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René Treviño: A New Codex

René Treviño: A New Codex

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. 



Nick Bontrager is an interdisciplinary artist whose work and research explores the physical and conceptual nature of the moving image, game-based interactions and exchanges, and the idea of replicas or facsimiles as tools of preservation or understanding.

For the OJAC’s Cell Series, Bontrager has conceived of an installation of his work based on a U.S. Army field manual titled FM 21-76 Survival. Published in 1957, the intent of the manual was to provide basic techniques to enable soldiers to survive harsh conditions. One of Bontrager’s interests in this particular publication is the hand-drawn images and their associated proximity to the era of the Vietnam War and America’s counter-culture movement of the 1960s. His installation of imagery, films, and objects will employ display techniques normally associated with science and history museums to allow viewers to “contemplate how our contemporary culture attributes a narrative or historical importance to objects and imagery.”

The 2019 Cell Series is generously supported by McGinnis Family Fund of Communities of Texas in loving memory of Juli Weida McGinnis, 1941-2018, Kathy Webster in memory of Charles H. Webster, Barbra & Jay Clack, Susie & Joe Clack, Jenny & Rob Dupree, Patrick & Amy Kelly and The Moody Foundation.


Patrick Kelly, OJAC Executive Director & Curator email interview with Nick Bontrager

PK: I want to start out by asking you to define “new media” since this is an area in which you teach and specialize.

NB: "New Media" is a problematic categorization within the arts, but I do see the necessity and/or desire to group artwork that is challenging to access or may have features that are unlike artwork a viewer has seen before. I have often described my understanding of "new media" as a fusion of traditional studio methods and concepts with emerging technologies or conversations. There are many phrases that will convey this type of making without a clear agreed-upon standard: digital art, cyberart, intermedia, expanded cinema, transmedia, art & technology, net art, electronic art, and many others. With my formal training in analog photography, I can also see how the connection to lens-based artwork, filmmaking, magic lantern shows, daguerreotypes, and other forms were once considered "new media" but perhaps without the aggregate noun.

With my students, I strive to show them that an emerging technology like 3D printing should be thought of just like a hammer in their toolbox. It has a particular use, was engineered for a specific type of material manipulation, but may not always be the best solution. New tools and technology often come with a sleek and delicate exterior; I am quick to augment or "dirty" these surfaces to allow my students to feel as if they can take a risk when learning how to incorporate these methods into their artistic practice. No one wants to be the first person to scratch a new car, but they may not feel as bad if the car already has a faded sticker and peeling paint.

PK: Along this same line of the hands of many artists, the use of a new media often seems too focused on the unique look and product. (I’m thinking video art of the 1980s.) The result is work that does not “age” well due to a lack of conceptual depth. How do youtemper your own enthusiasm for a new and exciting media and allow it to simply be a tool?

NB: This is a daily contemplation and struggle that I have learned to embrace in my studio. I often watch video art of the 1980s as this wonderful example of media play as the limits are poked and prodded with a new tool for the first time. I only wish we had a similar visual capture of the first time marks were made in stone or of pigment being applied to a surface. Rather than tempering my own enthusiasm for a new media or tool, I attempt to elevate the existing tools in my studio to see them with the same awe and urge to test the limits and boundaries they may have. This will often result in my “new tools” finding their way to the back of a shelf or bottom of a toolbox in favor of something that has been overlooked or underrepresented in my studio.

PK: Do you recall the first “new media” you encountered that you employed in making art? What were the results?

NB: My childhood summers were dominated by the ability to bring home THE computer that was used at the school where my mother taught Kindergarten. It was an Apple IIe and I spent an unfathomable amount of time in my bedroom playing games and using the most basic programming tools to draw digital lines and shapes. I owe this digital exploration to my mother’s constant encouragement and excitement to see what I had made or attempted to make on this new tool. She even enrolled me in summer programming classes where I used BASIC and Pascal languages to create animations as I pursued this interest. This path led me to an early connection with digital imaging and pushing the limits of the available tools in the late 1990s, ultimately spending an entire summer’s amount of earnings on a 3.2megapixel camera (equivalent to the iPhone 4).

