“I say that my work is in the eyes of the beholder. How you see those people says sometimes more about you than about me. My work is intended to be a mirror, a reflection for you to see yourself in.” Andres Serrano sits down with ArtPremium in Paris, 10 years after his last interview, and it is as if his utterance had inadvertently paralleled Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), that art merely mirrors the spectator, not life.
Unacceptability: a value that transcends the binary construct of our society – rich and poor, good and bad, sacred and profane. It is a solitary stillness in a world of noise and can be found recurring in Andres Serrano’s work.
The artist visited Cuba for the first time in 2012 and subsequently released a body of work paying homage to this Caribbean island, its nation and its inhabitants. Serrano’s subjects roam in the mystery of individuality and in a very realistic personality. He photographs people and things as individuals and also, as archetypes and symbols. Voices seem to emanate from the remnants of a building in Abandoned, Havana (Cuba) (2012), or the algae-infested pool in Family of Enrique Rottenberg. Miramar, Havana (Cuba) (2012) and from the eeriness of the portrait and the peeled-off paint on the wall of Family Portrait (Cuba) (2012). Material takes on a strange persona in Serrano’s photographs that is wholly other than us. Otherworldly, unfamiliarity and strangeness entice Serrano and through his style, the artist awards himself such individuality.
Serrano: I have always felt like an outsider and I think part of it had to do with the fact that I was an only child. What ignites in me is the existential feeling or even a feeling of loneliness. In my work, I like to go to territories where no one else has gone before. In the art world, I feel separate from my peers and I like that sense of separation. I need to do what I need to do. I feel apart from the rest. Even if we exist in the same world, I am still in my world. My world is not their world and vice versa.
Consider The Klan series (1990-1992). Portraits of Raphaelic sombreness and presence deliver a subject that elicits the ultimate fear of man and confronts visually the manifestation of the ugliness of humanity. Serrano’s works offer an Aesthetic reading into the inherent separation of art and morality, or rather the elevation of art rid of didactic motivations.
There is a strong presence of reality in photography, which Serrano recognises, that evokes innocence and breaks pretences.
Serrano: It is simply about the beauty in something that is not supposed to be beautiful. I find beauty in the Ku Klux Klan. I find beauty in Donald Trump’s portrait (America, 2004). I find beauty in things that some people do not think beautiful but I make them beautiful
Here, Serrano draws out the question of the agency of the artist. Formally trained as a painter and a sculptor, he has chosen the medium of photography to convey a shared reality. Serrano’s photographs require the construction of an “agreement of purpose” (Freeland, 2001). His portraiture urges the spectator’s augmentation of perceptual consciousness, to see again what Andres Serrano saw.
The artist has, on multiple occasions, compared himself to the truth telling child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837). There is a strong presence of reality in photography, which Serrano recognises, that evokes innocence and breaks pretences. His Torture series (2015) is illustrative of this power in images. There is no longer the preoccupation to condone a meaning behind the artist’s intention to photograph the hooded victims from Northern Ireland, Fatima or a tortured captive in Sudan. This is demonstrated by the initial pictures commissioned by The New York Times to accompany the essay on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2005, which prompted the commencement of the series, and perhaps more recently, the article by art critic Jonathan Jones for the Guardian. These photographs are about the actuality of the perpetual human condition of conflict.
At once subjective in his perception and universal in his concept, there is simplicity to Serrano’s operation: three lights, a Mamiya RB 67 camera on a tripod and for most of the time, a backdrop. The artist focuses on the idea of the photographs. Within his simplicity, Serrano finds an infinite variety of subjects and methods of immersion for himself as well as for his spectator.
ArtPremium: When we look at the various subjects you have taken over the years, we see groups of people, religion, and even places. What would you say is the inspiration of your choice?
Serrano: A lot of the time, it comes naturally to me. You can see the progress [of my work] and it makes sense. It is about life, race, and poverty, about social injustice, religion, and sex. One usually leads to another in a very natural way. When I do something, I try to do it in such a way that exhausts the subject; but religion, you cannot do enough about it. Religion is a funny thing because you have to do it when you are motivated, when you are inspired. I would love to be able to meet Pope Francis and to get a commission from him – that would inspire me. I would love to do something for the Church, like religious artists of the past.
In truth, Serrano’s reflection does not stray far from art history. A crucifix submerged in an amber-tinged medium with an almost crepuscular ray shining upon the suffering Jesus Christ. Without the acknowledgment of the work’s title, Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987), the spectator continues to be encapsulated within the mysterious consciousness of the aesthetic beauty created by Serrano. Justly intimated by the British philosopher Owen Barfield on the art of poetry, a similar strangeness in Serrano’s photographic beauty arouses wonder in those who do not understand. Serrano’s larger-than-life photographs are the testament to the artist’s pursuit of Beauty, creating art for art’s sake.
ArtPremium: It is intriguing for us to reflect upon the fact that your work, in general, has always been subjected to a variety of interpretations or even condemnation. Your photographs, however, are not intended to irk your spectator. So why do you think people would want to label your work as provocative?
Serrano: People react in such a way because they see things that make them feel uncomfortable. After Piss Christ, it has always been controversial. They expect that from me. I would like to make pretty pictures but I would also like for them to mean something – not just on flowers, kittens and puppies. People want their beauty with provocation.
Contrary to the Dorian influence of decadent Romanticism, Serrano pursues a centripetal impetus in his work. The executor’s silent presence in the photographs allows the spectator to enjoy a greater freedom of interaction with the world of the subject. The titles employed in Serrano’s works however, function as a self-referential narrative to the photographs. For example, from his early Mondrian-esque “fake paintings” like Milk, Blood (1986) to his using of the names of his subjects in Residents of New York (2014) or of the hooded figures in Torture (2015). They break the quiet murmurs of the reverie from the images and consequently distance the artist in a playful, coquettish manner like the character Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/96).
William Hogarth identifies that “beauty is seen and confessed by all” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753). In part, Serrano subscribes to the ideal, nonetheless, his canon of beauty proves to be challenging. The idea of beauty has been ruminated over and over by the greatest thinkers of humanity, from Plato and Aristotle to our contemporary, Harold Bloom. Creating since 1983, Serrano’s modus operandi becomes apparent. The artist searches for the intrinsic value of Art, to illuminate the beauty within the matter.
ArtPremium: Your work has taken you to Cuba, Jerusalem, Brussels, Northern Ireland and many more places. Where will you go next?
Serrano: The next place I would like to go is the place where I am going to do my next work. It will probably be in Paris in May. It has nothing to do with the homeless nor the immigrants. Someone once asked me to go to Texas to photograph the Mexican immigrants, I might do that. I have something more conceptual for Paris in mind. Actually, next year  during FIAC and Paris Photo, I am going to have a show at the Petit Palais in October. The show will include more or less thirty to forty works of mine throughout the museum. Considering the range of my work, there is a big selection of pieces to choose from to decide the pieces they [the Petit Palais] will have at the venue. In addition, I am going to do another body of work here [in Paris] in May most likely.
The world holds its breath as the supposed enfant terrible divulges this information about his new works in Paris. We are sure to be one step closer to dissecting this curious mastermind with the debut of these works.