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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. 

ALLIED: The TIA and OJAC Collections

ALLIED: The TIA and OJAC Collections

Curated by Patrick Kelly and Amy Kelly

Allied presents works from the Tia Collection of Santa Fe, New Mexico “paired” with those from the permanent collection of the Old Jail Art Center. The connections between the works range from blatant to subtle. Some groupings present artists from different cultures or eras who investigated similar themes, or that elicit similar moods through formal devices. Other times, the juxtapositions can involve artists who use traditional approaches to image creation with those who utilize unconventional mediums. Regardless of the viewer’s pictorial or thematic discoveries, an appreciation and recognition of connections from two seemingly dissimilar collections emphasize that both are generous gifts for audiences to contemplate and enjoy.

The Tia Collection of Santa Fe, NM was created with the exclusive intent to share an individual collector’s love for art across a variety of genres. The collection is curated and administered by Laura Finlay Smith who works closely with the anonymous collector to continuously add to the Tia collection, and also with institutions to generously share the eclectic holdings of outstanding artists’ works.

Allied is supported in part by John & Ginger Dudley, Clayton Henry, and Sally & Robert Porter. 

Image credit: RALPH MEYERS,  Early Spring, N.M. , 1922, oil on board, 9 7/8 x 12 5/8 in. Tia Collection.

Image credit: RALPH MEYERS, Early Spring, N.M., 1922, oil on board, 9 7/8 x 12 5/8 in. Tia Collection.

MATTHEW BOURBON: Waiting for Now

MATTHEW BOURBON: Waiting for Now

Matthew Bourbon is curious about the diverse “languages” in painting. His works since 2005 have combined description or “realistic” information, adopted from a variety of visual sources, with areas of purely abstract forms. These areas of abstract forms obscure the information normally used by a viewer to decipher the narrative. For Bourbon, the coexistence between the two within a scene is a source of fascination—as he contemplates how images are understood or misunderstood. Recently he has all but eliminated the figurative elements that lend themselves to narrative and has begun to investigate “pure” abstraction form. Bourbon realizes that abstraction has much to offer as a carrier of content and language.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Matthew Bourbon earned separate undergraduate degrees in Studio Art and Art History from the University of California at Davis. Relocating to New York City, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in 1999. Since then, his art has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Bourbon is a Professor of Art at the University of North Texas' College of Visual Arts and Design. He is also an active art critic and has contributed to Artforum OnlineFlash ArtArtNewsNew York Arts Magazine and KERA Art and Seek.

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.

MATTHEW BOURBON,  Reconstruction Days , 2017, acrylic on canvas and wood slats, 46 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist.

MATTHEW BOURBON, Reconstruction Days, 2017, acrylic on canvas and wood slats, 46 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Patrick Kelly, OJAC Executive Director and Curator, interview with Matthew Bourbon

PK: I would first like to ask about your background—where you were raised, your formal (or informal) education, and what brought you to Texas.

