America – Andreas Serrano, Gimpel Fils
It is now well over a decade since American artist Andreas Serrano was accused in the US Senate of dishonouring God and the American people with his work, Piss Christ — a photograph of a plastic crucifix suspended in a vat of turbulent and frothy urine.
Since then, Serrano, now in his early fifties, has continued to attract the condemnation of the morally sensitive with his photographs of profane, macabre, sinister and taboo subjects.
Those hoping for a fresh dose of fleshy and Gothic shocks, however will be disappointed. America, Serrano’s new body of work which has not been seen in Britain before, is an ongoing series of upbeat, photographic portraits of contemporary individual Americans inspired, inevitably, by 9.11.
It hopes, rather grandly, when taken as a whole, to amount to the portrait of a still proud and vibrant nation.
Forty-nine portraits have been produced so far, of which, alas, only 15 are on show here — but there is scarcely room for more. Presented as large prints, roughly 5ft by 4ft, the images themselves are simple head-and-shoulders studio shots that feature neutral backdrops and spots of dramatic lighting.
The subjects are, as one might expect representative of the diverse melting-pot that America prides itself on being; a wholesome boy scout, a Hassidic Jew, a New York cop, a Chinese cook, a Muslim woman, a Rodeo Queen, a black dancer, a soldier and so on.
A couple of celebrities, in the form of rapper Snoop Dogg and the actress Chloe Sevigny, are also present, which seems entirely fitting for a nation that is the fons et origo of the Western world’s unreal popular culture.
Though inspired by a tedious sentiment, Serrano’s America is effective. It is a reminder that America, despite the weight of the words and images published about the terrorist attacks and the country’s bellicose response to them, resonates with associations forged in the country’s youth — expansiveness, diversity and hope — long before the caffeinated neuroses set in. That it works is due largely to the simplicity of both the idea and the execution of the portraits.
Serrano is indeed well attuned to the dominant aesthetic of our age, that of the advertising image, and produces bold and striking photographs with strong, instant and yet lasting impact.
Moreover, the power of these works, like Nan Goldin’s, grow in significance when they are seen en masse expressing, as they do — and as Serrano intended — the sociological and historical tenor of our time.