There are very few art pieces that deal with a topic of human nature so profoundly as Andres Serrano’s shocking photographs. Throughout his career, the artist who has become known for creating beautiful, even stunning pictures from vulgar and repulsive materials such as urine, semen, and excrement, explored every form of human behavior and every piece of human body he could possibly think of. The unique, almost alchemic blend of bodily fluids enabled the artist to turn cow's blood into clouds and sea, menstrual pads into religious icons, and milk and seamen into images of a breaking down. The New York-born artist shocked art experts and audience alike with both his choice of materials and subjects as corpses, homeless people, and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members found their way into his art. Renowned for a passionate body of work that challenges artistic and societal boundaries, Andres Serrano oeuvre has become almost synonymous with shock art and brought him legions of fans around the globe including members of the heavy metal band Metallica who hired him to create cover art for their 1990s albums Load and ReLoad.
Andres Serrano first drew attention to himself with a series of shocking art pieces created with the use of plastic figures and bodily fluids, most notoriously with his 1987 photo entitled Piss Christ that remains his most famous and controversial work to date. As its name implies, the photo shows a small scale figure of a Christ on a crucifix submerged in a Plexiglas tank full of artist’s urine. Is this disturbing art? Maybe. Provocative? Definitely. Offensive? Many seem to think so. The photograph was revoked, censored and damaged several times (most recently in Avignon) and it was even removed from Associated Press' archive following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. A devoted catholic himself, Andres Serrano was surprised with the negative and anti-religious meaning that was attributed to his work. Being thought that the plastic representations of religious subjects don’t deserve the respect of the real sacred figures, the artist created Piss Christ to question (and mock) the trivialization and commercialization of both religion and art through overproduction of cheap souvenirs. The picture also contains religious elements as it draws attention to the ordeals that Jesus Christ had to pass in his final days. The photo is a part of a larger Immersions series in which the artist submerged many religious and cultural figures in bodily fluids such as urine, blood or human milk. Unsurprisingly, Piss Christ caused instant public outrage but also started a conversation about the tension between religious feelings and freedom of artistic expression that’s still very much alive today.
Having become known for testing the limits of freedom of expression, the artist used his newfound fame to create another highly controversial series of photographs. In 1990s, Andres Serrano took several photos of two Ku Klux Klan members in their recognizable costumes. The artist reached the Klan members through Civil Liberties Union that defended the rights of KKK at the time and produced a series of images that dealt with the dark side of the American history that continues to persist even today. The photographer located two Klan members in Georgia and took their portraits in their full KKK apparel (white hoods and robes included) thus creating a photography series that critics described as „a menacing image of evil that is also disturbingly beautiful.“ Drawing from the areas as versatile as advertising and fashion the KKK series by the prolific artist simultaneously evokes the atmosphere of death and violence, but also contains a touch of beauty and the seductive force of a Klan that (even in the 21st century) still manages to lure people into joining it.
In mid 90s, the now famed artist used both ordinary and unusual characters to depict the versatility of human sexuality. The subjects were chosen for their distinctiveness and guts as most of them stood proudly and almost heroically enacted their sexual preferences for the artist and his camera. In order to portray the complexity of sexual desires at any day and age, the artist used numerous people whose sexuality is often overlooked by the society such as the elderly and the disabled. By placing these subjects into seductive, and at times pornographic poses, the artist questions different forms of human sexuality, walking the line between erotic art and pornography. Though shocking to some, the photographs are not meant to disturb but simply to ask the question of what is normal sexual behavior and what is obscene, disgusting and perverted? Like many great masters before him, Andres Serrano simply imposes questions with his works and lives it up to the viewers to discover the answers.
Death became the prime focus of Andres Serrano’s works in the late nineties when he created The Morgue, a series of photos that deals with the notion of death and our relationship with it. The very concept of death is sad and devastating for most, but pictures of the New York photographer offer a different perspective on the issue. Images created with the permission of the morgue where they were taken, emanate purity and almost classical beauty rarely associated with death. The artist ensured the anonymity of his subjects by covering their faces with pieces of cloth which resulted in a series of photos highly reminiscent of the Baroque paintings. Though appealing and beautiful at first glance, the artworks become truly disturbing as soon as the viewers notice their titles. The cause of death of every subject is contained in each photograph’s title, so we can see images of dead babies entitled Child Abuse or Fatal Meningitis and a photo of a butchered women entitled Knifed to Death. Through extreme close-ups and careful application of light, the artist manages to capture the colors of death as his subjects' faces (particularly lips) fade to pale or bluish tones. Other photos focus on the subjects' hands and legs thus revealing the intensity of the injuries that lead to their death. At the same time captivating and incredibly unsettling the photographs not only capture the fragility of our existence but more conspicuously, the loneliness closely related to the phenomenon of death.
Andres Serrano's beautiful and disturbing photography reaches within to depict the believes that shape us and the desires that guide us. It shows the darker sides of our society and reminds us all of the tragedy of death. While always causing equal amounts of outrage and admiration, Andres Serrano's photos never fail to shock and provoke the ones faced with them. Sex, death, and violence will always raise eyebrows but also a discussion about why it is so unusual to see blood, urine or sexual acts in the gallery space. It's not like we haven't seen them before! And is the artist's obsession with these motifs truly disturbing or just plain human? Think about that while you scroll through the selected Andres Serrano's images bellow.
Featured images : Andres Serrano - Semen and Blood III, 1990, via huffintonpost.com ; Left : Andres Serrano - Klanswoman Grand Klaliff, 1990 / Right : Andres Serrano - Madonna on the Rocks, 1987 ; Photo copyrights: all images via saatchigallery.com unless otherwise credited
New York City, United States of America