As did many, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1995 to gawk at Andres Serrano’s controversial photograph Immersions (Piss Christ) (1987). Alfonse D’Amato had piqued my interest when he described it as a “despicable display of vulgarity.” Entering with an open mind, I was rewarded by a gallery of seductively hued images of bodily fluids: scarlet blood, aureolin urine, ivory shades of milk and semen. I was confronted by portraits of nomads and nuns, Klansmen and priests. But I found myself mesmerized by Serrano’s The Morgue images. Titled simply by cause of death (suicide by pills, AIDS related, etc.), the images were simultaneously gruesome and mysteriously gratifying–a penetration of the subject’s agency through criminal photography and the history of religious painting. In The Morgue (Knifed to Death I) (1992), sexual and racial identity is institutionally rendered by the blackened fingerprints of the victim/criminal by the police/coroner. I found the image (and series) far more emblematic than Piss Christ of the cultural battle taking place from classrooms to Congress over how ideological power was wielded.
Calvin Phelps, Curator and Artist