THE heart is the symbolic battleground of belief, passion, and fear, and is the organizing metaphor for the exhibition "El Corazon Sangrante/The Bleeding Heart," at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. The heart is alluded to, even if the 16 artists don't always deal with it literally.Analogously, "this is an exhibit which moves through Mexico, but is not about Mexico," says one of the show's three curators, Matthew Teitelbaum. "It aims to re-create the idea of Mexico, but not so much as a geographical entity but as a syncretic culture of various traditions.... We tried to show the fractured nature of Mexico, not as a continuum, but a clash where art makes powerful and beautiful statements, and at the same time reveals a great deal about a society." Jaime Palacios's "The Wedding of the Virgin" is a painting that is emblematic of the exhibition: He depicts a human figure from the chest up with its hair shorn, flanked on the left by a braid of hair, on the right by a pair of scissors. Mr. Palacios has drawn on the pre-Hispanic concept that loss of hair removes supernatural powers from sacrificial victims, whose hearts the Aztecs cut out. The floating/dangling placement of the braid of hair, scissors, and pan is much like the way trinkets are placed on devotional images of Christ in Mexico. The painting is also reminiscent of Frida Kahlo's 1940 work, "Self Portrait With Cropped Hair," also in the show. Like Kahlo, and due to the ambiguity in depicting the face, Palacios's figure is androgynous in the sense of rejecting sexual stereotyping, or a way of avoiding sexual polarization. The figure is a statement about the precariousness of identity, especially when we try to define it solely through gender, national origin, or race. Other artists in the show probe the pitfalls of gender identification, like Adolfo Patino (whose collage/tapestry includes a portrait of himself as Frida Kahlo) and David Avalos (who takes cliches of popular culture like hubcaps, lipstick, and martini glasses) by making powerful statements about desire and sex roles. Beliefs, religious or otherwise, are as explosive and delicate as gender, and the "Bleeding Heart" is equally frank in dealing with religious convictions. Though many artists in the show draw inspiration from pre-Columbian myths and practices, Roman Catholicism and its image of the sacred heart are central to the exhibition. This is seen in the mysticism of Nestor Quinones, the brittle earthiness of Juan Francisco Elso, and the sardonic eroticism of Maria Magdalena Campos. Ms. Campos is familiar with the spiritual and carnal tensions that have been expressed in the iconography of Christianity. If we can borrow from the metaphor of the Bible in seeing the community of believers as a body, Campos's works suggest dismemberment as a loss of faith or common purpose. In her "Everything is Separated by Water, Including my Brain, my Heart, my Sex, my House," a female body that stands on a house is split in half, each half contained by a semi-cylinder of barbed wire. Campos has taken the phrase "being torn apart" and begun a dialogue about self, identity, and belief. In "I am a Fountain" the dismemberment suggests loss, fragmentation, suffering, but Campos has transformed the corporeal and spiritual landscape into something more positive. Indeed, the show could be considered an attempt to infuse a sense of the sacred into life and art. If we recall that the origin of the words sacred/sacrament meant mystery, it is there where we begin to understand the works of Mr. Quinones or Mr. Elso. Quinones's "My Subjectivity and the Creator are Too Much for my Brain" brings home the clarity and consolation that can happen through mystery. This minimalist work in almost all white and a small heart with a real thread going outdoors suggests Plotinus's definition of the holy: "A fire whose outgoing warmth pervades the universe." Elso's eight-foot heart made of twigs, volcanic sand, and jute thread has the perfect mix of terrestrial and spiritual tension, in an attempt to capture the sacred as a departure for a new type of creation, and giving depth of meaning to even the humblest of materials. This search for the sacred doesn't mean the artists in the show consider themselves the high priests (or priestesses) of art. Quite the contrary; their approaches run the gamut from the minimalist to the raunchy.
'The Bleeding Heart' will be at the ICA until Jan. 5, 1992. It travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston; the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Mendel Gallery in Saskatchewan, Canada; the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, Calif.; the Fundacion Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Venezuela; and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterrey, Mexico.