Andres Serrano has built a career out of making aesthetically pleasing images out of vile substances and taboo subjects, a strategy of provocation that had its flash point early on with "Piss Christ." The artist's latest project, a covers album recorded by a mask-wearing alter ego named Brutus Faust, may seem like a radical shift but is in fact very much in the same vein: outrageous on its face, it is, at its core, actually quite heartfelt.
Made with producer Steve Messina, the album — titled "Vengeance is Mine," and self-released — features songs by Led Belly, Paul Simon, the Proclaimers, and the Temptations, along with several penned by Serrano's girlfriend, Irina Movmyga. On the album, the artist sings in a Sprechgesang manner that owes much to the distinctive frog-throated rattle of Bob Dylan, with a few Brooklyn-accented yelps thrown in for good measure. ARTINFO's executive editor Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Serrano about the record, why music is harder than art school, and his admiration for the Lone Ranger.
See the end of the interview for a video of Brutus Faust's "Goo Goo Gaga."
How did this album come about?
Ever since I was a kid really I wanted to sing and be in a band, but instead I went to art school at the Brooklyn Museum Art School when I was a teenager because that was easier to do, and so I put it out of my mind for much of my life. And then a few years ago I thought, you know, I had done everything that I had wanted to do, I'd been the artist I never imagined I would be. So you hate to leave things undone, so I thought it would be necessary for a time to see if I could sing and see where it could take me, so I found a vocal coach, a singing teacher by the name of Marcy Jellison, and eventually through her found a producer and a musician with a band, a very good band that's been around for twenty years. Most important I discovered that the band could do what I needed done for me.
Did you ever play music?
No, not at all. I started training about three years ago. But the thing is, even though I never attempted to sing, I've always had a love of music. You know, music and film moves me emotionally, visual art does not really move me in the same way, an emotional way. Even though I did nothing about the musical side of my life I still feel connected to music, which is why it's not such a stretch for me. It is for people who know nothing about me, but it's because the music side of me has been hidden inside for all this time.
You said you didn't go into music because art school was easier?
Yeah, it was easier. It was 1967 and it was a time of hippies, and actually I was too antisocial to be part of any movement, even a band, and so the place where I fit in was with the other misfits at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School, you know. And art is something that you don't need to collaborate with other people about, it's just something that you get up and do on your own without any help from anyone else. And being an artist is sort of a no-brainer for me, I don't really need to think about it, even though people think that you have to develop skills, the skills you develop are nothing compared to the ideas. As an artist I always felt that ideas were the most important things. When I lack certain things i find the people who are good at what they do to do them. For instance, printing. I've never printed a photograph in my life, I've never been inside a darkroom. So there are a lot of technical things as an artist when you use a camera that you don't need to take care of yourself, even setting up my own equipments, I don't even do that, you know. I'm just interested in taking the picture. But with singing it's more involved, you have to work with the band, you have to sing, you have to learn to sing and you have to develop a feel for music. So it was something that I had to really work at.
Tell me about the character you sing as, Brutus Faust. Why did you adopt a persona, and how did you choose that name?
You know, I didn't want to sing as Andres Serrano. I'm older, I'm not that interesting visually. But also I like the idea of becoming an alter ego so that person can do things that you can't normally do and it sort of gives you license to be someone else. So I just tried to think of names that meant something or sounded interesting. It's funny because my own name, Andres Serrano, I never liked it when I was young. I felt that Elvis Presley, now that's a good name, Bob Dylan, that's a powerful name. I felt like my name wasn't so interesting. So it was only after I got attention because "Piss Christ" and being called this controversial artist, I started to see my name in print so many times that I started to see, oh, now that name does stand for something. Even to this day my name is a lightning rod for many things, good and bad. And so I realized that Andres Serrano the name stood for something, and in the same way I wanted to find a name that could stand for something. And it just seemed like the names Brutus and Faust when you put them together roll of the tongue. It's a heavy name.
It's almost like a supervillain name.
Yeah. And that's the thing. One of my idols as a kid was the Lone Ranger, and what I liked about the Lone Ranger was that no one ever knew if he was the good guy or the bad guy, and even at the end when he saved the town and everyone was happy, people were like, "Who was that masked man?" And by the time they went to thank him, he was gone. So I always liked that idea of being someone and doing things. And many people I've known in life, even neighbors. I just saw a neighbor yesterday. I've lived in this building for 10 years — it's a co-op building, it has lots of people — but still she always says hello to me, and then yesterday she said, "I saw you on 'Work of Art', I didn't know you were an artist." And I've always liked that, that sometimes my next-door neighbors don't even know what I do, and I don't even tell them — that you can be recognized for all these things you do in your life, but your next-door neighbors don't even know what you do.
Tell me about the cover. It looks like you're wearing a mask, almost a Batman mask.
