New York

Michael Tracy

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The shrine: a facsimile of an adobe arch, studded with rusty nails, frames a mound of metallic excrescence which has been punctured with cleavers, cutlasses, and daggers. The relic: a bulky gold cross, mounted like a palanquin, is adorned with tin charms, girdled with a wreath of thorns, and pierced at the crossbeam by a cluster of swords. Both sculptures are sinister avatars which suggest the moribundity of El Dorado after the gold ran out and the empires unraveled. Through them, Michael Tracy fancifully conjures up the myths of the conquistadors and the fetishistic marriage of paganism and Catholicism. His mottled, coruscant surfaces do not pretend to be antique (the works are clearly reactions, not re-creations); his shrine and relic are as theatrical as they are sculptural. Their florid authority is the result of a melodramatic combination of folklore and suggestive props.

The relief paintings: in Tracy’s “Series for Mishima,” hanks of hair are splayed against blue backgrounds which have been vividly punctuated with splotches of red. It looks like a head that has just slammed into a windshield. The approximation of real violence is convincing, right down to little clumps of matter which gelatinously adhere to the hair. This series is blunt, unsophisticated, gross and, I suspect, terribly sincere. It also really repels me.

A similar reaction was provoked by my only previous exposure to Tracy’s work, in a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Done in 1976, his “Series for Pasolini” was composed of collaged stills from Pasolini’s last film, Salo/Sodom, which was completed shortly before he was savagely murdered. The stills were mounted on black poster board and smeared with crosses of blood. Just as the film is seriously compromised by Pasolini’s almost luxuriant meditation on the sadistic properties of absolute power (it graphically depicts the degradation and destruction of a group of adolescents by Fascist bureaucrats in Mussolini’s ill-fated Republic of Salo), so too Tracy’s series appeared indulgently, simplistically exploitative. With their images of mutilation and bloody crosses, the collages were complicit with and complementary to Salo/Sodom’s ambiguous rubric of violence; the confused esthetic hovered somewhere between contemplation and simulation. Tracy’s statement in the show’s 1976 catalogue was as much a call for a film festival as a eulogy: “All the films of Pasolini must now be made available to the world. . . . what happened in Salo and what happened to Pasolini is happening in varying degrees to each of us today.” The latter is an observation which I tend to agree with. However, Tracy’s work gets caught up in the dynamics of violence and ultimately succumbs to them, and that’s still the crux of my problem with his recent “Series for Mishima.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini and Yukio Mishima are too easily situated on the darker shores of heroism. The murder of Pasolini and the ritual suicide of Mishima (seppuku followed by beheading) are acts which can be misconstrued as emblems of perverse transcendence. Unfortunately, this approach tells us nothing about these two men; why Pasolini was murdered, or why Mishima took his own life. By mimicking the brutality of their deaths, in opposition to the affirmative art which distinguished their lives, Michael Tracy’s response is inappropriate. (If there were a “Series for Joe Orton,” would he be established as a playwright or the victim of an ax murder?)

Tracy’s shrine and relic benefit from historic distancing. As art, they are complete in and of themselves. As provocations, they warrant a reasoned response. The paintings on the other hand, are like panicky reactions to events which haven’t been healthily assimilated.

Richard Flood