New York

Andres Serrano

Greenberg Wilson Gallery

With TV systematically reducing the world—good, bad, and incomprehensible—to easily digestible images and sound bites, it’s only natural that artists would go out of their way to invest commonplace objects with mysteriousness. The ongoing deconstructivist infiltration of the photograph—from John Baldessari’s transcendental eye-oriented puns to Stephen Prina’s pristine, historically askew confections—has produced a set of visual rules at once overly familiar and barely recognizable. Andres Serrano’s photographs are sophisticated and ironic enough to seem part of this ongoing study, but they’re also rather punk. In his newest work he has immersed kitsch likenesses of the pope, Satan, and, in the case of God, the word “God,” in glass containers of his own urine. He’s photographed these immersions, enlarged the prints, and outlined them in thin black frames. In Piss Pope 1 and Piss Pope 2, all works 1988, the bright, hazy yellow of the urine suffuses the area around the profile busts of John Paul II, blurring, brightening, and shadowing them to suggest the pope at a mystical moment. To hardline Catholics these pieces might come as something of a shock. I find the artist’s delicately jokey handling of materials both emotionally and formally at odds with itself and that’s good. Since Serrano’s previous dunkees have been fairly nondenominational (The Thinker, a human heart, Winged Victory, etc.), I gather his work isn’t just a lapsed Catholic’s running commentary. There’s an undeniable nastiness in his so-called drownings, but the work’s power derives from a simplistic formal contest—disturbing bodily fluids versus the safety of photography. This juxtaposition is especially inert in Piss God, where the letters spelling G-O-D and the urine have no esthetic pull in and of themselves; they merely decorate one another like co-inhabitants of a filthy fishtank.

Three nonurine pieces complete this relatively modest show. Two are large upside-down, head-and-shoulders shots of Julie Ault and Leon Golub. Knowing that Ault is married to Serrano, and that Golub is one of the artist’s heroes, doesn’t make the photographs any more unusual than they sound. Untitled III is described in a press release as a photograph of the artist’s ejaculated sperm, but you’d never know it, and the generic title seems far more prim and exclusionary than witty and subversive.

Serrano isn’t the only artist using bodily fluids, nor the bravest by any means. It’s important to applaud artists taking unusual risks with content, especially these days, but Serrano’s risks are always in service to his rather passive formal decision-making. The work never really transcends its neo-Conceptual uniform, which is a shame, since the antiauthoritarian snits who bait these pieces are inherently curious, if a little lazy. That’s more than can be said for Serrano’s cut-and-(un)dried compositions.

Dennis Cooper