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Body Language 

Here's something different. It seems the old French Quarter is now home to the newest new thing, the world's first and only body painting gallery. No, it's not one of those booths that crop up at Deadhead gatherings where the girls get painted in trippy colors while the guys buy pipes and paraphernalia. Any body painting that gets done here is by appointment only. Painted Alive director Craig Tracy is serious about this. He's aiming to take a medium associated with the hippie culture of the late 1960s to a whole new level, and just in time for summer, when the desire to shed clothing is universal.

The gallery itself is pristine, yet traditional art buffs may find it incongruous that many of these poster-size color photographs by various artists appear grounded in pop rather than "high" culture. Illustrations of jungle cats, insects and starry winter nights appear on female nudes painted the same color as the background, so the subject pops out at you while you have to look twice to see the model. Others suggest conceptual process or performance art: when it's over, only the photo-documentation remains. Sister, a black-on-black nude with a New Orleans baroque design painted on her skin, melds the mind-bending aspects of body painting with such sophisticated conceptual ambiguities. Tracy says he came to body painting almost accidentally when customers of his former business of custom-designed, air-brushed T-shirts, asked him to paint their faces as well. Soon he found himself painting entire bodies and attending events like the World Bodypainting Festival in Austria, where he came in third in 2003, won first place in 2005, and will serve as a judge this year. But the idea of body painting had been fermenting in the back of his mind since at least 1991, when Vanity Fair magazine put Demi Moore on its cover wearing only a business suit and tie painted on her otherwise naked body. For Tracy, it was an epiphany, an oracular moment that pointed the way. And while he knows running a French Quarter business in what will surely be one of the slowest of summers won't be easy, he sees it as his destiny.

"I was born in 1967 during the Summer of Love. My parents were homegrown New Orleans hippies who provided a loving environment and always encouraged me to explore my creativity. What I'm doing now grew out of that experience."

Meanwhile on Magazine Street, a series of nudes photographed in Mexico by erstwhile New Orleans photographer Lee Crum offers another take on the body. Best known for his advertising imagery, Crum is a superb craftsman and this series of more than 60 striking black-and-white prints is graphic evidence of his virtuosity. His background as an illustrator is evident in images featuring exotic Mexican models in choreographic poses against decaying stone walls, in ruinous, Alhambra-like haciendas, or in vast, arid landscapes that speak of ancient times, blistering heat and the unseen presence of snakes and reptiles. The poses are sometimes so choreographic that the models almost appear as if sleepwalking, silently acting out surreal Latin-American novels or the verses of blind Latino poets who could only dream of their burnished tropical features. In the absence of such fictions, we can only ask why they are there. The answers are ambiguous, but mostly have to do with their eyes.

Philosophers have opined that an illustration represents an idea or a concept, but the most transcendental art objects create worlds unto themselves. Most photographs are illustrations, as these also tend to be, but some go further. Elena of Los Cruces depicts a lithe nude woman in the ruins of an old church. She stands behind an ancient baroque cross that extends from the stone floor to her rib cage, mimicking the axis of her body. Crum's compositions are striking and this is no exception, but here the silence is palpable as the model's eyes gaze through you, questioning your presence and daring you to join her. More than an illustration, Elena creates its own reality beyond time and space, a world beyond the world in its own right.

click to enlarge Craig Tracy's  Sister , a black-on-black nude with a - baroque design painted on her skin, melds the mind- - bending aspects of body painting with some sophisticated - conceptual ambiguities.
  • Craig Tracy's Sister , a black-on-black nude with a baroque design painted on her skin, melds the mind- bending aspects of body painting with some sophisticated conceptual ambiguities.


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