MB: I was raised in northern California in a small town about an hour south of San Francisco. Like many artists, as a young person I had an affinity for drawing and painting. My mother and uncle are painters—so I saw and appreciated how paintings were made. However, I never considered art as a life pursuit, until I witnessed professional artists working while I was attending UC Davis. At first, I thought I would transfer from UC Davis to UCLA to become a filmmaker. I had made a series of short films with friends in high school, and because of my interest in movies, it seemed like a reasonable place to direct my ambitions. After taking the only film class at UC Davis (which was housed in the Art Department), my eyes were quickly opened to the possibility of pursuing what I always loved—drawing and painting. I stumbled into an amazing art program, taking courses from artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Squeak Carnwath and Roy De Forest. This was my first exposure to people who were deeply connected to the daily practice of making art. After changing majors and earning separate degrees in Studio Art and Art History, I moved to San Francisco and painted in a small bedroom studio until I applied to graduate school. I was accepted to various programs, but the lure of New York City was strong, and I ended up going to the School of Visual Arts in Chelsea. Being in New York was fantastic for a young art student. SVA had several faculty that had a large impact on me; I recall that Jerry Saltz would take us around the city and we’d sometimes hold class in Soho and Chelsea galleries. Being in front of quality work and seeing so much variety helped clarify my own values as an artist. Looking back, Jake Berthot and Gary Stephan were also instrumental to my education; both pushed me to get past some artistic hang-ups that helped redirect the trajectory of my work. It was also at this time that I started writing reviews of other artists' exhibitions. I landed a job as a paid writer at New York Arts Magazineand wrote hundreds of short reviews. Writing about so many different artists really places you in the means and methods of other people. It proved a big part of my training as a thinker and educator. After earning my MFA, I taught foundation level art courses at a small private school in New York. Meanwhile, I applied to teaching gigs around the country. The reason I ended up in Texas is really due to the artist Vernon Fisher. I applied for a Painting position at the University of North Texas, primarily because I knew Vernon taught at what is now the College of Visual Arts and Design. I respected Vernon’s work, having seen it in New York. Coming from Manhattan, I had no real sense of North Texas, but I knew I did not want to be too far outside of a major city. I figured if Vernon taught at UNT then it was worth offering my application. Long story short, I was hired in 2000 and have been here ever since. I feel fortunate to have come to a state with so many great artists, a healthy gallery system, and major arts institutions. Texas has been good to me. 

PK: Having experienced the east and west coast art worlds, was there anything about the “Texas scene” that stood out...either positive or negative? Also, in the 18 years you have been here, have these changed or remained constant?

MB: When I moved from New York to Texas, the differences felt cultural. I would go to a store or restaurant and people were authentically friendly. I was accustomed to mild disinterest in New York. It is a bit of a cliché in both directions, but I certainly felt the change. As for art, the differences were mostly about the openness I experienced in the Texas scene. New York, especially larger Chelsea galleries, can feel a bit sterile and intimidating. The people running the spaces are under such financial pressures with the cost of NY real estate, that they can be curt or aloof to the “regular” visitor to their space. It is also about the scale of the market; the generally smaller gallery operations in Texas allow for a more human touch. I also believe the barriers for an artist to enter into the gallery system are lower in Texas. Many galleries here are true labors of love, or DIY spaces that have more freedom and willingness to try their hand at “undiscovered” talent. Texas sometimes, and in certain places, has a conservative streak in what gets shown, promoted, and collected, but there are plenty of pockets of boldness that are very appealing about our locale. In the time I have lived here, the scene has been relatively constant. Galleries have obviously come and gone, but new ones arise and a vibrant arts activity always seems to be percolating upward—perhaps from the abundance of university programs—as much as other causes.

PK: Was there a recognizable visual or conceptual shift in your work after your “Texas arrival?” Can you describe your work prior to that and how it has evolved since? 

MB: I am always focused on what’s in the studio at the moment, but if I reflect back on the past 18 years, there’s been a gradual transition in my work. When I first arrived in Texas, my paintings were based directly on fragments of old film stills and advertising photographs. In the paintings from this time I was intent on altering my source material and changing or highlighting the potential meaning inherent to the original image. As the years passed I began to adopt a wider vocabulary of sources, and I became increasingly interested in combining descriptive painting with areas that are more or less “abstract”. Around 2005, my driving curiosity became using diverse visual languages to see how they could coexist within a discrete scene (usually of people in rooms), and how obscuring “realistic” information could lead to a more open way of interpreting what is depicted. I was, and continue to be, fascinated with how images are understood or misunderstood.  

Recently I have moved away from using obvious figurative elements in my paintings, which is a significant shift in my process. While I’m still thinking of competing visual languages, and “abstraction” as an active force in my paintings, I’m now seeking a framework that is more elemental. The new paintings have a nominal perceptual reality, but I’m no longer motivated by larger ideas of narrative, nor am I adhering as strongly to the rules of traditional descriptive painting. My work for the Cell Serieshas me thinking about fundamental ideas of sculpture as object, architecture as body, and simple forms as potential carriers for the entire world—albeit through the lens of painting. As a long-time meditator, I think this new work is also impacted by the stillness associated with regularly sitting zazen.

