New York

Andres Serrano

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Andres Serrano returned from the land of the dead and apparently decided to go East—to Budapest, “a city that attracted his attention in 1993 during a brief detour from Vienna,” as the press release for his latest exhibition so picturesquely put it. Serrano is the artistic equivalent of a band that puts out concept albums, and for this new show the theme is not the morgue, the KKK, or body fluids, but the city. While being plunged into the rhythms of a new metropolis tends to produce a discombobulating sense of contingency in most of us, Serrano appears to have emerged from Budapest with an admirable mastery of his environment. You only need to compare his deliberate, staged pictures with those of another stranger in a strange land, such as Robert Frank, to see how much control he wields, how much restraint he exercises. Whereas Frank took a mad dive straight into the flow of American life, Serrano seems to set up a series of dams made of tripods and halogen bulbs in order to divert the flow of Budapest before his camera.

With the help of an interpreter, Serrano hired local Budapestians to model for his various tableaux vivants. In Budapest (Prostitute and Client) (all works 1994), a woman gives a blow job to a man in what looks like a bathroom. In Budapest (Mass), a shaft of Caravaggio-esque light penetrates the obscurity otherwise engulfing the pew in which an old woman sits, dressed in a dark coat and a tan knit cap, her face buried in her hands. In Budapest (Young Hasid), a young man wearing a dark suit and crisp white shirt stands incongruously before a sort of Wiener Secession mural depicting naked women. These images, meant to be “glimpses into private dramas enacted against the backdrop of Budapest,” are so staged they come off as sheer stereotypes. The titles of the works may not suggest their formal power or technical brilliance, but they certainly do encapsulate the subjects: Budapest (Mother and Child), Budapest (Sailor), Budapest (Funeral), etc. You get the feeling that Serrano’s view of the city is a particularly a priori one—the categories readymade, the subjects awaiting insertion.

Serrano is a mannerist through and through, an artist with formidable technique, and perhaps it’s typical of his mannerism that he treats his subjects as passive, malleable, and manipulable. The hallmark of a mannerist is his ability to exploit the formal potentials of his given medium—in Serrano’s case, to drown his subjects in surfaces, textures, and an artificial play of light. In Budapest (Frieda), a very little girl sits against a background of plush, lush fabrics. She stares down into her crotch as though it were a curiosity or thing of wonder. The picture, however, is very carefully focused not on her crotch, but on her hands. This, you get the feeling, is symptomatic of Serrano’s work as a whole: his interests and those of his subjects are never one and the same.

Keith Seward