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Crux of the Matter 

by Leah Sottile

It's not a problem if you can't remember your Hail Marys. You won't need to recite the Nicene Creed or quote from the King James Version. Faith and religious conviction aren't required for viewing Rub & eacute;n Trejo's latest one-man show, "Cruciforms." This exhibit is one individual's complex exploration of an icon recognized worldwide - one that speaks of death and eternal life, of hate and love, of divided countries and united communities.

Yet even faith, religious representation and all of the things that go along with the symbol of the cross aren't heavily emphasized in Trejo's show. While symbolism pops up occasionally, Trejo is instead showing us something very simple and yet very intricate.

Think about it: the cross, plainly, is just the intersection of a horizontal line with a longer vertical one. That's it.

"My whole idea is what you can do with a valuable symbol as an art form," Trejo says. "Most people know what a cross is - it's where two [lines] cross."

And if two lines crossing can mean devotion, love, revulsion and hostility, then couldn't they be a symbol for almost any human emotion? That's what Trejo explores in "Cruciforms."

"I was thinking to get the idea of a cross being human," he says, his eyes growing wide as he explains the concept. Impulsively, he illustrates the vertical-horizontal contrast by stretching his arms away from his small frame, extending them perpendicularly from the trunk of his body.

In essence, Trejo's crosses are all characters in his mind's stage show -- each expressing a familiar emotion. They are simple portraits of human passion, speaking volumes of human life and death without ever relying on glowering mouths, bleeding limbs and tears of pain. Trejo allows two lines to show us all we need to understand what he's trying to say.

Here steel crosses ooze clusters of glossy red nails at their intersection, screaming cries of emergency room pain, of anxious hearts beating against sturdy cages. Some just smile, content with their plainness. They weren't simply formed by Trejo's experienced artistic hands - but by his own experiences and emotions.

Trejo's story coincides with his crosses. From the beginning of his life, cruciform shapes were around him. His parents, Tarascan Indians from Mexico's Michoacan region, moved to Minnesota in 1910. Rub & eacute;n was born in 1937 in a CB & amp;Q boxcar in St. Paul's Burlington Northern Railroad Yards. Throughout his childhood, he lived with his parents and five siblings in that same boxcar.

Trejo and his family were migrant farm workers, often spending ten hours a day working in potato fields. He was a Mexican-American living in an American world. Later on, his understanding of the two worlds' unique differences would become a theme present in most of his artwork.

That kind of cultural awareness is certainly present in "Cruciforms."

"In Mexico, you go to these stands and they are dying to sell you something. And then if you give them money, they will bless themselves with it," Trejo says, making the sign of the cross. "The cross is kind of a good luck charm in Mexico."

A handful of Trejo's smaller crosses cater directly to that Mexican veneration of the cross. Small steel crosses boast clasped female hands, delicately gracing the top point. Where Christ's body traditionally hangs, instead Trejo has placed jalapeno peppers, inlaid in steel. He describes these as pop images of the cross, realizing that many viewers won't approve.

"Your George Bush ones would not approve of it, but these are not for them," he says.

Trejo understands the cultural associations with the cross but says that people will draw their own conclusions about what his crosses mean. And he realizes that by decorating his crosses with nails, people may directly link them with the Crucifixion and Christian martyrdom.

"[When you] take an idea into a public space, it's like question marks," he says. "You can't control [people's thoughts]. Some see the nails as painful. Some see the Passion."

While most of the crosses aren't intended to speak to anything but human nature, some are directly linked to religious faith.

Interspersed among the steel sculptures, Trejo includes drawings of crosses - white and black ones detailed with medical-like sketches of brains and the cells that they contain. They're his interpretations of the Stations of the Cross.

"The point here was to create the idea of pain going inside itself," he says. "I love working with that idea, and the connection we have with our brains."

Many of the cruciforms were done in sets. There are large welded steel ones, charred to a flat black and reminiscent of freshly wiped chalkboards. Smaller ones are polished to gleaming silver, their bodies clothed in suits of curled nails and appearing feminine and robust. A group of darkly bronzed crosses hang dimly, glossy red nails decorating their chests, arms and heads. Tall metal rods are draped in long, thin streams of scarlet - as if shrieking out in pain as their limbs are severed. One of these displays a picture of Trejo as a smiling young boy above the chaos of steel and metal.

Trejo makes the more shocking crosses approachable with his use of color. The large sculpture that hangs just inside the entrance to "Cruciforms" is entirely constructed of nails that have been curved, hammered, morphed and sharpened into a large, gruesome cross. But it's almost invisible against the wall where it hangs due to its stark white color. Capitalizing on the large shadow it casts, the cross of nails is simultaneously beautiful and macabre.

"It's very vulnerable," Trejo says of what color does to his crosses.

All of the crosses - the small stark ones, the large imposing ones, the grotesque, bruised, dull and polished ones - illustrate the range of emotions that can be evoked by adding flourishes to two simple lines, horizontal and vertical.

"How much mileage can you get out of one basic form?" Trejo asks. "I don't think I've even started."

Publication date: 1/13/04

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