Season in Hell-Michael Tracy -Painting, sculpture, and film 1990 - 2021 at Bill Arning Exhibitions is Tracy’s first gallery exhibition since a relatively small show of only paintings in 2016. When Arning moved to Texas in 2009 he was haunted by his vivid memories of this Texas-based art maker’s magnificent and overwhelming Terminal Privileges, a large-scale career survey at PS1 in 1988. It is with great pride that the gallery presents a significantly more ambitious, if far from exhaustive, exhibition to provide Houston audiences a fuller sense of this master artist’s majestic unique art practice.
For five decades, Tracy’s work has contained a heady mix of the fraught political realities of the Texas/Mexico border region, queer mystic rituals and individualistic evocations of diverse art-histories—freely mixing Aztec sculptures, Classical Indian temple sculpture, the films of Pasolini with the violent eroticisms of the European painter Caravaggio. Today’s curators and cultural historians owe it to their fields of study to finally wrestle with his visionary art in all its varied physical manifestations. Tracy’s obsessions are more relevant today than ever.
Since 1978, Tracy has chosen to be based in a very small colonial era town called San Ygnacio, Texas near Laredo in the Rio Grande Valley. Even during the period when he was exhibiting regularly in the art centers of NYC, Europe, and Mexico. While originally from the Midwest, and also having spent time in Galveston, Tracy has found that being physically based on the US-Mexico border has powered his artistic decisions. Most of the performance works he made in the 70s and 80s, and especially the 1990 River Pierce ritual on the river, would be unthinkable in our era of heightened security around borders and neo-Puritinism around sacred, eroticized ceremonies. It’s clear in order to guard his artistic vision he needed to pursue his art in near isolation, showing only in very particular curatorial frameworks. One recent example was the Franklin Sirmans curated exhibition Neo HooDoo in 2008 at the Menil Collection and MoMA/Ps1. The brilliant consideration of self-generated spiritual expressions occurring outside the confines of organized religion contained Tracy’s classic cruciform work from the Menil Collection and was the image the New York Times used to illustrate their glowing review of this massive show. But still, his ongoing practice has been nearly invisible to all but the cognoscenti.
Tracy’s magnificently colorful and languidly paced film Flower Warrior, (Xochitl Tlayecouani), 1993 will be shown continuously in the gallery’s alcove space to contextualize Tracy’s ongoing engagement with pre-modern and non-western rituals. As film curator Steve Seid described its narrative “Visually exquisite, this work imagines a latter-day Aztecan ritual of purification and sacrifice. Shot in a majestic ruin nestled in the mountains above Guanajuato, Mexico, Flower Warrior follows the transformation of the Priest of the Flowers (played by Tracy's collaborator Yupanqui Aguilar) as he is first ritualistically cleansed and then confronts a host of warrior hummingbirds, subalterns from a primitive order. Tracy's proto-mythic drama takes the form of a sensually rendered procession of mystical encounters, filled with homoerotic "wild boys," ornate altars, exotic costuming and neo-indigenous music.” This film has existed as a rumor and has not been seen in Texas in decades.
Similarly, Amor Omnia, a unique and luxurious artist book documents a performance that occurred at the legendary German gallerist Michael Werner’s New York pied de Terre in 1993 for an invited audience of twelve art world luminaries. Facilitated by the late and equally mystical performance artist James Lee Byars, in Amor Omnia, a nude male with the carcass of a baby lamb around his neck, his head bedecked with flowers and face encrusted in gold performs a slow dance, part blood sacrifice, part erotic ecstasy. As in the artists drawings the book is filled with a scrawled writing, that reveals fragments of observation and explication but refuses to give itself fully over to our limited earthly attempts at deep comprehension.
Dozens of eroticized fragmentary bodies cast in heavily patinated bronze fill two large tables in the gallery. Heads kiss and engorged phalluses give real expression to the ghosts of lost lovers, queer spirit made manifest in imperfect and incomplete fleshy expressions. But like the floral blood rituals in Flower Warrior and Amor Omnia, the beautiful and transcendent energy produced during both worship and sex is interwoven with its potential for total destruction and, in its inescapable transience and reminder of our inescapable mortality.
Season in Hell clearly reveals that Tracy is an under-known master in so many ways. Indeed, the shear scope of his work feels foreign in an art world in which quotidian depictions of daily lived life are often imbued with deadening political weight. There are no other artists currently working who would risk creating a 24-foot-long encrusted abstraction in silver and black entitled simply Cosmos I-IV, which reminds us of the spiritually unnerving puniness of worldly concerns before the immensity of existence. Like in earlier periods of postwar art Tracy’s mixing of cultural traditions made possible by his immense and encyclopedic reading habits, histories and cultural analysis. Every one of the rooms in San Ygnacio are filled with books and no discussion of his work lingers long without the artist pulling a book out from an immense pile and citing a description of an Aztec Ritual or a meaning of a particular color of flower in Mexican native culture.
In fact, the Flower World, a magical realm crucial to both the Aztecs and modern Mexicans in the form of Xochipilli or the Flower Prince, god of art and games, is interwoven with the flowers that are bestowed upon the Hindu gods in worship. For both the intense golden yellow of Marigolds are not only beautiful but healing and auspicious.
The exhibition concludes with the large Devi I and Devi II, accompanied by four studies for the paintings. They fill the room with overwhelming and intoxicating color in a physical mass that might cause delirium. Inspired by the artist”s multiple viewings as a teenager of Satyajit Ray’s 1960 masterpiece Devi in which a normal teenage girl is identified as an incarnation or avatar of the Goddess Kali. She is separated from those she loves and cares about by a growing mound of devotional flowers, with tragic consequences. We might wonder if those who are truly divine could ever survive it.
In the Devi works we see the earth-bound literal weight of his mass of congealed engorged and insistently physical paint in marked contrast with the sensory overload of color, affecting our eyes and hearts with its transcendently weightless spiritual beauty pointing toward the divine.
As majestic and sensuously memorable in a gallery as this gloriously colorful room may be, it stands as a mirror of what he has achieved in his 2021 environmental project, a walk-in bar, a gesamtkunstwerk in Laredo called Bar International. This might be the most unexpected extension of his life’s project since drinking establishments are by their nature secular. Yet since Tracy has also made exquisite jewelry, furniture and built environments creating a bar for the hip set of Laredo is not that great a departure.
Large-scale maps dominate the walls with pornographic and giddy pop culture images, Hindu gods and his own cast sculptures. His artistic interventions into this public, functioning nightspot extend onto every wall as well as into the bathrooms. This bar exists only a few blocks from a bridge connecting the US city of Laredo and the Mexican Nuevo Laredo, with a bar environment that takes on added meaning by being located in a place that causes politicians, demagogues and pundits to have an ongoing melt down of very real issues of humanitarian and economic crisis caused by increasing numbers of refugees trying to survive impossible conditions.
At the time when he stopped showing actively in the larger arts world there was very little curatorial context for his omnivorous art practice. But today with the museum and gallery world having wrestled with Joan Jonas, AA Bronson, and James Lee Byers there is a discussion in which Tracy’s practice can be deciphered and appreciated, and Season in Hell is a meaningful move in that direction.
Hours Thursday - Saturday 12-6PM and by appointment, any time or day of the week
Masks required for entry and audience limited to 8 people at any one time plus staff
Bill Arning Exhibitions
604 West Alabama
Houston, TX 77006