Piss and Vinegar

Ron Judish Fine Arts, which opened just this past spring, has already distinguished itself as one of the city's finest commercial galleries. But the current Judish show, Andres Serrano: A Survey, which sketches out the career of one of the nation's most famous photographers, really puts the place on the map. "I opened this gallery in the first place because I'm interested in social issues," says Judish. "I see art in the context of contemporary society, and I want to explore the way art and society influence one another."

Though Serrano is widely known today, this was not always the case. As recently as a decade ago, the New York artist's work was appreciated only by a small audience, mostly in his hometown. (In 1988, for example, he was the subject of just two solo shows.)

Then, in the spring of 1989, something happened that had a profound effect not only on Serrano, but on the entire art world. A large-format cibachrome photo Serrano had done in 1987 titled "Piss Christ" was included in a group exhibition that traveled to ten cities across the country. The exhibit, which included the work of nine contemporary artists, had been organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had been the beneficiary of a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant was used to defray shipping costs.

More important than the fact that Serrano's piece was included in the show was that it was reproduced in the accompanying catalogue--which is where the trouble began. Somehow, Donald Wildmon of the right-wing American Family Association got a copy of it. Wildmon immediately sounded a clarion call, and the response from the religious and cultural right was swift and severe.

To get an idea of the hubbub Wildmon and his minions were able to generate, a principal sponsor of the show, the Equitable Life Assurance Society, received some 50,000 mailings protesting the company's role in funding the exhibit. Most of these missives were in the form of pre-printed postcards prepared by Wildmon's organization. Congress, too, was besieged with protests both by mail and by phone.

On May 18, New York senator Alphonse D'Amato denounced the NEA for funding the "shocking and abhorrent" "Piss Christ" and tore up the catalogue reproduction. Later that day, D'Amato and 25 other senators sent a letter demanding that the NEA's acting chairman, Hugh Southern (at the time, there was no official agency head, since President Bush had failed to fill the slot), make substantial changes to prevent the future funding of things like "Piss Christ." A month later, on June 8, Texas congressman Dick Armey wrote a similar letter that was signed by more than 100 members of Congress.

Serrano, whose work was branded sacrilegious, was linked to another contemporary photographer with ties to the NEA, Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was deemed obscene. The two became the twin bétes noirs of the Christian right. And it didn't seem to matter that Mapplethorpe was already dead, as revealed by the NEA grant itself, which was earmarked for a memorial exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, that was organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. (Mapplethorpe's photos, like Serrano's, are available locally from Ron Judish Fine Arts.)

The rhetoric of conservatives attacking the NEA frightened many art administrators. Tipped off that North Carolina senator Jesse Helms planned to brew some trouble, Christiana Orr-Cahill, then the director of the prestigious Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., canceled the Mapplethorpe show just two weeks before it was scheduled to open. At that point, the art world was really scared: More than 700 protesters demonstrated against the cancellation in front of the Corcoran, and as an act of defiance, artists projected slides of Mapplethorpe's work onto the museum's exterior walls. Artists also announced a boycott of the Corcoran, which turned out to be extremely effective, as many canceled plans to exhibit there. By the end of the year, Orr-Cahill had stepped down in disgrace.

On July 13, the NEA budget for 1990, which amounted to $171.4 million, was docked $45,000--the exact amount given to the show Serrano was in combined with the amount of the grant for the Mapplethorpe show. Congress also passed legislation taking punitive action against the two institutions where the shows had originated. Neither the SCCA nor the ICA would be eligible for NEA funds for five years. In addition, some half a million dollars was removed from the visual-arts portion of the NEA budget and reassigned to folk art.

To say the least, curators around the country were scrutinizing their schedules. Even worse, NEA budgets would, in the next few years, annually shrink by $4 or $5 million, leading to a total appropriation of $152 million by 1995--down nearly $20 million since the Serrano and Mapplethorpe flaps were orchestrated by right-wingers.

The attack on arts funding had reached its full flower the year before, in 1994, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced his "Contract With America," which called for zeroing out the NEA budget by the year 2000--and he almost got away with it. In 1996, with Newt's troops following in lockstep, the NEA budget was reduced to $86.9 million, little more than half of what it had been the previous year and nearly $100 million less than it had been before Republicans had ever heard of Serrano or Mapplethorpe.

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."

Predictably, Andres Serrano: A Survey has brought in the crowds, and members of the burgeoning local photography scene have been prominent among exhibition-goers. Judish says Denver photographers "have come in droves, and all have been astounded by Serrano's technical ability." It's clear that Serrano is a master of his craft.

Though Judish is not surprised by the show's generally positive reception, he was taken aback a couple of weeks ago when he interrupted a well-dressed middle-aged man who was in the process of vandalizing the gallery's window with a key. It looks like Serrano's art is still capable of generating a strong response.

Andres Serrano: A Survey, through December 12 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 303-571-5557.


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