As the Contemporary Arts Center prepares to open After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe this Friday, the show — especially the opening itself — is taking on a much more historical dimension than first planned.The primary thrust of the show remains: Seven regional curators have each chosen five new works by local artists that reflect how Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment influences today’s artistic landscape. When the CAC presented that show in 1990, law-enforcement officials infamously and unsuccessfully prosecuted it on obscenity charges.
But one new and key element will be a 7 p.m. Friday lecture, for CAC members only, by photographer Andres Serrano. His 1987 “Piss Christ,” an eerily beautiful color image of a plastic crucifix inside a glass of urine, was as much a part of the era’s “culture wars” as anything in Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment.
Because the National Endowment for the Arts funded a competition that “Piss Christ” won, the agency — and Serrano himself — became a target of conservatives angered at what they saw as a slight to religion. Serrano has gone on to have a successful career, often with provocative subject matter. (He also has done work related to the homeless.)
“We had been thinking about an artist talk to keep the momentum going that began with the (Oct. 23-24) Mapplethorpe symposium,” says Steven Matijcio, the CAC’s curator. “There were very high-profile and well-respected curators, artists and writers involved with that and we wanted to continue that level of discussion.
“The more discussion we had, the more Serrano’s name rose to the top as a speaker,” Matijcio continues. “We thought he could offer a perspective on being embroiled in the epicenter of that kind of moment.”
In an email interview with CityBeat, Serrano provided some additional insight:
“The lecture will be an overview of my work over the past 25 years. I don’t feel qualified to speak about anyone’s work other than my own,” he says.
About the “culture wars,” he says, “We fought a war and it remains to be seen whether that war was won or lost. Although it paved the way for some, many artists coming out today don’t even know what happened. It’s like trying to explain the ’60s to people who don’t know who The Beatles are.”
And he also explained the motivation for “Piss Christ.” “(It) was done at a time when I was experimenting with bodily fluids and making photographs that looked more like painting than photography. At first, the fluids were used in an abstract way with monochromes like ‘Blood,’ ‘Milk’ and ‘Piss.’ Soon after I created the Immersions, a series where I immersed different objects into the fluids, ‘Piss Christ’ being the most famous example.
“When I was a kid, I remember reading that Ulysses by James Joyce had once been banned in this country,” he continues. “Ridiculous, I thought at the time. What I can’t explain is why ‘Piss Christ’ remains controversial.”
Also giving After the Moment more of a historical dimension is the fact that now 13 of Mapplethorpe’s own photographs will be displayed. Many — if not all — were in the The Perfect Moment, including one of a naked 5-year-old boy, “Jesse McBride,” that was specifically cited in the 1990 prosecution. Also, 1980’s “Man in a Polyester Suit,” controversial for its depiction of a man wearing a suit but exposing his penis, will be shown.
Additionally, Lightborne Communications has loaned a video “walkthrough” of The Perfect Moment shot while the show was in Cincinnati. It will be played continuously in the gallery. “It gives you sort of a little time-capsule view of exhibition,” Matijcio says.
William Messer is presenting a subsection to the main exhibit in which he is showing the work of four notable photographers whose work, he told Matijcio, faced censorship pressures here and elsewhere around the time of The Perfect Moment.
These are Arno Minkkinen’s “The Glass Penis,” Joel Peter Witkin’s “Leda,” Rosalind Solomon’s “Catalin Valentine’s Lamb” and Sally Mann’s “The Wet Bed.” Messer is also showing one of his own photos that caused controversy.
(After the Moment will be on display through March 13, 2016. Visit contemporaryartscenter.org for details.)
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected].