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Back to Features 97

A History of Sex (The Fisting) 1996

A History of Sex (Auto-Erotic)

The History of Sex (Christiaan and Rose)

The History of Sex (The Kiss)

The History of Sex (Red Pebbles)

Andres Serrano
Photo: Mary Barone

andres serrano
at paula cooper

by Paul H-O 

"I feel like so far the right people are saying "yes" to the show. You know, actually, like I am a so-called established figure, I do value the opinions of people like yourselves (the underground press types) because you're more on the edge and I identify with the edge, as always, I put myself on the line, and I want to take chances, that's what it's all about." --Andres Serrano speaking at his opening to Gallery Beat TV

Insofar as glorifying sex at the margins of society is concerned, Serrano now reigns supreme. At least in the art world. In previous incarnations he shot photos of guns, gave us naked dead bodies in the morgue, portraits of the Imperial Homeless and of course his hallmark Piss Christ.

And now his series of huge color prints, called "The History of Sex," has laid claim to some very interesting sexual vignettes and portraits. There's a maiden Eve that Hugh Hefner could love, and an Adam with God-sized boner who would be at home in Stroke. And then there's some things that are more, uh, unusual. The heterosexual couple with the woman wearing a strap-on, for instance, is not a common motif, even in our porn-saturated culture. Then there's the naked girl holding a horse's elongated penis ("what a schlong," noted a female acquaintance), a scene that is probably still against the law. And the prone female dwarf, with her picture-perfect face and her little body, about to be plowed by a well-endowed big person, seems really beyond the pale, but I guess that's not really for me to say.

Serrano has even had some controversy, though not here in New York (knock wood). The photo called Leo's Fantasy caused a national stir in liberal Holland when the Groninger Museum -- in a simultaneous presentation of this series -- chose the picture of girl peeing into the man's mouth for its poster, and wanted to put it on the tram. Church groups protested, and the courts first said it wasn't obscene, and then said it was. Meanwhile, people are splattering paint bombs on the museum.

What's more, Serrano has also ended up on top of the pile, for this month at least, that is the art-world debate over representation and art and what it can do and how it can do it. Some of the pictures aren't so much about sex acts as about display, and of course display is a sex act. The sex act in which art is grounded?

Tout le art world is talking about this show. Has Andre mastered all these theoretical questions of gender, allegory, narrative? What's more, has he mastered all this juicy, engorged, magnetic (etc., etc., etc.) sexuality? Mostly I would say the art world doesn't like it but is trying very hard to come up with good reasons why.

Stylistically, Serrano's presentation is majestic -- big c. 48 x 60 in. color prints, a format that was developed for advertising and perhaps has at bottom advertising's simple message: buy this now. Then again, the models are posed to look self-contained and even noble, reminiscent of Socialist Realism, which was selling (arguably) a utopian world view. As often as not they're posed outdoors, or against outdoor backdrops, which makes the pictures seem peaceful, pastoral.

What's with these models, anyway? Richard Goldstein, among the most p.c. of the writers still at the Village Voice, fails to notice in his review that of the 18 images in the show, only one is of a determinedly homosexual pairing. And where's the condoms? Don't you have to have condoms!? And what's with the tied-up geisha? Can't we have sex without a tied-up geisha? And there's pee, but where's the poop! And where's the rape? You can't have a history of sex without rape!

Maybe the point is that with people in the sex biz, like these models, ordinary gender boundaries don't apply. Polymorphous is what they call it, and it's supposed to be presocial, or liberated. So it's no "History." But maybe it's a future.

Serrano is the art world's new sex professional. There is no lack of champions in this category -- Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Richard Kern, Doris Kloster -- but no other artist I can think of has so clearly lionized subjective sexual transgression to such an elegant degree.

These works may be facile commodities for speculation -- c. 60 x 49 in. prints, edition of 3, are $10,000; smaller c. 40 x 27 in. prints, in editions of 7, are $6,000 -- but they are also full-blown difficulties. Bottom line: A person could look at these pictures and say, hey, that's not his, I want that too, that's mine, why should he have it, I want it!

Andres Serrano at Paula Cooper, Mar. 1-Apr. 12, 1997, 534 W. 21st Street, New York, NY 10011.

PAUL H-O is a New York artist and producer of the public access television show, Art TV.