Andres Serrano Solves Homelessness with New Work

andres serrano residents of new york west 4th street

MTA employees hang Andres Serrano's "Residents of New York" portraits of NYC's homeless.

andres serrano residents of new york west 4th street

Homeless person, homeless person, James Murphy, bag of trash, homeless person, homeless person, homeless person.

andres serrano residents of new york west 4th street
andres serrano residents of new york west 4th street
May 19, 2014

On my way out of the W4th Street Station, I saw fresh posters being hung in the corridor leading to the exit. I'd read about this last week. It's the Andres Serrano homeless people portrait project.

I think he solved homelessness with this or something, right? As I understand it, he took photos of homeless people, or maybe just the self-selecting set of folks that are professional panhandlers and beggars, with a very fancy, large format camera – after he paid them $20 for their cardboard"Help Me" signs. When he approached a subject, Serrano explained things to them like so:

I’m an artist. And artists see things in a different way. And one of the things I see are the signs the homeless have. I’m buying these signs because I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that should be heard. Can I offer you $20 for your sign?

Those signs went up on some gallery wall, along with the prints of those homeless people, and became collectable art objects. 

Recalling one moment of transcendent person-to-person communion, Serrano writes on his site:

My funniest encounter, the one that always makes me smile, was the time I approached two guys who were slouched over, deep asleep in the afternoon, at 17th Street and Park Avenue South. These guys were out cold when I say to one of them, “Hey Mister, can I talk to you?” I’m crouching next to him on the sidewalk and he doesn’t respond so I nudge his hand, which is sticking out over his knee, and I say, “Hey Mister, I want to talk to you.”

He doesn’t move but waves his hand, shooing me away. So I say to him, “Listen. I want to buy something.” His head is covered in a hood and he says to me without looking up, “I’ve got nothing to sell.” “Your sign,” I say. “I want to buy your sign.” All of a sudden he jumps out of his slumber smiling as if he’d been called to a board meeting to make a deal. What I love is that it never occurred to him he had something someone wanted to buy.

Serrano is just so in touch with his subjects! He understands these people, these noble savages, these beautiful, primative humans, like the humans we all once were, with no modern day hang-ups like concepts of property or value.

With the $20 Serrano gave them, his subjects could finally get their lives together. With these people now off the streets and on gallery walls, the homelessness problem that plagued Bloomberg was now solved. A feel-good video was made so the rest of us would know we could stop worrying about homelessness as a contemporary social problem. Hooray, Andres Serrano, you did it!

Critical reactions:

"As of May 19, those used to seeing ads lining the corridors of the West Fourth Street subway station are in for a surprise. For a month, those corridors will instead be home to large-scale portraits of homeless people by the artist Andres Serrano." – Observer

A surprise indeed! Serrano's unique style and process birthed a work unlike anything seen in the corridor before, at least not since the large-scale portraits of coincidentally homeless-looking musicians used in Red Bull's campaign for their Music Academy. Since New Yorkers basically learn to ignore the homeless where and whenever they appear, even big, flattened, and on the walls, I doubt anybody's stopped to wonder why that one homeless guy is working turntables and having a great time when the others all seem to be hunched over on a sidewalk and mopey. But if such a person who would notice a homeless person did had stopped and wondered that thought aloud, I would politely tell that wondering person that the homeless guy at the turntables just looks homeless, but is, in actuality, a real big influencer in the indie dance music scene. He's James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. He always looks like that, you know, but he's doing pretty well. He runs a record label and makes music and such. They even made documentary about him.

The naiveté and myopia of Serrano’s idealism are evident in the premise of the project. – Hyperallergic

Oh. Well, yeah. There's that too. 

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