I have an extremely vivid memory of encountering Paul Slocum’s Dot Matrix Synthin 2003 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston ( I had experienced interactive devices in gaming and department stores quite often, but this was the first example that I can recall of being urged to touch and engage with the object in a contemporary arts space. I spent an entire afternoon with this work, even sending a very long email to the artist with questions (both technical and conceptual). His reply was unexpected, long, and thoughtful. Again, a majority of my experiences in museums until that point had been with dead artists or ones that might not reply so quickly to a young admirer.

PK: That answer spawns many others. How do you think that particular work still holds up? I ask that while thinking of Rrose Sélavy’s (aka Marcel Duchamp) Anémic Cinémafilms of the 1920s. Do I love them because they are his, they spawn nostalgia, or they truly hold up as great works of art? I guess the same can be asked about many dead artists’ works hanging in museums.  

NB: That particular work (Slocum’s Dot Matrix Synth) holds up for me in a few ways: the aesthetics of exposed technology and conversion of office productivity equipment to musical instrument, the nostalgia of both the materials used in the work but also a technically rich artifact that was created at the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 (, and the pleasure of seeing an artists’ tool shown in the context of contemporary art. It blurred the lines between raw materials, found objects, rebirth, appropriation, and cyberpunk aesthetics for me when I first saw it in person and continues to do so now.

Anémic Cinéma is a great connection to the path that the work can take through prototyping, conception, production, and failure/success. In the same way that Slocum’s work was so difficult to evaluate or place in the timeline of art history, Anémic Cinéma had the same result only because I learned of its existence after seeing so many works that emulated it.

PK: I guess the audience has to “catch up” to the artists in some cases. Maybe some works need some distance to be fully appreciated. Would you tell about the source material utilized in the creation of works for your Survivalinstallation? 

NB: The source material for Survival initially started when I purchased an October 1957 Army field manual at a used bookstore in the mid-2000s. I was enamored with the seamless transitions in the text between pragmatic instruction, didactic illustrations, and historical storytelling. This manual became a staple of my studio bookshelf along with first aid manuals, airline safety brochures, hotel sewing kits, and other found imagery in the “for appropriation/incorporation” bin. This particular text has surfaced many times in my practice as source material, but also as an impetus for research into instructional publications and archive imagery related to the stories and examples used in the writing. In deciding how to appropriately share how I see this object, methods have included: making my own version of the manual, making a companion book to pair the possible origins of the text with the original, remaking the objects within to find out more about the mindset and gravitas they require/command, or attempts to identify and credit the original artists behind the illustrations that first attracted me to the manual.

Our research librarians at Texas Christian University have been extremely helpful in the past few years with governmental information requests, rare books acquisitions, and tracking down photographs and documents with me in the Library of Congress. These supporting documents and research items have helped to provide a deeper context of both who was writing and publishing this manual and what impact it had on warfare, culture, and future publications.

 PK: What do you want (or anticipate) visitors to “take away” from the Survivalinstallation and individual works? Are your motivations in creating the works transferable to the viewer?

NB: I hope that the works will inspire epistemological interest from the visitors and start or continue a conversation about the didacticism that these artifacts and objects capture for me. Accessibility to these topics is challenging. By placing these new artworks in proximity to original documents and photographs, context will provide one possible series of connections for the visitors. To know if my motivation in creating the works is transferable, I would need to pin down the ever-shifting target of curiosity and interest that I mentioned earlier. In packing up these objects in my studio, the line is continually blurred between artwork, artifact, and ephemera. The OJAC’s jail structure is a challenging space to bring this work to given its varied history and transition from a point of imprisonment to one of constant flux. I do not intend to discount or comment on the history of the building by re-contextualizing constructions of binding, trapping, evasion, and escape, but the materials and volume of the space cannot help but contrast with the vast Texas landscape just outside of the limestone walls.





Bale Creek Allen’s My America likely incubated during childhood trips he and his family routinely made between Texas and California. Allen absorbed, and stored for future use in his work, the strangeness of the seemingly “normal” and banal on these trips. In 2016, amid travels across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California he initiated My America with a series of photographs. Since then, Allen has traveled to 34 states with the ambition of visiting the remaining 16 by 2020, all the while creating additional images, objects, and videos.

Through his travels and resulting bodies of work, Allen hopes to create an unfiltered interpretation of “our” America. He strives for the works to inspire conversations about what America truly is based on actual observation and encounters, not preconceived ideas fueled by the media, stereotypes, or fearful visions created by politicians.

