Essays

There’s Ego Aplenty in Andres Serrano’s Exhibition on Trump

The “Piss Christ” artist’s surprise exhibition of Trump memorabilia speaks to the darkest corridors of American idolatry, but does the artist speak for the nation or just himself?

Installation view of Andres Serrano’s The Game: All Things Trump (2019) (photo by author)

One year ago, President Donald Trump staged a bizarre visit to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Touring the 500 acres with French president Emmanuel Macron and their wives, he criticized the founding father’s spartan design choices and lack of aesthetic flare.

“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

How we could spin that offhand remark into a dissertation on the unbridled egotism of Trumpmania and the underpinning psychologies of power, but the artist Andres Serrano has already beaten us to the proverbial punch.

Andres Serrano, Donald Trump signed American flag from The Game (2019) (image courtesy a/political and ArtX)

Call it coincidence or kismet. Around the same time that the president was disparaging his predecessor’s colonial manse, Serrano began collecting Trump paraphernalia marketed, branded, or signed by the real-estate tycoon. $200,000 and an eBay addiction later, the artist has curated his MAGA memorabilia into a distressing cabinet of curiosities called The Game: All Things Trump, currently on view at ArtX, a new gallery/club in Manhattan. Wedding cake, slot-machines, kazoos, steaks, dolls, posters, uniforms, diplomas, magazines, ties, hairspray, soap, cuff links, and condoms — Serrano has spared no expense for his object-based portrait of America’s most polarizing leader. There are also autographed pictures of the president’s cadre of female gudgeons: Ivanka, Ivana, and Kellyanne Conway all make appearances. Hillary Clinton appears multiple times on magazine covers and behind bars on fraudulent dollar bills, all signed by Trump. Songs like Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” play over loudspeakers, verbalizing the all-too-obvious meaning behind the artist’s cavalcade of crap.

Cabinet detail (© John Mireles, image courtesy a/political and ArtX)

“I make art about very basic things,” Serrano has said. “Life, death, sex, religion, excrement … it’s only natural that it’s now Trump.” It’s a deflated explanation for an artist who traffics in the outrageous and spectacular, providing art crowds with a perennial shock.

Controversy made Serrano’s career. A catalyst of the 1989 culture wars, his “Piss Christ” enraged Republicans who described it as “morally reprehensible trash” and shredded an image of the work on the US Senate floor. The urine-bathed crucifix became a symbol of blasphemy for conservatives already determined to gut the National Endowment for the Arts, which had previously awarded the artist with a $20,000. The ensuing media circus earned Serrano name recognition and death threats. It also calcified his raison d’être as a builder and breaker of iconographies. Capable with a camera, Serrano has photographed corpses in a morgue (1992), sex acts (1995–96), and the homeless population of New York (2014). And in 2015, he embarked on his Torture series, recreating the horrors of Abu Ghraib juxtaposed with photos from Stasi prison and the Dachau concentration camp. That project, like The Game, was produced in partnership with a/political, a London-based arts initiative that encourages artists to interrogate social and political themes.

And of course, Serrano is heavily implicated in the creation of Trump’s cult of personality. In 2004, the artist photographed the businessman for his America series. That was a banner year for Trump, who sought to reinvent himself as a  reality television star after a series of embarrassing casino bankruptcies in the nineties. Serrano’s portrait of the future president became a grace note for the first-season success of The Apprentice, affixing America’s image of Trump as someone who, in the braggart’s own words, does “so much winning.” An avatar of excess from the booming early aughts, the artist renders the robber baron with a sly smirk and halo of light. It’s a haughty image stuck somewhere between the Baroque and a high school portrait — the Juicy Couture of photographs if there ever was one.

Copy of Esquire magazine signed by Trump (image courtesy a/political and ArtX)

Why has the Trump portrait trailed Serrano in recent years? It was included in an exhibition of Torture at Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017 and it features prominently inside The Game. The artist integrates himself into the broader array of Trump’s marketing machine not as an expression of guilt but as a symbolic gnashing of teeth. Or better yet, it’s the same cry of cognitive dissonance I’ve heard from every corner of the political commentariat: liberal, middle-aged men wallowing in the same egotism of self-pity that drives Trump’s presidency.

And there is ego aplenty in Serrano’s exhibition. He builds The Game around an enormous rotating sign from the Trump-owned Taj Mahal’s EGO Lounge. Directly across from this emblem of megalomania is an oversized reproduction of Serrano’s Trump portrait, which hangs on the wall alongside a fleet of mannequins dressed as MAGA brownshirts. This ham-fisted tête-à-tête between the two men undoes much of the conceptual marketing behind the exhibition. What is billed as an opportunity for the public to grasp the long-term scale of Trump’s self-promotional schemes operates as a more intimate projection of Serrano’s own anxieties about the political present.

Trump mask (© John Mireles, image courtesy a/political and ArtX)

Critics have worried that The Game “glorifies a monster” or “gives him too much attention.” I don’t. Nor do I believe that Serrano’s thousand-object catalogue says anything interesting about American identity before or after Trump’s election. What Serrano has created is a reliquary to retrograde machismo. This exhibition is about narcissism to the umpteenth degree — the kind only certain artists, businessmen, and politicians can withstand.

Not that I blame Serrano for falling into the trap. Trump is rubber to everyone else’s glue: attempts to criticize him usually backfire when driven by animosity. Such hysteria becomes pathological and unwieldy, distorting good sense and turning introspection outward. It’s the kind of circular thinking that spins an “I” statement into a “we” generalization. The Game exemplifies this faulty carousel of logic, as it attempts to indict the public for allowing a bigot to rise through the national ranks.

Such claims are only half-truths, underplaying the complexities of American politics and the socioeconomics that drive them. How many people have $200,000 to spend on the merchandise of their enemies? And when critics seeing The Game opine that “we loved this shit [Trump], ate it up — even as we hated it and mocked it,” one has to wonder who this “we” is, exactly. It’s certainly not the majority of Americans who voted against Trump, including large swaths of millennials and minority voters.

Seen from this angle, Serrano’s well-intentioned exhibition is a bully pulpit for the disaffected one percent, a soapbox of privilege for the elite New Yorkers who may have antagonized Trump toward the president, flattering him with business deals and televised syndication. But The Game reveals nothing new about our fire and fury president for those of us who’ve watched his brutal ascendancy with open eyes. Instead, Serrano fumbles with his resources, using his artistic arsenal to battle Trump — one embittered shock jockey against another.

Installation view (photo by author)
Installation view (photo by author)

The Game: All Things Trump continues at ArtX (409 West 14th Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan). The exhibition, which runs through June 9, is curated by Andres Serrano and organized by Becky Haghpan-Shirwan and Sylwia Serafinowicz of a/political

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