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Art History of Andres Serrano

Updated on May 28, 2012

Piss Christ

Andres Serrano’s most controversial piece titled "Piss Christ".
Andres Serrano’s most controversial piece titled "Piss Christ".

Andres Serrano


Andres Serrano, born in 1950 in New York, is a controversial, often misunderstood artist. The unique and controversial images he displays arouse an interest in his work. He has an extreme view and portrayal of subjects and images found within his portfolio. He is fascinated with the various aspects of the human body. Serrano’s images often have multiple meanings. He has intended for the viewer to interpret his works as they please, and if they do not like what they see he really does not care.

The content of much of Serrano’s work is quite controversial, as well as the medium used to create the pieces. For example, he has used bodily fluids and rotting flesh in the past, as a medium to create some of his artwork. He is fascinated with the portrayal of death, sex, and war. He sees beauty in situations that many others find vulgar and offensive. He thrives upon displaying reality and truth, as he sees it. He truly has a style that is unique, and has shown that he will not conform to the masses.

The images Serrano creates are found in the form of photographs that he labels as pure and untouched. He does not use special effects or tricks to alter his images, after or during the exposure of the images. What is seen by the viewer is what was photographed; what Serrano saw through the cameras, the viewer sees in the finished product. He sees himself as a traditional photographer. He finds it important that the effects in his artwork are real, because as he says, when they are real they are better. While his creations are always real, he does use makeup and props for his art, but no tricks.

The controversy of Serrano’s artwork began when one million letters were mailed by the American Family Association condemning his work Piss Christ, which was created in 1987. This image depicted a plastic commercialized version of Christ hanging on the cross, while being sprayed and soaked with Serrano’s urine. This image was labeled as blasphemous by religious groups as well as by congress. Serrano claimed that the piece was not intended to portray blasphemy, but was a way for him to connect and personalize with God. This is the piece that made Serrano famous.

When attempting to interpret Serrano’s work, he encourages an open mind and the need to consider alternative reasoning. As with Piss Christ, the community immediately became outraged at the blasphemous idea of the art. It is personally easy to interpret the image seen in that same close-minded degrading way, until one considers other possible interpretations. As Serrano stated,

“So let us suppose that the picture is meant as a criticism of the billion dollar Christ-for-profit industry and the commercialization of spiritual values that permeates our society. That it is a condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends (Bjelajac, 2005, p. 457)”.

The perspective Serrano gives regarding Piss Christ changes the outlook or interpretation of the piece greatly. This is a reminder that when exploring art one must delve into the piece, considering the multiple options the artist may have intended. Often with artwork, the art piece is completely mysterious, needing interpretation from the viewer without input from the artist. It is often beneficial to visualize a piece of artwork before delving into the title and intended meaning.

The title of Piss Art labels the image exactly as it is. There is no doubt about the subject when the title is known. The image itself has muted lines. The outline of Christ is the center focal point of the piece. The view is coherent and flowing. There is not a lot of contrast, and the hues used remain in the same color spectrum. It is visually appealing. This work is positioned asymmetrically, adding dimension to the piece. This piece definitely evokes emotion from the viewer. They must overcome the usage of bodily fluids as a medium and decide if the image is appealing or not regardless of the label.

The title of a piece of artwork often gives the viewer an outlook or insight into the interpretation. Considering Piss Christ, the name is what makes the image most controversial. A name that did not reveal the origin of being urine would allow the viewer to see the image without knowing what medium was used. There is a big difference between the use of urine as opposed to something less controversial, such as the use of water. The viewer forms a response and opinion from the title even before viewing the image. At the moment the title is given, the potential beauty and interest is completely gone for many.

Piss Christ is not the only controversial religious piece that Serrano has created. Heaven and Hell created in 1984 depicts a female body next to a Roman Catholic priest. This image showing the woman bound, naked, and bleeding is not a passive statement. The story behind the image began with the beliefs of the Catholic Church. The church believes that women should not be ordained into the priesthood. This piece addresses that frame of mind.

Rev. Roy Bourgeois, the priest who initiated the controversial ceremony allowing women into the priesthood, faces excommunication for doing so. Serrano captures the meaning and feeling of Bourgeois regarding the situation. Bourgeois stated, “Who are we as men to say that we are called by God to the ministry of priesthood, but women are not? (Simplistic Art, 2008)” This is a graphic display of how Serrano feels about the situation.

Heaven and Hell regards another controversial religious genre. The title of the piece adds to the extremity and drama of the meaning implied. The image is symmetrical; the man in his formal red cloak mirrors the tortured woman. The use of the color red found in regards to the blood of the woman and the robes of the man stand out as the focus of the piece. There is a dark contrast of the background, resembling a storm in the heavens. The full effect is found as the woman hangs bleeding in agony, while the man turns away with an arrogant smirk upon his face. The image evokes anger towards the Catholic Church.

One may consider the images created out of bodily fluids to be grotesque, but many are the opposite. Serrano’s images of blood, urine, and semen are unique and intriguing. An example of this unexpected result is found in Semen and Blood II. This piece has flowing lines that contrast in color between the blood and the background. There is a distinct texture, look, and portrayal of flowing lines, which would be difficult to achieve with other mediums such as a brush and canvas.

The use of Serrano’s images in society and commercially is more mainstream than many may realize. Many people see the images Serrano creates and do not even realize what they are looking at. As an example, when looking at the Metallica album covers Load, and Relaod, it is easy to view the image as aesthetically appealing. There is a nice flow of lines and blending of colors. One may not realize that they are viewing Blood and Semen III on the cover of Load. To form this image “Serrano pressed a mixture of his own semen and bovine blood between sheets of plexiglass (Metallica Timeline, 1996)”.

The image on the cover of Metallica’s album Reload was Serrano’s work titled Piss and Blood. This artwork was created by Serrano, of course for all of his intents and purposes. However, these ideas collided and resonated with the ideas and feelings of the band at the time. The album’s cover was chosen for its meaning to the band. The bands drummer, Lars Ulrich discussed the reasoning of this artwork for use on the album. He said, "We've nearly killed each other and others around us when we've made records before. I think we all felt that we wanted to see if we could come out of this somewhat alive (Metallica Timeline, 1996)".

The series of artwork using urine, semen, and blood are very interesting visually. Semen and Blood III has fluid coherent lines that break and rejoin again. There is a contrast between the dark background and the red and yellow substance, littered with texture. There is an alluring appeal to viewing this piece, almost the same feeling as looking at fire. Without the title, one very well may mistake the medium for something other than bodily fluids. There is a characteristic of lava or an unknown chemical substance. The symmetry of the piece makes the observer forget what they are viewing.

Serrano of course creates artwork that is controversial, such as with his use of bodily fluids, but he too uses the flesh and trauma of death, images up close and graphic. Many of the images of death are disturbing, mostly because they are real. The viewer is forced to view death as a reality, not the clean makeup covered death that people are accustomed. Torn and rotting flesh is an image that only the undertaker usually sees, until viewing Serrano’s work.

The Morgue (Pneumonia Due To Drowning II), and Fatal Meningitis, II are both images of a child’s death. The very act of displaying a child’s death is controversial. These images although having similar content, are completely different. Fatal Meningitis, II shows a child wrapped in a blanket, looking peaceful and serene. One is drawn into the peaceful image of the child; they can feel a love and sadness for this child. The opposite is true of The Morgue (Pneumonia Due To Drowning II). This image is sad and disturbing. The death is fresh, violent, and up close. The evidence of a painful death is evident. The child has purple lips and nostrils, as his mouth is left open. It is difficult to forget the graphic images Serrano displays of the death of a child.

The Morgue (Pneumonia Due to Drowning, II) is very effective of stirring emotion. Not only has a child died, but also the reality of the death is apparent. The child lies in the morgue with the morgue blanket up to his chin. Color in this piece is very effective in setting the morose tone. The child is pale skinned contrasting against the blanket. He has perfect white teeth set in a darkened purple mouth. There are dried fluids remaining on his nostrils and red bruised circles under his eyes. When viewing this piece a sadness or heaviness can be felt. The image being close up to the viewer makes it seem more personal and real. This is a naturalistic piece using an actual deceased child to evoke those emotions.

The controversy of Serrano’s art is evident. At one point Serrano was said to have an “unjust reputation as a provocateur with a signature style (Lambert, 1994)”. The label of provocateur is one that many would not typically use to describe an artist. Provocateurs are defined as agents of influence that are engaged in an undercover situation, waiting to “actively engage in espionage activities (Knight, 2004)”. Provocateurs are individuals who motivate others to commit illegal acts. Many regard the images Serrano creates as persuasive, perverse, and illegal.

