ART REVIEW : 'Bleeding Heart' Skips a Few Beats

TIMES ART CRITIC

"El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart" is a relatively small exhibition, and it would probably be a better one if it were even smaller. The show is emblematic of the danger inherent in thematic presentations that allow the topic, rather than the art, to drive the exhibition. Fewer than half the paintings and sculptures of the 17 artists surveyed are more than mediocre.

The show, which opened Fridayat the Newport Harbor Art Museum--and which continues through Valentine's Day!--looks at the image of the human heart as a vehicle for artistic expression, mostly in recent work by Mexican, Cuban and Chicano artists (one Anglo is included).

Organized by Elisabeth Sussman, former curator of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, where it had its debut 14 months ago, "The Bleeding Heart" links this contemporary work explicitly with traditions prominent in Spanish Colonial religious painting and sculpture of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and with even earlier customs of pre-Columbian cultures.

In a host of ways, Spanish conquistadors transformed Aztec myths by fusing them with Catholic ones. The bleeding heart is a prime example.

Central to a sacrificial ritual associated in pre-Columbian Mexico with fertility, it became in the Colonial era an image of specifically Christian redemption--of fertility as rebirth, through the suffering and resurrection of Christ. Today, the image is ubiquitous in Mexican popular and religious culture.

Artistically, a bridge between this history and the present day is offered by the work of Frida Kahlo, which is often emphatic in its meshing of a highly personal iconography with rich and variegated traditions indigenous to Mexico. The drawback for the exhibition is that none of the three Kahlo paintings originally exhibited in Boston has been allowed to travel with the show. At Newport, a single lithograph from 1932 is left to bear the burden.

Indeed, a number of other deletions weaken the presentation. An introductory grouping of Colonial art is missing its most powerful Baroque example: Juan Correa's 1690 "Allegory of the Sacrament," in which a luxurious grape arbor grows from the bloody wound in the side of the crucified Christ, thus articulating in a spectacular way the miracle of the sacramental wine.

A few small Colonial works are on view at the entrance to the show, but this assembly of devotional retablos is rather cursory. Most notable is a bittersweet, anonymous, 19th-Century painting on tin, which shows a trinity of lambs drinking blood from a fountain fed by a radiant, gushing heart. However, absent a major example from the Baroque era, which was the crucible for the extraordinary fusion of Catholic colonialism with pre-Columbian mythology, the powerful vitality of the image that this show means to examine never comes across.

At the other end of the spectrum, one can only look longingly at the catalogue photograph of the huge "Heart of America," a 1987 sculpture by the late Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso. Woven from branches and jute, and taller than a standing person, it seems to be a tour de force--but likewise didn't travel to California.

Elso's small, framed hearts of broken clay offer a faint echo of the potential power of the absent sculpture. Meanwhile, his Icarus-themed sculpture of wings fashioned from branches, substituted for the missing "Heart," is only vaguely related to the subject of the show. e fragile wings are affixed to a spine shaped like a cross.)

In fact, "The Bleeding Heart" plays rather fast and loose with its ostensible theme. Julio Galan can be an interesting painter, for example, but you'll be hard pressed to find the titular image in the canvases shown here.

The same is true of Jaime Palacios' "The Wedding of the Virgin," which is a pictographic rendering of the ritualized cutting of a braid of hair; of Nahum B. Zenil's "Sit Down With Confidence" and "Private Affair," in which the seats of two chairs are each painted with an image of an erect penis, one sheathed in a condom, one not, and of many others.

The image of a bleeding heart as transformative icon is here extended to images--or even merely poetic suggestions--of blood itself. Palacios' severed braid invokes the sexual transformation of marriage, while Zenil's condom conjures the specter of infected blood in the age of AIDS. Galan's "Amaranth With Blood and Lemon" shows a flower imprinted with a face and hovering over a sea of crimson blood--the amaranth being a flower whose common name is "love-lies-bleeding," as well as a fictional bloom said to never die.

To suggest that any--or all--of these works of art is particularly descended from the traditional icon of the bleeding heart is, however, to stretch credulity beyond its limits. If that were so, any recent painting or sculpture that had AIDS as a subtext might hang easily in this exhibition. The lackadaisical looseness of this show's selections runs counter to the specificity with which powerful works of art give form to formless feelings.

In the show, images of the bleeding heart give way to images of blood, which in turn give way simply to images of the human body. The body as a field of social and political articulation has become a fixture in contemporary art, and this exhibition widens its scope in an effort to tap into that fashionable subject.

Yet, aside from the abundance of just-plain-mediocre work, there's rarely any sense that the "body" of art itself has been curatorially engaged. If it had, the paintings of Michael Tracy would have been essential for the exhibition.

Tracy, the only Anglo in the show, is represented by one of his processional sculptures. Ironically, this time the fact that its shape loosely resembles a heart (pierced through by assorted knives and daggers) doesn't serve the best purposes of the exhibition. It's his large abstract paintings, which have no imagery and are not included in the show, that are his most resonant explorations of this show's theme.

These large and aggressive abstractions are composed of glowing paint, gouged and abraded and heavily layered on canvases that hang freely, but with an awful weight, from the wooden stretcher bars to which they are nailed. Typically they are framed at the top by humble, if elaborately decorative, tin coronas.

Thus are the physical materials of a conventional painting deployed in a powerful evocation of a crucified body. It could be said that what guided Spanish colonialists in their brutal conquest of the Americas was a divinely ignited faith in the necessary death and transformative resurrection of entire civilizations. And the imagery in works of art, including the bleeding heart, was among the most powerful weapons in their arsenal.

Tracy's paintings, which embody the substance of the bleeding heart image, transcend the merely topical references to which it is put by so many of the artists in the show. It's a level of cultural articulation that "El Corazon Sangrante" never even begins to address.

Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, (714) 759-1122, through Feb. 14. Closed Mondays.

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