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ART REVIEW : Tracy’s Theology of Liberation

Times Art Writer

If Michael Tracy were a film maker instead of an artist, his work might kick up as big a fuss as “The Last Temptation of Christ.” A hasty visit to “Terminal Privileges,” opening today at USC’s Fisher Gallery, might suggest that he has embalmed the trappings of Christianity in an unholy mantle.

The show offers a strange, sometimes spooky assortment of collages, paintings, photographs and assemblages in a theatrical ambiance. Iridescent, iconlike objects are slathered with gooey materials, encrusted with paint and planted with tufts of hair. Rough-hewn crosses are hung with metal hearts and stabbed with knives.

Photographs of agonizing, Christ-like figures are crossed out with brush strokes of blood. A huge black panel called “Icon of Despair” is repeatedly torn and pierced with spikes.

Abstract or symbolic though they may be, most of the pieces read as mortified flesh. They tunnel back into Mexican traditions of human sacrifice and mix with more modern notions of a mutilated, terrifyingly dead Christ whose image strikes fear into the hearts of the wayward and inspires believers to look forward to a spiritual afterlife, free from mortal torment.

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Tracy was educated in Catholic schools and has traveled extensively in Mexico. For the last decade or so he has lived along the U.S.-Mexico border and based his art on Mexican religious iconography. Recently he has dedicated pieces to victims of war in Nicaragua and El Salvador, such as Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero. Now a resident of San Ygnacio, Tracy may have the largest international following of any Texas artist, though he is not as well known here as, say, James Surls, Vernon Fisher and Melissa Miller.

The flamboyantly produced exhibition catalogue (printed in Mexico, in Spanish and English) leaves the impression that this is pretentious, self-involved art parading under the banner of religion. Tracy’s is an art of excess. The very antithesis of puritanical, Nordic restraint, his work is based on elaborate rituals and baroque forms associated with Latin cultures.

But seen at USC, the work seems less concerned with religion and the artist’s persona than with Central American politics and human rights. In the most ambitious pieces, displayed in a gallery that Tracy says deals with “the theology of liberation,” religious trappings are simply an indigenous form chosen to address the plight of an exploited and abused citizenry.

These works include five “Stations of the Cross"--brownish portal-like paintings with tooled metal cornices--and four towering “Cross” structures mounted on bases that resemble litters used to carry statues of favorite saints in village ceremonies. Upper portions of the wooden crosses bristle with animal horns, while lower parts are covered by flared skirts of small, iconlike paintings, metal crosses and hearts--all suspended from braided-rag ropes.

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Around the base of each “Cross” are piles of dry and fresh flowers that accumulate during the course of the traveling show. New flowers are added each week but none are thrown away.

This makes for a peculiar spectacle--at least for those who are uninitiated in Catholic village rites. The “Crosses” look rather like nightmarish Christmas trees, festooned with relics and remnants of snuffed-out life. Like African sculpture that draws power from encrusted materials applied during rituals or Mexican shrines that become magnetic receptacles for offerings and prayers, these works drip with evidence of supplication. But the gallery reeks of death--and it’s no inspirational escape.

A group of photographs that might be overlooked amid this sensual overload is conceptually the most interesting piece in the show. Not the usual documentary report of a performance, these black-and-white photos are more like remnants of “Sugar Sacrifice,” a private, filmed event held in 1974 at a sugar warehouse in Galveston, Tex.

Setting up a painted “rug” and “altar” in the shadow of a 20,000-pound mountain of sugar, Tracy “sacrificed” what he regarded as his best painting. Symbolically, he meant to sacrifice art to food as a gesture of serving the greater good in a world where he believes hungry people outnumber the well-fed.

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Politically motivated art can rarely be more than a conscience-raiser. This grandiose but hermetic ritual only exists on film and photographs, but the pictures suggest a visually powerful extravaganza in which the sugar resembles an Egyptian pyramid and a warehouse is transformed into a mystically charged landscape.

The exhibition (continuing to Oct. 29) was organized by Edward Leffingwell for P.S. 1, the Institute for Art and Urban Resources in New York. (Leffingwell was recently named director of visual arts for Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department.) After leaving USC, the show will travel to Ohio State University at Columbus, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Cultural Center of Contemporary Art in Mexico City.

Fisher Gallery at USC is open Tuesday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Information: (213) 743-2799.


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