Another controversial piece created by Serrano is titled Budapest. A couple in their late sixties stands naked facing each other, joining hands in a serene manner. They are smiling and happy in this symmetrical piece. They seem to be at peace with their lives, and confident with themselves. This piece displays a contrast in the background of gray dismal skies and murky water. The man and woman seem to have overcome the darkness. Other than the fact that they are standing outside completely naked their image is quite natural. They are rising out of the bonds that at one time was drawing them apart. This image is a pleasant reminder to put the negativity of the world behind and live life to the fullest.

At times Serrano’s work borders upon the obscene, controversial, and disturbing. There is a wide range of subject matter and mediums used. There are definite extremes in his portfolio, extremes of bodily fluid, death, sex, and reality. It seems that nothing is left out when contemplating his available or useable content. One extreme difference in Serrano’s work can be seen in his photography of buildings. He can alternate between the graphic life-like images to the beautifully architecture, with ease. They are beautifully captured with perfect angles and lighting.

One of Serrano’s beautiful portrayals of architecture is The Church St. Clotilde, Paris. This image has great contrast from light to dark. The light is in the forefront featuring blue and purple grayish hues allows for a warm serene feeling in the light and a cold hard feeling when considering the darkness. The back is shadowed gradually to black. There is one solitary chair with its shadow as a focal point. The expanding fluid lines bring the viewer out of the darkness. This image is asymmetrical, allowing the viewer to feel as if they are in the image, in the vast openness of the piece. The use of colors and lines makes the viewer feel safe and secure where they stand, knowing that there is darkness in the background, a place to be avoided.

Another interesting architectural image is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This image has a great contrast of light and dark. The viewer is facing the doorway. There is a large transom at the top of the door. The sun is shining in so intensely that it could be blinding. This symmetrical piece portrays the door in the middle of the piece, tattered and worn. Two large thick tied back curtains flank the sides. The light is so radiant it shine through the curtains. When the title is considered, this light can have new meaning. The viewer is safe inside the building; although rundown, it is a protective dwelling place. To leave through these doors one would experience the unbearable brightness of life.

Andres Serrano creates images that stick in the viewers mind. His images seem to follow a path to the future. One can see a lifeline event or a line of travel in Serrano’s images. The images used have distinct regard to posture, dress, and undress. These artistic characteristics “charge them with the telling of a story heard throughout the ages (Lambert, 1994)”; the timeline is established. People are born; they seek knowledge and understanding, they engage in war, have sex, and then die. Lives are frozen, surreal and without judgment.

Vibrant colors and fluid lines grace Serrano’s work. The lighting is perfect and realistic. The contrasts he uses are intriguing and compelling. Without titles, Serrano’s body fluid images may not have the controversy they have. He is not afraid to let the public into his mind. He displays his political stance without regard for negativity, or possibly in spite of negativity. Serrano searches for the real in his work. He was said to have stated that “getting the lighting perfect is pretty much his only concern while photographing (Filz, 2003)”. Images are often glorified and larger than life. Serrano’s work cannot fit into one category, just as he says of himself, "I have never been able to see myself as fitting into one category, and I have never been able to limit my contact with people to one group of people (Serrano, Quotes)”.

References

References

(2008, November 14). Retrieved December 14, 2010, from Simplistic Art: http://simplisticart.blogspot.com/2008_11_01_archive.html

Andres Serrano. (2010). Retrieved December 13, 2010, from artnet: http://www.artnet.com/awc/andres-serrano.html

Art-Forum.org, H. d. (2001). Andres Serrano-gallery. Retrieved December 14, 2010, from Andres Serrano: http://www.art-forum.org/z_Serrano/gallery.htm

Bjelajac, D. (2005). American Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc.

Filz, G. (2003, March). Frieze Magazine. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from Andres Serrano: http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/andres_serrano1/

Knight, J. (2004). Inrelligence Agent. Retrieved December 14, 2010, from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3403300381.html

Lambert, G. Y. (1994, November-December). Issue 19 Andres Sorrano. Retrieved December 14, 2010, from Frieze Magazine: http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/andres_serrano/

Metallica Timeline. (1996, June 4). Retrieved December 14, 2010, from Mtv.com: http://www.mtv.com/onair/icon/metallica/timeline/?id=14

Serrano, A. Budapest. Budapest.

Serrano, A. Piss Christ.

Serrano, A. (n.d.). Quotes. Retrieved December 15, 2010, from Andres Serrano Quotes: http://www.quotesup.com/ShowAuthor.aspx?Author=1243

Serrano, A. Semen and Blood III.

Serrano, A. The Church St. Clotilde, Paris.

Serrano, A. The Morgue (Pneumonia Due To Drowning II). New York.

Serrano, A. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. London.

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