San Francisco

Michael Tracy


For “Santuarios,” his installation here, Michael Tracy made the exhibition space over as a chapel. He had the main gallery’s high walls painted dark gray and deployed along them, and on bases throughout the room, a large selection of the exquisitely traumatized ritual objects he’s been making during the last ten years. Thick, stumpy cruciform assemblages, crepuscular shrines and paintings, and iridescent bas-relief panels drew illumination from the skylight overhead, bristling in spectral heaps of semipermeable catastrophe, a chthonic mulch.

These lurid memento mori contrasted with the cool, clean lines of wooden grillwork partitions and furnishings—including a couple of large uninviting chairs and a confessional—all built to specifications for the show by Mexican craftsmen. Tracy dedicated the chapel to the recent war dead of Nicaragua and El Salvador and the Mexican mojados (wetbacks) traversing the border near San Ygnacio, Texas, where he lives. Altogether the installation had a loaded, no-false-notes, incontrovertibly ceremonial look. This was augmented by the fact that it was used on two occasions to enact the Roman Catholic Mass: once for the local Hispanic community, and again for healing the AIDS epidemic.

Tracy’s type of mixed-media art can be as enthralling as it is gross. A legend has grown around how his things have been worked over—covered with acrylic gel and metallic powders, exposed to the Texas weather, doused with blood and urine, interred and exhumed, stuck this way and that with pointed instruments (beside standard-issue knives, swords, and spikes, some lethal-looking, outsized sewing needles), and eventually hung with almost every available votive and reliquary item, from hanks of hair to tin and brass milagros. Paradoxically, the traces of this accumulated, immolative process congeal into objects of dazzling preciosity, in which transcendence appears hopelessly mired. That they might be just beautiful objects gives the art-world congregation pause: the esthetic success triggers a reflexive shame. If an expiation of social cruelty is yearned for, even palpably at hand, it is also forever deferred—a casualty of the art’s seductive, insistently decodable ideographic surface.

Tracy’s iconography builds to one long, deracinated prayer—operatic, noble, tremulous in the coloratura range. But his prayer’s actual weight makes of it an obdurate delay. The point may be that his offerings can be provisional at best, that their very dysfunction pinpoints the blind spots we’ve cultivated against communion with the world’s ills. Their prime efficacy is to make the viewer, as Tracy says, “sensitive to other people’s pain,” without any real hope of assuaging that condition. Following a desperate theology of liberation, his gouged icons embody—and embroider—secular horror by lumping it together with a refashioned religious myth. Their project, though, is not so much to adorn the cross as to penetrate it, to probe the truth beneath its veneer, extrude its pulp. The confusion involved here is proportionate to the viewer’s capacity for taking such exacerbated sacramental imagery to heart as anything other than a theatrical conceit. As theater, Tracy’s chapel was momentous and awesome, and perhaps that is efficacy enough. Its down-and-dirty perversity inspires belief. That neither Tracy’s sincerity nor his power to project it is in question is extraordinary to begin with. Does his religious art have a hope in hell? As Jack Kerouac once said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”

Bill Berkson