State of shock 

Andres Serrano can't be ignored -- or so he hopes

Blood. Urine. Semen. Naked Elvis. Black Jesus. Klansmen. Bestiality. The Catholic Church. There doesn't seem to be a taboo or bodily fluid New York artist Andres Serrano hasn't treated in work seemingly devoted to gynecological investigations of the social body.

The son of a Honduran father and Afro-Cuban single mother, the Brooklyn-raised Serrano found his greatest fame as the poster boy for shock art. In 1989, his now-notorious "Piss Christ" -- a crucifix dunked in urine -- touched off a congressional crusade to stop public support for controversial art. But today, at 51, Serrano has become something of an old-school provocateur, upstaged by art world sensations like Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin, Paul McCarthy, Damien Hirst, and even pneumatic media scamps like Britney Spears.

In town as part of the current Masking show at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, in which his "Klansmen" and "Morgue" images can be seen, Serrano sat down in his Atlanta dealer Fay Gold's gallery to talk about his love of Bob Dylan, a newly discovered patriotism and the one taboo he will never touch.

Creative Loafing: Do you ever feel in competition with popular culture -- that, as the bar is raised on shock in the media, it is harder to treat the taboo in your work?

Andres Serrano: I never feel that I'm in competition with anyone except myself. But, you know, I think it kind of raises the ante when taboo images are no longer taboo. That means that we have to push further.

Do you think the events of Sept. 11 will inform your work?

I think it has already. I told a friend of mine when that first happened that I felt I wanted to enlist in the war effort as an artist. Because I think this sense of patriotism or commitment to our country has been very all-invasive in that it's touched a lot of people from different walks of life.

Do you ever feel like there's some taboo you just can't touch, something you're never going to treat?

Yeah, probably children -- children, because it's illegal and immoral.

How did your early experience being involved with drugs and New York's street life influence your vision?

I think, for me, the clearest example is that having gone to the edge in my personal life, I try to do it in my work.

You've said something I think is quite telling: "I am somewhat ambivalent about most things and sometimes even confused." Do you think we expect too many absolutes when we think about art?

I find that, for me, mystery is equally important.

What feelings do you want people to have when they look at the Klan or "Morgue" photographs?

With the Klan and the "Morgue," oftentimes it's in the eyes of the beholder. The important thing is for people to react in some way.

So how did you get anyone in the Klan to pose for you?

Well, I had made contact over the phone with someone who was close to the Klan, and eventually it was just a matter of hanging around Fay [Gold]'s house and making calls and getting one person to say yes, a grand dragon by the name of Danny. And once he said yes, I was able to go and approach other people and say so-and-so posed for me.

So, what motive would they have to pose for you?

I don't know. Because some people have said they were flattered. Everyone's flattered by having their picture taken.

You've talked about the influence of Bunuel and Duchamp on your artistic vision. How have they inspired you?

They've had a big influence. And the third influence is Bob Dylan, I would say. I always was impressed with Dylan as a sort of existentialist hero, who was a sort of role model and leader for a lot of people at that time but didn't really want that role.

So do you think every photographer is a voyeur at heart?

I like to watch.

Would you be disappointed if your work didn't inspire controversy?

I don't have a problem with not being controversial. But I have a problem with being ignored.

Masking runs through Jan. 12 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 404.688.1970. www.nexusart.org.

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