By Emily Conklin, Staff Writer
Andres Serrano has built a reputation using provocation, violence and desire as his building blocks. Despite an early life filled with family tension and drugs on the streets of Brooklyn, Serrano’s passion for art and creating his “own reality” carried him from kid next door to art world fame. Today, his piercing body of photographic work can be found in museums and galleries across the country, with his latest pieces landing in the Jack Shainman Gallery.
The opening of Serrano’s newest exhibition, Torture, Thursday night at the Shainman’s newly renovated location on West 20th Street in Manhattan drew a crowd that spilled into the street. It was made up of artists, art world heavyweights, friends and critics alike. While the atmosphere was amicable, with conversations flowing in and out of the five brightly lit spaces, the photographs on the walls were anything but.
Torture was inspired by the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the notoriously vile U.S-run prison in Iraq. Jailers actively violated the basic concept of human rights through regular tortures and weekly executions of prisoners during the Iraq War. For this series, the 67 year-old photographer chose to photograph four men with personal histories marred by suffering at the hands of the infamous “five techniques” of torture: wall standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink.
The photographs presented could not help but display the physicality of torture, of war, and the limitless nature of human psychosis: even a photograph without a human subject conveyed the pain of the one who is absent, a framed pair of bloody gloves eliciting as much emotion as a man chained to a crossed set of wooden beams.
The human subject choices were a factor that Charlene Stevens, editor-in-chief of Arcade Project, commented on. “It’s not torture porn. It says enough.” she said, highlighting the authenticity of the photographic representations as narratives, rather than portraits.
Yet the exhibition is by no means absent of a dark, macabre beauty. Serrano clearly and effectively utilizes art historical tropes like chiaroscuro, muscle and facial positioning, and common Renaissance-era religious imagery to give depth and drama to his compositions. Viewers throughout the show, including fellow photographer and friend Salem Krieger, highlighted his references to the David among others.
“I love the fact that he’s doing the subject of torture,” Krieger said, “and what’s more, the relevance to today.” This explicit interest in blending classical technique with contemporary issues adds Serrano to a long line of artists shaking up the modern art world in similar ways to the late Renaissance masters. Krieger finishes by saying, “That’s a really important connection because to me, it’s a subject that just continues and hasn’t stopped.” Serrano’s art shines a harsh light on this ugly truth in ways that neither political discourse or Tweets can grasp.
The Shainman has hosted many artistic bodies of work with weighty political subject matter, including Richard Mosse’s photographic exhibition, Heat Maps, last winter. Jack Shainman is a gallery with a reputation many aspire to acquire, and their presence in New York City helps shape not only the art scene but the city’s culture. Serrano’s exhibition is not only visually captivating, but it fits expertly in today’s political narrative. The opportunity for viewers to glide in and out and see our world and it’s challenges from a different perspective has the power to change ideas and generate solutions to plaguing problems.
Torture is on display at the Jack Shainman 513 W. 20th Street gallery from September 28th through November 4th, during gallery hours from 10am-6pm.