from the otherwise surreal and penetrating images that find their way onto film and into galleries and museums throughout the world. But the space is a reflection of Serrano’s art, simple yet deeply symbolic, minimal yet richly textured. Luther gets a handful of doggy treats and settles onto the floor, spread belly up and vulnerable. Serrano himself settles into interview mode, cautious and guarded, perhaps a reaction to years of media attention of his challenging and iconoclastic work that has been both hailed as visionary and derided as blasphemous. There is little small talk, and Serrano answers questions like a man who has been interrogated too many times for a crime he didn’t even know existed. I try desperately to avoid the word “controversial.” Luther, needless to say, is the most comfortable creature in the room.

I’ve been chasing Serrano for weeks, both physically and mentally. For a man who is so ravenously sought after, he is exceedingly generous with his time, but actually connecting with him is an exercise in guile and will. After numerous false starts and ample miscommunication, one becomes accustomed to the fact that Serrano is elusive, and perhaps he needs to be. Few contemporary artists can incense the public the way Serrano has over the past two decades. His compelling, often shocking work has raised the ire of religious groups and conservative politicians, most notably (or infamously) with Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix submerged in urine that touched off a flurry of debate about public funding for the arts in the 1980s. Serrano continues to use figures in his photography that jar the senses, and although many critics have misinterpreted his work as perverse and misguided, the furor has only helped to elevate his reputation as one of our most important and lauded contemporary artists.
But to characterize Serrano as an artist whose sole purpose is to agitate the mainstream would be to devalue his purpose for creating his work. Instead, Serrano sees the subjects he chooses to photograph—the Ku Klux Klan, bodies in a morgue, homeless people, drug addicts—as symbols to be manipulated and reinterpreted. Controversy is merely an added, albeit unwelcome, by-product. In fact, he feels it has made him stronger as an artist. Serrano explains, “The one thing that controversy has done for me is that it has made me feel empowered in the sense that I had done work that had not intended to be provocative, but having gone through what I went through, I was able to come out of it alive and continue to do my work. I have always felt the need to look inward for what I need to do as an artist and to put everything else in the background.”

The central themes of Serrano’s images—race, religion, politics, and sex—are revisited in his most recent series, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” on view at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City (through June 29). The photographs are what Serrano dubs “visions and obsessions” that are culled from our collective unconscious. Although loosely based on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Serrano stresses that the landmark book was merely a jumping-off point for a deeper investigation of our fantasies and our fears. “I started to read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams because obviously I borrowed the title. I got halfway past the introduction, maybe 20 pages. But I stopped because I didn’t want the work to be a textbook representation of his theories.”

The portraits are more prominently influenced by concepts Serrano remembers from his childhood, growing up with a single mom in working-class Brooklyn, in the shadow of the dizzying prosperity of post-World War II America. “This show seems to be a reflection of my life as a baby boomer. A lot of the ideas present are things I saw on TV or read about in the late 1950s and early 1960s growing up in New York City.” Serrano, however, did not lead what most consider to be an idyllic childhood, cushioned from the harsh realities of existence.

Growing up as a minority (his mother is of Cuban descent, his absent father was Honduran), coupled with the fact that his mother suffered psychotic episodes throughout his childhood, injected Serrano with empathy for the disenfranchised and gave him a glimpse of what it meant to be an outsider. “[My childhood] put me in tune with the other side. It made me feel something for people who are not like us,” reveals Serrano. “My nature is to root for the underdog, to understand the bad guys and the villains.” Thus, the strangely hypnotic photographs were not created to level sweet nostalgia on his contemporaries. Instead, they realign the soft, warm notions of security and reflect a darker, perhaps more sinister, aesthetic. The deconstruction of such icons as Santa Claus, Cowboys and Indians, and Elvis Presley weigh heavily in the series. Serrano explains, “The thing about my work is that it’s not art about art, it’s art about reality. Really, my concerns are America’s concerns. Even though we may not all think and look alike, having lived through a certain generation gives you some sort of connection.” The subject matter, however familiar and realistic, is also deeply challenging and provocative.

