New York

Andres Serrano

Stux Gallery

Though at first Andres Serrano’s new photographs seem a far cry from his controversial Piss Christ, 1987, they ultimately have the same socially critical implications, and, more importantly, they employ the same high-key color, here refined to a new intensity. Serrano squarely faces the bottom-line issue of political art—how to reconcile esthetic and social awareness—and the results are brilliant.

A number of images of the Imperial Wizard and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan are presented in one room, and a series of photographs of homeless people occupies a larger space. To my mind, Serrano’s use of these latter figures is not dissimilar to Velázquez’s use of dwarfs. He elevates them; that is, he treats them as highly individualized people rather than as burdensome social objects. He particularizes them, gives them grandeur, even nobility. He does this largely through the use of vivid color, which is not to say that he degrades them by treating them—as so many do to cover their indifference—as colorful. Color is the key to this exhibition: color as a source of dignity, as a way of caring—of bringing the subject to life. Color is Serrano’s means of turning what might otherwise be anonymous, “gray” men into living, breathing, profoundly particular subjects. Even the Klansmen—sinister in their white hoods—are given an ominous life through his use of rich color.

Indeed, the point of the contrast is to suggest the very different attitudes to life that the Klansman and the homeless have. The former mask themselves—hide themselves as living beings—to become menacing and bring death and destruction; the latter disclose the intense life within themselves. The appearance of the Klansmen, eager to maintain anonymity—to depersonalize and devitalize themselves—bespeaks hatred of life. In Serrano’s photographs the homeless lose their anonymity and declare their right to life and to love of life.

This exhibition is a study in the irreconcilability of the hidden and unhidden; the relative absence of color conveys death, and, conversely, the fullness of life is conveyed by color. Both types of photographs are, in effect, character studies in which the physiognomies of facelessness and face become signs of fundamental attitudes. Serrano’s triumph in these pictures of the Klansmen is that he makes their masks seem like inner faces, so that we get a sense of a full disclosure of their psychic condition. Indeed, there is a quality of revelation to these pictures—of hitherto incomprehensible figures becoming spontaneously comprehensible, their social incognitos shed as they become signs of subliminal intention.

Serrano respects the sense of authority implicit in both sets of figures. More importantly, he shows how one’s sense of authority is a kind of fantasy about the self. That is, what ultimately counts in these works is the attitudes of the figures to themselves, not the way we—the world—perceive them. Serrano’s achievement is to suggest the way human beings think about themselves—to reveal and penetrate their mystiques simultaneously. He has shown these subjects as they see themselves.

Donald Kuspit

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