Piss and Vinegar

But things are slowly turning around. There's an extra $10 million in this year's NEA budget, and now, with Gingrich resigning his speakership and congressional seat, the trend to refund the NEA is likely to continue. One thing that always worked against eliminating the NEA entirely--and something that Gingrich hadn't counted on--was opposition from Republicans themselves. You see, many Republicans are wealthy, and this is exactly the group from which museum boardmembers are taken. These people don't want to dispense with the NEA, controversy notwithstanding.

The conservative commotion, largely in reaction to Serrano, did a lot of damage to the art world: Many shows never happened, because the money to fund them was gone. But the controversy was very good for Serrano, who became a household name and last year was the subject of no less than a dozen solo exhibits around the world.

That there is a political background to the Serrano show at Ron Judish Fine Arts is clear even from the sidewalk. Painted on the gallery's front window is a Jesse Helms quote condemning Serrano.

And inside, it's immediately obvious why Serrano's work is capable of generating so much anger and excitement. One of the first images to come into view is "Martyr," a 1995 cibachrome print from Serrano's A History of Sex series. In this portrait, a man dressed as a priest (Serrano is a lapsed Catholic) is bound and gagged, leaning against a painted wall. The gag in his mouth is an S&M accoutrement made of black leather accented by shiny chrome studs.

Hung next to "Martyr" is a completely different kind of image, one that would offend absolutely no one. In the 1991 cibachrome print "The Church (Monseigneur Jacques Bishop of Chartes)," Serrano focuses on a detail of the fiddlehead of the cleric's gold and bejeweled staff set against a gorgeous red field.

The two photographs well express the range of approaches Serrano takes to his subjects. One is downright blasphemous, the other pious. As Judish notes, "Serrano has always presented work that challenges our preconceived notions, redefining what we assume."

Opposite these religious-themed pictures are a pair from Serrano's famous Nomads series, which consists of large-format portraits of homeless people. In "McKinley" and "Payne," both cibachrome prints done in 1990, Serrano takes profile shots of a woman and a man, respectively. Shrouded in shadow, their faces look like silhouettes; Serrano makes them faceless as well as homeless.

Distinctly different are the frontal, well-lit portraits of American Indians from Serrano's Native American series. In these pieces, Serrano's goals are more subtly laid out. In "Cleveland Indians (Dana Brings Them, Lakota, Sioux)," a handsome young man is decked out in tribal regalia that includes a beaded choker and a bone breastplate. But a closer look reveals that on the young man's forearms, peeking out from behind his red gauntlets, are rows of fresh cigarette burns and that he sports a ring in his left eyebrow. "This has been one of the most talked-about photos in the show," says Judish--and little wonder, since it's simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.

In many ways--except for those cigarette burns--"Cleveland Indians" is essentially a straightforward portrait. Though Serrano may carry a mad-dog mantle owing to his more adventurous images, his pictures are most often traditionally conceived, at times recalling old master paintings. This is nowhere more clear than in 1994's "Bathhouse," a cibachrome print from the Budapest series. Serrano captures three men sitting in dim light on a blue ceramic bench in an old Hungarian public bath. The man on the left looks at the ceiling, the man on the right looks away, and the nude man in the middle looks up. The resulting compositional rhythm, along with the dialogue of lights and darks, recalls the great paintings of the sixteenth-century Baroque movement, in particular the work of Caravaggio.

And though "Piss Christ" does not make an appearance here, three closely associated works from the 1980s do. Unlike the other pieces in this show, which come from the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, these older ones are not for sale and have instead been loaned by three local collectors.

The three cibachrome prints, 1987's "Madonna and Child" and "Winged Victory" and 1989's "Crucifixion," are all from the Immersions series, which also includes "Piss Christ." In the Immersions, which, by the way, are exquisite, Serrano took plastic reproductions of sculpture--both religious and otherwise--and immersed them in vials filled with either urine, blood or milk. In "Madonna and Child" and "Winged Victory," Serrano used urine; for "Crucifixion," blood. Serrano then backlit the vials and took close-up shots of the statuettes inside. To call the resulting images breathtaking would be an understatement. Had Serrano used colored water instead of bodily fluids, it would have been impossible for the Christian right to have found anything wrong with them. "Madonna and Child" and "Crucifixion" look like religious pictures and could easily be displayed in churches.

But the choice to use bodily fluids was not a casual one for Serrano, nor was he entirely disinterested in making a sacrilegious statement--as only a former Catholic can. "It's interesting to see how people have responded to these pieces. Serrano takes cheap, plastic images of the deity and immerses them in real, life-giving fluids," says Judish. "So the statue is profane and the fluids are sacred--just the opposite of what the conservatives saw in them."

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