Allen attempts to make no value judgment through his interpretations. Instead, he sees himself as a true patriot, traveling the side roads and visiting the forgotten parts of America in order to provide an honest image through that which is often intentionally avoided or ignored.

My America is supported in part by Dr. Justin & Ellie Cormack, Brenda & Glenn Picquet, Michaela & Holland Smith and The Moody Foundation.

Snow Cone Santa, 2016, pigment ink on archival cotton rag, 42 x 42 x 2 in.

Snow Cone Santa, 2016, pigment ink on archival cotton rag, 42 x 42 x 2 in.

KRIS PIERCE: A Ghost in the Attic

KRIS PIERCE: A Ghost in the Attic

Kris Pierce explores notions of power, value, and states of consciousness in the context of our modern digital world through his art works. Specific to the OJAC’s Cell Series exhibition he states: “In the 21st century, identity finds itself divided between physical and digital space. The possibilities of social media, digital avatars, and anonymous chat boards offer a platform where people can say what they want and be what they want, in search of an “upgraded” way of existing. Through a variety of media, including video, real-time 3D, CG modeling, and photography, A Ghost in the Attic, explores the ways in which people project themselves out of the confines of their physical reality into virtual space in an attempt to find the freedoms they lack in their “real” lives.”

It is both fitting and ironic that Pierce’s works deal with peoples’ desire to escape the confines of their physical bodies, given they will exist within the confines and context of former prisoner cells of the OJAC’s 1877 structure. More than one hundred and forty years later we are still attempting to escape current realities by whatever means available.

Pierce works in Dallas, Texas and has exhibited internationally in museums, galleries, and public spaces, including recent solo and group exhibitions at the Hiroshima Art Center, Japan; CICA Museum, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea; Gallerie Se Konst, Falun, Sweden; Réunion, Zurich, Switzerland; The Mac, Dallas; Blue Star Contemporary, San Antonio; the Dallas Museum of Art; and RL Window, Ryan/Lee, New York City.

Love Buzz, 2019. HD Video on Vertical Display, 3-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist

Love Buzz, 2019. HD Video on Vertical Display, 3-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist

The 2019 Cell Series is generously supported by McGinnis Family Fund of Communities of Texas in loving memory of Juli Weida McGinnis, 1941-2018, Kathy Webster in memory of Charles H. Webster, Barbra & Jay Clack, Susie & Joe Clack, Jenny & Rob Dupree, Patrick & Amy Kelly.

Nobody's Fool

Nobody's Fool

Artists have been creating paintings that produce the illusion of real objects for centuries. Trompe l’oeil—from the French phrase “deceives the eye”—is the art term that describes the effect of their visual deception. Contemporary artists often create an additional level of content by adding visual references relevant to contemporary events, situations, and observations. 

Nobody’s Fool highlights the work of contemporary artists Kirk Hayes and Michael Bane, both of whom employ the technique of trompe l’oeil in their art.   

Beyond the fact that both seek to “fool” the viewer, their works are quite dissimilar. Hayes’ illusionary depth is shallow with visual elements contained within the parameter of the traditional painting rectangle. His humorous, autobiographical, and sometimes dark tableaus emerge from what appears as appropriated collaged elements adhered to found substrates of faux plywood or cardboard. Bane’s works often appear as unspectacular objects. Yet under close scrutiny, one discovers they are meticulously fabricated ruses making us believe we are looking at the back of vintage painting canvases, collaged surfaces, or stacks of everyday items. 

KIRK HAYES,  Painter , 1994, oil on panel, 23 x 30 in. Collection of the Old Jail Art Center; Bequest of Sonny Burt. 2014.006

KIRK HAYES, Painter, 1994, oil on panel, 23 x 30 in. Collection of the Old Jail Art Center; Bequest of Sonny Burt. 2014.006

MICHAEL BANE,  Back Story No. 1 , 2018, acrylic on gessoed panel, 14 x 12 in. Collection of Dr. Shane Berger and Dr. Ron Paul. Photographed by David Wharton.

MICHAEL BANE, Back Story No. 1, 2018, acrylic on gessoed panel, 14 x 12 in. Collection of Dr. Shane Berger and Dr. Ron Paul. Photographed by David Wharton.