Curated by Patrick Kelly. 

The Old Jail Art Center invited Baltimore artist René Treviño to consider the museum’s Pre-Columbian artifacts in the creation of a site-specific body of work. With this installation, A New Codex incorporates Treviño’s multi-media work alongside his personal selections from the OJAC’s permanent collection. 

Utilizing extensive research of Mayan and other cultures’ carvings as well as imagery and objects from the museum’s pieces, Treviño develops contemporary images from Mesoamerica’s ancient steles and codices. He then combines these forms and symbols with those derived from popular culture. Many of the figurative objects in the OJAC’s Pre-Columbian collection become the “players” in Treviño’s drawings and animations. 

Placing his own works in the same context as the artifacts challenges viewers to see and seek relationships between the ancient and contemporary. The result is an artist’s created world that references our past and speaks to our present and future. Though using ancient imagery as a starting point, this imagery is eventually filtered through a contemporary popular culture and art historical context via the artistic process. The original depictions of the ancient Pre-Columbian peoples’ religious rituals are often dark, such as communicating with the dead, bloodletting, sacrifices, etc. Treviño includes some of this content, disguised somewhat by injecting super-saturated color, gold, rhinestone appliqué, and a touch of humor. One of the goals for this multi-media exhibition is to create a stimulating interplay between the ancient artifacts and his contemporary creations.

History is subjective; there are many blurred lines and much distortion. Context and point of view are very important subjects for this installation. One person's hero is another person's villain, depending on who tells the story. Using a historical context as a backdrop for his work, Treviño seeks to re-weave these "lessons" of the past. The more layers that he presents, the closer he feels he can get to something that might resemble truth.

René Treviño: A New Codex is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts with additional support from Anonymous, Erin Cluley, Pam and Bob Tidwell and Travis Vandergriff. 

Installation images by Kevin Todora.

Patrick Kelly, Old Jail Art Center Executive Director and Curator, interview with the artist René Treviño. 

PK: Prior to any specific discussion about your current work and this installation, would you talk about your upbringing and early influences since I believe these shape not only artists as individuals but also their artwork? 

RT: I was born in Kingsville, TX but we moved all over Texas when I was young (Victoria, Temple, Alice). My mom’s family is from a small town in south Texas called Edroy and my father’s family is from Laredo. My mom is one of eleven kids. We were very Catholic, I know I was influenced by Catholic art and architecture; it was really the only art I was exposed to. My grandmothers were big influences as well. I would design dresses for my dad’s mother and my mom’s mother sewed beautiful quilts. Both grandmothers only spoke Spanish. I was the first grandson on both sides, so they always made me feel very loved. We ended up in Lake Jackson, TX and I was a full-on theater kid for a while. I studied theater at Texas A&M before moving to New York. It was in New York that I knew I needed to become an artist. I was overwhelmed, but fed off the energy of the place. I taught myself how to paint a few years before I went back to school, then at SVA (School of Visual Arts) I solidified the practice and haven’t stopped since.

PK: What do you mean by “you needed to become an artist”?

RT: I loved studying theater. At A&M I focused on acting and costume design, then moved to NY to study fashion design at Parsons School of Design. For a Mexican kid from south Texas, these were big swings; I was just following my heart. This was before the internet, before cell phones and social media. My first job in NY was at the Barnes & Noble by Union Square Park. I worked in the art book section. That was an education...I love books and they had a huge selection of monographs and criticism. I also went to museums and galleries as much as I could. Over those first few years in New York I realized that while I love theater and fashion, I was more interested in painting and drawing...making images really. That's what I meant.

PK: What informed the first works of your visual art and what did it look like?

RT: I’ve always drawn, and since I did a lot of theatrical design many of my first works were renderings of clothes, costumes and sets. When I started (oil) painting I was inspired by Carmen Dell'Orefice, Maria Callas, and Naomi Campbell. They were strange paintings of fierce women. All my skin tones were blue and green and all the women looked like drag queens. The work was also very religious, lots of Madonna/  Virgin figures. They were not great; I truthfully hated oil paint, the smell, the way it got on everything, the chemicals, stretching canvases... 

In terms of what informed the work, it was theater, especially Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, and big splashy musicals. I also loved opera, I interned at the Santa Fe Opera for two summers. I was also influenced by artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Joe Brainard, then later by some of my teachers like Peter Hristoff and Marilyn Minter. But early on all of that was fused with religious imagery. My favorites were the images of the Virgin de Guadalupe and the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos. I loved the darker skinned, indigenous images of the Virgin, and the way they combined native belief systems with those of Catholicism. I'm not a practicing Catholic anymore, but I can't overstate how much I was influenced by Catholic art, ceremony, and architecture. 

PK: The word “ceremony” in your last sentence stands out. In creating your most recent bodies of work associated with Pre-Columbian culture, imagery and objects related to ceremony are utilized. What are your thoughts on that?

RT: I’m learning about pre-Hispanic cultures and their ceremonies. I visited Chichen Itza and Tulum last year; I’m headed back next year as well to visit Coba and Ek’ Balam. Ritual and Ceremony were important to the Mayans and other pre-Hispanic peoples. Many of these rituals were violent, but many were about seasonal change, harvests, and honoring and communing with ancestors. I’m very interested in belief systems and world building, and ceremony is wrapped up in that.

PK: I discovered your work in 2016 on exhibit at Erin Cluley Gallery in Dallas. I was first drawn to a series of works titled Renaming the Constellations. Would you describe those works and your ideas behind their creation?

