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Andres Serrano

American Photographer and Conceptual Artist

Andres Serrano Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Modern Photography

Born: August 15, 1950 - New York, New York

"Even though I consider myself a conceptual artist, I am a traditionalist when it comes to photography. I like to use film and shoot straight. No technical gimmicks or special effects. What you see is what I saw when I looked though the camera. If I've dazzled you with lights and colors, it's because I've dazzled you with lights and colors. Ideas are more important than effects. And effects are always better when they're real."

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Summary of Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano is an American artist notorious for the controversial content of his photographic works. His best-known pieces are large format images of objects (frequently religious in nature) and studio portraiture, often featuring titles that unambiguously describe the process of creating the work. These processes have included submerging a crucifix in urine, taking photographs of recently deceased bodies just brought into a city morgue, and producing portraits of members of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the late 1980s his practice was highlighted as an example of work that was deliberately confrontational and designed to shock the audience. His potent mix of religious imagery, bodily fluids, sex, violence, and death was labelled obscene by conservative politicians and advocacy groups, his photograph Piss Christ in particular becoming a flashpoint in what became known as the 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s in America. Serrano has always maintained that shock is not his primary goal, and points to the formal qualities of the images, their relevance to political issues (such as intolerance or sensationalism) and their relation to particular moments in art history as being his key motivation and intention.

Key Ideas

The imagery and content of Serrano's work is often a challenge to mainstream propriety or sensibilities. He produces images that combine the sacred, such as religious iconography, with the what might be called the profane: sex, bodies and their fluids, poverty, death, and/or violence. Even his studio portraiture presents controversial subjects in highly stylized ways, framing a homeless person or a loaded gun in the same way as they might be the subject in a Renaissance portrait or classical still-life.
His photographs, whilst controversial, also suggest a sustained social critique. Serrano uses the shock of seeing a crucifix in urine, feces decorated with glitter, or a nude and bound figure to comment on the influence of religion in society, the positioning of bodies and their waste as shameful, or the treatment of women and other people marginalized in contemporary society.
His formally accomplished and often very beautiful images of taboo subjects brought the kind of provocation common in the punk-influenced East Village Art scene of the 1980s into a mainstream art context, partly as a result of the controversy they provoked in the national and international media. This laid the groundwork for later artists to utilize similar imagery and still be taken up by large and established galleries and museums, often in turn generating further media scandal.
Serrano considers himself simply an artist rather than a photographer, insisting that his camera is the tool he uses to express himself rather than a form whose techniques or conventions he is attached to. His images are remarkably consistent across his career in their use of shallow focus, high contrast, and vivid color. Serrano foregrounds the idea behind his pictures, and their subject and title, as the main ways in which his photographs generate meaning rather than the technical processes behind them.
Serrano's work is steeped in art historical reference. His images featuring religious iconography are heavily influenced by Baroque painting, for example, whilst his more abstract presentations of bodily fluids reference the blocks of color of Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl movement and the swirls of Abstract Expressionism. His use of bodily fluids references previous artists and artworks who have done the same, such as Piero Manzoni, who created Artist's Shit in 1961 by supposedly filling ninety tin cans with his own feces. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Andy Warhol too also experimented with the chemical interactions of urine and copper in his Oxidation Paintings. Serrano's work with urine, feces, blood, milk, and semen in photography also has important precedents in Performance Art, such as the work of Carolee Schneemann or Vito Acconci, artists both active in New York in the 1970s when Serrano lived in the East Village.
Andres Serrano Photo

Andres Serrano was born in Manhattan on August 15, 1950, and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as an only child in an American family of Honduran and Afro-Cuban origin. His father was a Honduran immigrant, and his mother, although born in Florida, was raised in Cuba and spoke only Spanish. Serrano insists that his background is a quintessentially American one, reflecting the diversity of the country and New York as a city.

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