In 1988 the National Endowment for the Arts, impressed by Piss Christ (1987) and several similar works, awarded $15,000 to Andres Serrano. At a meeting of the US Senate the following May, early in the presidency of George Bush Sr, Republican senator Jesse Helms said this of Serrano and his work: 'Mr President, he is not an artist. He is a jerk. And he is taunting the American people.' What might the eloquent senator say about Serrano's 2002 series 'America'? It consists of 49 large, richly coloured photographic portraits of American citizens from many walks of life - postal workers side-by-side with Hollywood A-listers - and in a recent interview Serrano said he produced it because, in the wake of 11 September, he wanted 'to contribute to the war effort'. Strange days, indeed.
'America' was not Serrano's first artistic response to the post-11 September world. Immediately following the collapse of the Twin Towers he produced an editioned photograph for a World Trade Center benefit fund. It pictured the Stars and Stripes daubed with fresh blood and, if we accept Wordsworth's definition of poetry as 'emotion recollected in tranquillity', could not and did not offer much that was poetic. Given that it was designed to appeal to a big, momentarily fragile, audience and to sell out, this was hardly surprising. The question was whether, given time for recollection, Serrano was capable of a more thoughtful response to the tragedy and its aftershocks. The new photographs would suggest not, but this is not to discount them.
Serrano initiated the series remotely, sending out an assistant to find 49 American types, whom he then photographed individually against coloured backdrops in a studio. As the 18 examples at Gimpel Fils demonstrated, these subjects function as ciphers, playing reductively to type in a bright presentation of a polyglot USA unified and equalized. Dressed in toxically coloured sportswear, Snoop Dogg fires out his best blunted glare; Hasidic Jew Abraham Schnitzer, golden corkscrew curls a-dangling, beams upwards into some hypothetical firmament while apparently lit from inside with faith; and Chloe Sevigny, dressed to kill in cream-coloured Pioneer chic, grants us a theatrically imperious gaze. Despite their ostensible differences, these three may yet share personality traits, but Serrano - with a Playboy Bunny, a bricklayer and a bishop waiting outside - didn't wait around to tease them out. Like the female bodybuilders and Klansmen he photographed a couple of years ago, his subjects are more useful as phenomena than as people.
And what presentable phenomena they are. In The Invisible Dragon (1993) Dave Hickey used Robert Mapplethorpe as the contemporary-art pivot of his argument that aesthetics are political; but he might just as well have highlighted Serrano, who once told me that getting the lighting perfect is pretty much his only concern while photographing. Recording an angelic four-year-old girl, a nervous-looking Chinese cook and a big, butch soldier on the same larger-than-life scale, and with the same attention to glamorous presentation, relates analogically to democracy; it suggests a missing part of the Constitution that says, 'Every American has the right to be glorified by Andres Serrano'.
Fortunately for us and for him people are not merely their social roles, and nor are they photographs - that is, they are not two-dimensional, and their lives transcend the frame. Haloed in roseate ring-flash, nine-year-old Boy Scout John Schneider has a tight-lipped smile, dimples and mischievous eyes, and happens to look very like a young Bill Clinton.
In a work of art tacitly supportive of the current administration, that's a nudging irony to set beside the show's other, larger ones: for example, that this connoisseur of Weird America recently found nothing weirder about the 'United States' than it being, for once, united not by strength but by vulnerability following an attack. Or that his photographic celebration of transatlantic diversity also telegraphs a fearful flipside: 'Don't hate us; we're not all stupid rednecks.' That such a thing might ever require saying is, of course, interesting in itself.
Such duplicities and reversals are unquestionably the chief pleasures of 'America'. How many of them were anticipated by the artist is open to question. In the end - as Andy Warhol would say - it doesn't really matter. But it would be nice to think that Serrano, who knows all about being misrepresented, had decided to turn the tables himself and, in making a body of work that feels secretly fissured and problematic but is ostensibly patriotic, to ensure he never again gets called a jerk by Jesse Helms.
First published in Issue 73