Popular culture has emblazoned the archetypal figure of Santa Claus in our minds as a white, cherubic, wholesome man who oozes goodness and conjures up images of prosperity and safety. With Black Santa, Serrano confronts the viewer with perceptions of race and the way the reversal of roles changes the meaning of an image. “When you put a black person in an image, it makes it something else. The first time I did the Santa picture, I used a white model, but the photo didn’t work. I tried it for a second time with a black model with a white wig and a white beard. That was just a black person dressed up as a white person. For the final image, I used a black model without the hair and wig who had a raw energy to him.”

Serrano envisioned a “Santa of the streets,” a character wholly unlike that of our traditional mythology. “I found a man eating sitting on the sidewalk,” Serrano remembers. “It was obvious that he lived on the street a good part of time. I wanted the kind of person who has the character that is built on living a hard life. I liked the irony of my Santa who has nothing to give but himself.” Similarly, Killer uses a benign childhood symbol of a clown to corrupt feelings of innocence and safety. Clutching a bloody knife with a cold, menacing glare, the clown, like the black Santa, toys with our conceptions of what can be trusted and what must be feared. Serrano further explains, “I was thinking specifically of John Wayne Gacy. My clown is the kind of guy who you should fear because you don’t know what’s lurking behind the mask.”

Cowboys and Indians clearly dates the photographer as a baby boomer, when westerns were sacred metaphors of good versus evil, reflecting our Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union in an attempt to simplify an ideological divide. Here, the Native American stands imperious over the cowboy, ready to strike. It is a departure from the racist view that was prevalent in the majority of depictions of Native Americans at the time. “My recollection of the westerns is that the Indian was killed for his own good and the good of the white man,” says Serrano. “I wanted the Indian in this image to be the dominant figure.” In keeping with his empathy for the outsider, Serrano does not portray the Native American as some “noble savage” but rather as a grandiose figure, heroically battling down repression.

One of the most striking photographs of the series is Lorrie and Dorrie, a portrait of the famous conjoined twins lavished in royal robes, evoking a sense of majesty and theater. In discussing the twins, Serrano asserts, “I obviously didn’t invent them. Most of the images in the series I conjured up in my imagination. Lorrie and Dorrie are real, but they’re also fantastic enough and unique enough that they’re dreamlike and like a fantasy. When I met them, I was in awe of standing in front of one of God’s creatures who looked like nothing else I’d ever seen before.” The twins are consummate outsiders, and Serrano seems genuinely moved by their passions and ambitions. The unusual dynamic of the twins’ relationship to each other helped Serrano frame the context of the photograph. “Lorrie, who’s on the right, is taller and is bending over, almost subservient to Dorrie, who’s the little queen. In reality, it really is like that. Lorrie is very protective of Dorrie, who wants to be a country singer and treats her like a star.” Serrano, in capturing a bizarre yet beautiful image, asks the viewer to look beyond the twins’ physical condition to see the peculiar as something extraordinary.

Piercing the relative quiet of the kitchen is Luther’s howl, signaling that the dog has had enough of the interrogation. I try to throw a few follow-up questions to Serrano, but Luther’s protests confirm they will have to wait for another day. I casually ask about where Luther came from. “I really had no desire to have a Dalmatian,” confesses Serrano. “I went to the ASPCA looking for a Dracula dog. But this guy just spoke to me. I bonded with him, and so he came home. He’s got the run of the place, but I had to put a gate up in the bedroom because he’s been known to rip things up.” Luther knowingly looks up at me and laps his goofy tongue across his nose seemingly to say, How can I be chastised for shredding a few pillows when this guy is tearing up conventions? I nod in wholehearted agreement. Smart dog, this Luther.

James A. Cotter is a writer from Montclair, New Jersey. He is a frequent writer for Photo Insider, PDN, and d Culture.

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