Andres Serrano’s first-ever public-art project aims to open your eyes to New York City’s homeless

The controversial Piss Christ photographer’s large-scale portraits of destitute New Yorkers will be on display May 19–June 15

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  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Donald Green), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the ArtistCopyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Anthony Caruana), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Richard C. Williams), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Misty McCall), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Joseph Miller), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Dale Davis), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Bernice Thomas), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Alberto Guerra), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Drysl), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (John M. Lavery), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (William), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Charise Paschall), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Chris Cahill), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Chris Witherspoon), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Dean Mark), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Ilya Leon), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Isaac Nelson), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Jason Brown), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (John W. Smith), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Karen Davies), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Kathleen Sulivan), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Kevin Blake), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Mario), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Meow Wolfman), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Michael Pilgrim), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Paul J. Hoffman), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Peyson Gonzalez), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Peyson Gonzalez), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Peyson Gonzalez), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Sleeze), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Stephanie Green), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Thomas Malinowsky), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Timothy Hicks), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Walt Sobolewski), 2014

  • Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

    Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (William Arnold), 2014

Photograph: Copyright of the Artist, courtesy More Art

Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Donald Green), 2014


Along with Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer Andres Serrano helped to unleash the culture wars of the late 1980s, thanks to his most famous—or infamous—work: Piss Christ, a photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a transparent vat of urine. Nothing about the image itself is all that shocking; it appears quite devotional at first glance, a reflection of the artist's Catholic upbringing. But its title and the knowledge of how it was made—and most importantly, that fact that it was included in an exhibition underwritten with taxpayer dollars—was enough to launch a right-wing jihad in Washington, D.C., to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a move that succeeded in limiting federal arts funding to this day.

As his first public-art project ever, Serrano plans to seed the area around Washington Square Park, La Guardia Place and the West 4th Street subway station with large-scale color photos of homeless people. It's being made by possible in part by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and while it is unlikely to rekindle the outrage of 25 years ago, it may prick the conscience of many New Yorkers.

Serrano worked with 85 individuals, men and women, currently living on the street. Although his usual working method is to shoot his subjects in a controlled studio setting, Serrano chose to create these portraits outdoors on the spot where, more or less, these people spend their days. The results are undoubtedly striking: Serrano imbues his sitters with a profound sense of human dignity. They could even be interpreted as being part of the so-called Ecce Homo theme in Christian art—in which the scourged Messiah is presented to Pontius Pilate, as the latter exclaims, "Behold the man!"—a genre that Serrano, as an aficionado of religious imagery, is undoubtedly familiar with.

Of course, the project raises the legitimate question of whether or not it would have been better to spend the money by directly helping the homeless. Indeed, it seems a bit obtuse to lavish public funds on what is, after all, an exercise in creating art out of misery. But it is also perhaps the case that this is part of Serrano's point: that we as society have become so inured to the plight of the homeless, it takes something like public art to remind us that they exist.

It's no coincidence that homelessness first became a visible problem in America around the same time those cultural warriors were inveighing against Serrano in Congress; they also created the legislation—in the form of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of the economy—that enabled the current gulf in income disparity. In effect, the homeless were the canaries in the coal mine. Yet most people chose to ignore the signs.

Which brings us back to the project's own uncomfortable question: Who among us hasn't on occasion stepped over or ignored a homeless person on the street or in the subway on our rush to some destination? Who hasn't even been annoyed by their presence? For one month at least, in one neighborhood of New York, Serrano's project will make it a little bit harder to turn away.


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