PK: What do you mean by “…simple forms as potential carriers of the entire world…”?

MB: What I am trying to convey is that the work in this exhibition does not rely as heavily on a dialogical relationship between different styles of painting and different subjects to suggest meaning.  Instead, I am using basic forms as carriers for all of my content and material concerns. I guess it is like looking at the world through a quantum understanding—everything is in a state of flux, but all is made of the same sort of constituent parts. Consequently, in these current paintings a large basic shape depicted within a canvas can simultaneously stand in for architecture, an industrial designed object, or even a landscape. 

PK: At this juncture, I likely have only viewed one or two of those “newer” images to reference. Can you describe one work and tell how this concept you just mentioned visually manifests itself?

MB: As I get older, I have more doubts about the world around me, including my relationship to art. The experience one naturally accumulates with age has led me to want my paintings to sit more directly in a place of not knowing. This manifests, as I said before, in using rudimentary forms as the jumping off point in my new work.  It is a kind of inward looking to see outward. The invitation to exhibit in the Cell Seriesled to a perhaps obvious projection on my part—imagining a human being as a prisoner confined in a small cell. The forced restraint of being held within a jail mirrors a kind of restraint within the new paintings. For instance, in the painting Greeting the Doldrums, I was thinking about the elementary shapes found in Japanese rock gardens. I like how the large boulders in these gardens are meant to be themselves, but they are also meant to be islands, and imaginably even people. I’ve always relished the gamesmanship of competing meanings in art, but with Greeting the DoldrumsI was trying to create a painting that on the surface was uncomplicated. It is a bit like the Morandi-model of making art—take a basic thing (bottles) and let the way one paints those items carry more of the meaning. I am not as monkish as Morandi, but that type of reserved sensibility has been creeping into my practice. Because of this shift in my approach, the work for this show is less about overt references and associations internal to each painting, and rather more about finding some essential stimulation—to generate some heat, some life, from the most mundane of circumstances. Perhaps like generating a life for oneself while held prisoner within a cell.



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.



Born to influential Texas artists and performers Terry and Jo Harvey Allen, Bale Creek Allen has developed his own personal visual language through the use of diverse materials and mediums. He brings to our attention objects and scenes that often go unnoticed in our daily lives. Allen reconsiders these images and objects through his work, creating content and meaning that is both personal and universal. 

Allen utilizes iconic images and objects often associated with Texas as his inspiration. His cast bronze tumbleweeds and roadside tire treads instill a desire in viewers to reconsider banal objects often seen through a car’s windshield. The bronzes, as well as photographs of abandoned structures and roadside trash, remind us of our indifference to things we encounter daily. His most recent images are large-scale photographs of schools and prison—when purposely inverted and juxtaposed they become indistinguishable from one another. At first glance his ceramic longhorn mounts appear no different than those one would encounter in a Texas honky-tonk. Closer inspection reveals the horns are carefully crafted ceramic on carefully crafted mounts, or coupled together using a common plumbing connection—transforming and transporting ordinary objects into the realm of art.  

Allen has a gift of considering the ordinary to create objects that are intriguing and thoughtful. More importantly, his works invite us to consider where we have been, where we are, and where we might be headed. 

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

Image credit: BALE CREEK ALLEN, Koko Inn Pool, 2016, digital print on archival paper and board, 45 x 66 x 2 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Image credit: BALE CREEK ALLEN, Koko Inn Pool, 2016, digital print on archival paper and board, 45 x 66 x 2 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Nobody's Fool

Nobody's Fool

Nobody’s Foolfeatures artists that employ the technique of trompe l’oeil (from the French phrase “deceive the eye”) in their work. The concept of depicting objects as though they exist in three-dimensional space has been around for centuries in art. Yet contemporary artists often create an additional level of content by adding visual references of events, situations, and observations related to our current world.

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

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