Yeah, it is. I brought it down and shaped it differently, but it is a Batman mask that I got one Halloween when I dressed up as Batman. I had the name Brutus Faust, and I realized, ah, I have the mask, you put it on as a costume, and that's Brutus Faust. I've altered the mask so it's not so Batman, but it's a very simple idea of putting on a mask and becoming someone else. It's something that's very common in superhero folklore. But the photo on the cover is by Francesco Carrozzini, a young photographer who is very well known and has done a lot of work for magazines like Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, the New York Times. Basically I met Francesco a few months ago when he came to photograph me for Men's Vogue, and so I asked him if he would shoot me as Brutus.
What were you aiming for in your singing?
Well first of all I was trying to show appreciation for the songs that I love. Often I feel that the singer is one thing but the song is equally important, and there are many great singers and if they sing something that isn't quite up to par it's not the same as if they had a really great song. And so since I didn't know any song writers I thought that I would just rework the songs that I thought were great songs and try to reinvent the songs and make them sound different. But I didn't realize that my girlfriend wrote songs, so she wrote some songs and I came up with some of the lyrics for one of the songs, Goo Goo Gaga. But I feel that for many people originality is the most important thing, but for me the most important thing is the song itself. I'd rather do the cover of a great song than a song that is original but sucks.
It has to be noted that you sound a lot like Bob Dylan on the album. Why is that?
It's funny because I am a huge Bob Dylan fan, since I was very young, but people thought that Bob Dylan sounded like Woody Guthrie when he started because he was such a big Woody Guthrie fan. But along with Bob Dylan there are a lot of other singers that I appreciated, like Frank Sinatra and many other singers. But at some point you don't know, why do you sound like Bob Dylan? Because you like his music or you really sound like that.
Next month you're going to turn sixty. Did that have anything to do with your decision to release the album now?
No, not really. I figured, you know, I look around me and I have everything I want, except the apartment next door — to win the lottery and get a couple of mil so I can buy the apartment next to me and combine it into one. But other than that, I can't say I want anything more than what I have, and it's the same thing with my career as an artist. I've done a lot. And even though I'll still always create if there's a need for it or a demand for it, I don't feel the need to stay locked up as an artist forever, as a visual artist. So it's a time in life when you can either die, or keep on doing the same old thing I've always done, or I can reinvent myself and go after the things I've always thought about but never actually tried.
What kind of distribution are you going to have?
Right now it's on iTunes and Amazon. But, you know, I released it independently, and I'm depending on Steve Messina a lot for counsel and advice, because music is a new territory for me. It's not art. And even in art you can do your own thing, but eventually you need a gallery to champion you.
Are you going to do performances?
Oh, yeah, sure, at some point. I've never performed with the band so we'll have to rehearse, but I always do things when the need is there, like when people offer me things — a show, an exhibition — then I go do it, you know. But at some point that's part of the deal too.
Have you gotten any invitations?
Well, not really... well, kind of. But right now I'm focused on the videos of the songs — I've done three videos, "Love Letters," "Goo Goo Gaga," and "Bad Moon Rising," and I'm finishing editing "It's Now or Never." I want to do at least four or five more videos before I get to the performing stage. But as a visual artist I also recognize that a music video is a way to give the audience a chance to connect the dots, to see the bigger picture, so it's an aid to help them understand the music better.
Do you wear the mask in the videos?
In one of the videos I do, "Goo Goo Gaga." Most of the footage is from the Great Depression, of times back then, but there's a little footage that was shot by Francesco Carrozzini of me in the mask, and the image on the cover came from that shoot.
Your last gallery show was "Shit" at Yvon Lambert in 2008. Are you working on any upcoming shows, or is the music your main focus at the moment?
Actually I do have a show that I've done, and right now I don't have any plans to show it. Again, it's a matter of waiting for the right gallery to invite me to show it. But I've done a huge body of work that I'm hoping to make into a book. They're portraits, nude portraits. I don't like to get ahead of myself, doing too much work that goes nowhere, but when the time comes and someone wants a show I've got one for them, you know.
Are they erotic nudes? Or what genre?
No, I wouldn't say erotic. They're portraits of individuals showing their character, showing their physical as well as emotional traits, but they're in the nude. But it's a great range of people from all kinds of physical and emotional states, and that's what makes it my work in that I tried to reach out to as many people and tried to encapsulate as much of humanity as I can. There's about 180 of them, enough for a book.
Recently you were on "Work of Art," where you gave a star turn as the visiting artist. With that, and with this new album, are you looking to reach out to audiences through new mediums?
Absolutely. And I have to say that I feel good that I've become the kind of artist that I've always wanted to be, meaning the kind of artist whose work jumps out of the art world. That's one of the things I was excited about doing on Bravo, to speak to a mainstream audience and say that I'm an artist but I'm not an art-world elitist. No, I can see the art world from the inside and the outside, so I hoped people could see what I'm saying and see that I was an artist who came across and was plain-speaking and saying something that made sense to a lot of people. As a singer and as a musician, I'm trying to do the same thing. I'm not trying to be controversial, I'm just trying to show my love and appreciation for a certain kind of music, and hopefully find an audience that appreciates what I'm doing with it.