Michael Tracy

A Bon Chat/Bon Rat Gallery

MICHAEL TRACY’s work is a combination of performance and powerful personal expression. One of his themes is martyrdom, by means of flaying, piercing or decay. Some of his paintings have heavy bronze spikes hammered through them, giving the surface a half-destroyed effect. There are also organic references: Tracy called a flap hanging in the center of one work a heart, and the canvas itself a skin.

The show of the last ten years of his work divided into two parts. The downstairs was primarily dark, heavy painting and a stagelike setting devoted to the elaborate Sugar Sacrifice executed in Galveston in 1974. The Sacrifice was a performance inside a sugar warehouse before a monumental pyramid of sugar; Tracy, with assistants, pierced one of his paintings with bronze spikes, raised it on a fork lift and celebrated with an orgy. The event was documented in the recent show by huge photographs. In front, Tracy arranged a large catafalque covered with a gold encrusted canvas (old painting cracked by the sun) and placed a small round “ash urn” that contained the remains of the pierced painting after it was burned. The Sacrifice ritual was extended into the present by the dramatic presentation.

Upstairs the works were lighter and more positive, with smaller pieces resembling icons and a few large gold paintings. The small works are recent, the gold paintings earlier. The sense of release upstairs was very strong after being assaulted with the heavy energy of the lower floor.

The gold paintings are Byzantine in their effect, creating an altar association that helps explain the scale of much of the painting in the show. Recently, Tracy said, he has been “pulling away from passion and dealing with architectonic formality.” The Piacula (the word refers to atonement) is a peculiar structure bearing a pile of cloth, hair and skin that looks burned. A stark, white architectural throne enclosed and overpowered the debris, but the idea of containing the expressionistic dimension of his work in a strong shape works well in the smaller monstrance and reliquary pieces.

Inconspicuously stacked in a pile upstairs were his “Caravaggio Notations,” a series of 100 photographs (out of a total of 500 taken) that record a psychodrama between Tracy and a male friend. The baroque poses are sometimes hard to decipher when one figure wears a second skin (panty hose) or the image is painted over with Tracy’s blood. In other photographs, the drama and violence are clear. The combination of violence and mystery—of direct assault on the viewer’s emotional life and of reserving a quality of the mysterious and incomprehensible—pervades all Tracy’s work.

Tracy is concerned with Catholic traditions of martyrdom and sacrifice; he identifies with Caravaggio’s struggle with directness, violence and sensuality. The use of Tracy’s own blood recalls New Mexican Penitenti who reenact the Good Friday walk, beating themselves until they bleed. In the blandness and security of contemporary life, this kind of physical experience contains a magnetic power and directness.

Formally, Tracy forms a bridge between two aspects of contemporary art: mythic/heroic abstract expressionism and the violence of someone like Edward Kienholz or Francis Bacon. Emotionally, Tracy combines tight control and intense expressionism. Most unique is the performance aspect of his work.

In a way the entire exhibition during its one-month run in Austin was an extended performance. Tracy was constantly present in the exhibition and even lived in the gallery. An ongoing drama occurred between the artist and his works and the visitors to the exhibition who were, almost without exception, immediately confronted by the intense personality of the artist. Thus, the works that were products of other ceremonies become, collectively, an environment for a new ceremony—that of the self-conscious presentation of the art and the artist to the public. For Tracy is was an act of painful exposure. For the public it was a uniquely emotional confrontation.

Susan Platt