RT: Before that series I had painted a star chart based on a Victorian star chart and 

I was struck at how the constellations were named after Greek mythology. Why did those names stick? They had names prior, and will have different names after we are gone. Plus, we’re getting all these beautiful images from NASA that confirm how absolutely inconsequential we are in the universe (which gives me such solace). I started imagining stars from other vantage points; it freed me to rename constellations without any Western mythos. In that series some of the names came from the Aztecs and Mayans; but some were family names, from the cemeteries in Edroy and Laredo where members of my family are buried. I also named constellations after my cats, Pedro, Nacho, and Chaka-Khan, and my husband Paul. 

PK: I agree. I just read an article that said the Milky Way may have a hundred to four hundred billion suns and there are trillions of other universes. So who said someone has the exclusive naming rights? As a kid I always wondered how someone determined that those x number of stars looked like a scorpion or any other object. Like art, it’s open to interpretation. 

Speaking of interpretation…your project at the OJAC initially began as a request to interpret works from our Pre-Columbian collection. Our hope was that viewers would be able to see these works differently; more than just ancient objects that seem to have little relevance to our contemporary world. What were your initial thoughts on these objects and how you might approach creating works in response?

RT: I love the objects in the OJAC collection; they hold a lot of power to me. One of my favorite parts of this process was selecting those for display in the vitrines.  Since I live in Baltimore, I couldn’t see the works in person, so I was working from photographs. I’ll say emphatically that they are better in person—maybe I should have made the trip in the beginning. My approach was simple; I put the objects in the paintings. They became objects in the scenes of the paintings. That way whatever narrative might be happening in the work would include these forms. I’ve been drawing and painting scenes from Mayan bas-relief stone carvings. In making the paintings, I move things around a bit, make some edits, fix things (sometimes the carvings are missing information because of age), and I add color and pattern. Since I’m an artist and not a historian, I have the freedom to change the script. Representation is a powerful thing, seeing yourself reflected back in the images you see in museum spaces can be very moving. So I add my personal experience into these scenes. The figures become more like me or people I know. 

PK: There is so much visual information in the works. Each time I go in to the exhibit I discover something new, which makes me want to continue to go view the works and the relationships. We could go back-and-forth on the imagery. But tell me about the incorporation of the tattoos on the figures. 

RT: Tattoos are funny, they imply so many things. They are these marks that we put on our bodies and, in theory, they are forever. There are lots of images in the codices that represent body paint, scarification and perhaps tattoos. In this body of work, I was able to use the tattoo imagery to speak to death, perhaps a Vanitas idea that runs through my work. To be specific, the tear tattoos have lots of meanings, but often they symbolize death and mourning.  

PK: There really is a strong “death” theme that runs throughout the installation that is masked by a sense of joy and optimism. How did you anticipate viewers reacting to those diametrically opposing themes?

RT: There is a death theme in the work, but I also feel an urgent need for the work to be a celebration. We all die. It’s sad to a certain extent, but we have to get over that to live our lives, hopefully to the fullest. I am earnestly researching Mesoamerican cultures and one thing that is clear is that their relationship to death was important. The ritual sacrifice, the calling upon ancestors, and even the cyclical nature of the way they measured time all allude to death. I also think the sparkle and bright colors are seductive, they draw you in, then maybe you realize that there is also something deeper. The flower in full bloom will decay, the golden sheen will tarnish, and the flies will come...for all of us.

PK: Sometimes the actual process and materials get lost in the conversations about subject and content. You employ a variety of mediums with considerable confidence and skill. Can you speak about the processes, challenges, and how you see them working together. 

RT: Materials are an opportunity to impact the content of the work; I love materials. Figuring out the techniques for painting on leather took a while, but now it’s one of my favorite surfaces to work on. I like to think about the space the work will be installed in, and when I saw the layout of the gallery at OJAC I knew I wanted something impactful on the wall that faces the entrance. The gold references the splendor of Mesoamerica. The skulls are all images of the Mayan Death God. My hope is that the sparkle, the rhinestones, and the pastel rainbow palette add a note of celebration. The work is joyful and serious, both, like life. I loved making those flies! The flies are pretty labor intensive (each fly is individually gold-leafed and the rhinestones are placed by hand), but making them actually freed my mind to develop the larger works. The flowers on the ceramic skulls all come from dollar stores that serve the Mexican immigrant community here in Baltimore. They are meant for weddings and quinceañeras, so including them also speaks to celebration. Making animations is very new. I’m still learning, but I’m enjoying the journey. In terms of everything working together I just have to trust that it will; I made it all, the through lines are there.

PK: The objects left behind from the cultures’ ceremonies tell us much. A thousand years from now, what do you anticipate they will say about the North American culture from our imagery?

RT: Right now in 2018 we are living in polarizing times here in North America. I have hope that we can move forward with grace and a spirit of working together, but sometimes darkness overtakes my outlook. So your question, in many ways, hinges on the outcome of our current predicament (and future predicaments that we are completely unaware of at present). Where are we as a society in a thousand years? Will researchers look to Instagram, television, and other popular culture to try to understand us? I fear we’ll come off as vapid and in complete denial, oblivious of what lies ahead. In 1,000 years will they care about our great art or novels or will they dismissively talk about how obsessed we are with reality television? One of my great art role models, Joyce J. Scott, says that being an artist is a revolutionary act, and I agree. In my work I try to distort or complicate history by adding color, joy, queerness and a sense of inclusiveness and visibility. I am a mixture of a lot of things: I’m Mexican, American, Gay, Gen-X, and Texan. I’m an artist, son, brother, husband, cat lover, and a teacher and all of those things (and many more) influence my work. As artists we long for appreciation and for the public to embrace our work, but I don’t know the shelf life of that.