Miguel Trelles on Recent Work: A Q&A and Confidence

por: Ralph Vazquez

In lieu of recent bustle about the new work of Puerto Rican painter Miguel Trelles, based in the city of New York, we dive into an interview, with the desire to share the current state of affairs in Trelles’s studio in the Big Apple and keep track of one of our dearest. His work spans over three decades, and represents some of the most outstanding work in the contemporary art landscape in Puerto Rico. His constant to and fro between San Juan and New York keeps him in the heap of things, and here we get a glimpse of what happens in the amazing mind of an artist who does not ever stop.

RV: Tell us a little about the process (going from painting to graphic art, although we know you are totally multimedia) in this new series of works, how does it compare to previous work like Chino/Latino and other series that are are unequivocally yours? Your sense of humor is very particular…

MT: Ever since I learned to print silkscreens and linocuts in Puerto Rico I have been printing, eventually learning how to print woodcuts, etchings, photographs and lithographs.  Even though I have exhibited paintings more frequently, printmaking constitutes a significant part of my art.

Apocryphal Li T’ang, 2012, charcoal, ink & acrylic on canvas. 52” x 42”

Recently, as I have been developing a new black and white generation of Chino-Latino paintings as in the new “Apocryphal Li T’ang” (taking up where I left of at my Lincoln Center Latin Beat exhibition), and “Living With Out Celia”, 2003,  I have opted to simultaneously print some silkscreens.  Because for me painting requires extended periods of sustained engagement where the process often alters “plans”, when my academic life picks up and my studio time becomes more fragmented I put the paintings on “pause” and submit to the schizophrenia by switching to preparatory drawing and/or silkscreen printing.  The latter can be more labor intensive, but once I have composed the image and assembled it (usually by drawing and collaging), the printing itself can be achieved in stages that do not require such a sustained evolution through process as painting does, even though invariably my silkscreens also undergo some transformation from initial concept to finished print.  In the final analysis the heavy labor of printing is much more mechanical.

Montuno Velocity, 2003, charcoal, ink & acrylic on canvas, 36” x 30”

My prints, and especially my silkscreens, are a vital “escape valve” that allows me to reference a Puerto Rican art tradition that nurtured me and that continues to fascinate me to this day.  Then again I seek to open this tradition to a broader Caribbean/Latin American frame of reference, frequently imbuing it with humor, most often parody.  It is “fiebre” work and enriches my studio practice with a more social ethos:  collaborators can join me by helping me photograph concept drawings, sometimes a colleague assists me by retouching something in photo shop and friendly facilities at colleges and in the trade help me get screens ready and even print.

Sea la K para Clemente, 2010, silkscreen, 22” x 30”

Every so often I am able (as in the old DIVEDCO and ICPR days) to “pitch” an image to be printed in silkscreen for the Borimix festival I helped co-found with Manuel Moran at New York’s Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center  or for the upcoming City Lore/Clemente Soto Velez exhibit, I’d Still be Puerto Rican Even if Born in the Moon (see sketch for forthcoming silkscreen print).  When this happens I feel very fortunate for my work becomes ingrained in something bigger, collaborative, thereby becoming more accessible to a broader audience.

I’d Still be Puerto Rican Even if Born on the Moon (draft), 2012, silkscreen, 18” x 24”

The current series of works, Mesoamerican Pop, can be said to have emerged from the figurative Chino-Latino series Tramite:  Hsiao (Fundacion Gabarron, 2008).  In that series Maya characters are inserted in the context of a Chinese Confucian hand scroll extolling the virtues of Filial Piety[1].  While working on that series my source material for various Latin American Culture and Society (LACS) courses came in very handy, especially as I teach those courses with a heavy visual emphasis.  Besides, my LACS courses heavily stress foundational Mesoamerican civilizations, beginning with the Olmec.  Fortunately my dossier included a wealth of images from exquisitely painted Maya vases from the Classic period.

La regla de oro/Importance of the All Embracing Rule of Conduct, 2008, oil on linen, 72” x 54”

In 2011, after printing a silkscreen of Rita Moreno that incorporated elements from Indiana, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, I was eager to keep printing, and that is how the Mesoamerican pop came to be.

Rita, 2011, silkscreen, 22” x 30”

RV: There is an element of savagery underscored by both rock and roll and the rituals of the pre-Columbian cultures of Latin America, what is your reaction to this overlap?

Sun Stone, 2011, silkscreen, 29” x 29”

MT: Sometime in 2011, I had the serendipitous realization that the ethos of “savagery” brandished by rock and roll musicians (particularly during the 1960’s and the 1970’s),  and seized on by the music industry as well as fans yearning for a secular ritual, could be construed as a modern/contemporary Western misunderstanding, of the customs and rituals of ancient civilizations.  Two images came to mind:  upon looking at the Rolling Stones famous “tongue” logo I thought the shape of the tongue bore a resemblance to the “Tecpatl”, the Flint Blade date on the Aztec sun stone, a symbol for the obsidian “knife” typically used for human sacrifice.  A previous painting, Irrational Exhuberance (Inverted Semaphore, 2002), a depiction of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, then presented itself to me as a modern teocalli, or altar of sacrifice.  From there I jumped to the Grateful Dead logo, with its ample circle in the skull’s forehead, which then became a useful “marquee” for the shield of Castille and Leon and for the Maya sacrificial spine.

Volktianguis (Sacrifice Requiem), 2011, silkscreen, 26” x 26”

Steal your kingdom, 2011, silkscreen, 20” x 26”

Steal Your Blood, 2011, silkscreen, 20” x 26”

RV: Please tell us a little about your research process for this new series of works.

MT: Fortunately, no special research had to be done as teaching LACS had already familiarized me with seminal texts by Leon-Portilla, Caso, Kubler, Coe, Schele, Matos Monctezuma, Miller, Pasztory, and many others.  On the other hand the Pop Rock emblems are all over and readily available.

RV: How has the work been met by members of other cultures? Has anyone reacted adversely over the use of indigenous iconographies? 

MT: As I envisioned, the rock elements are readily recognizable by most.  On the other hand, the Mesoamerican icons, while vaguely familiar to some, tend to be truly appreciated by a more limited number of people.  In general, the reaction is one of perplexity.

Every so often people ask me how I feel about using “other people’s” art as source material (China, Mesoamerica, etc.) to which I respond that my usage is prefaced by an in-depth study of the culture that spawned such art/symbols/motifs.  A longer explanation, if warranted, would entail going into the psychology and cultural dexterity of bi-cultural peoples, such as Puerto Ricans.  By being exposed to two cultures simultaneously, people like us can be more culturally “absorbent” and at times can become acutely aware of parallels and confluences among sources apparently disparate to many others.

RV: Beyond what you have created for us to see, what would you say, beyond the evident of course, was the intrinsic poetry that you saw in the juxtaposition of these iconographies?

MT: To me the intrinsic poetry was sheathing very venerable but ignored, misunderstood, or maligned Aztec and Maya emblems in very recognizable “contemporary” logos.  Thus the truly indigenous American grandeur slowly becomes more familiar to the average viewer who gets his/her blood flowing, ironically enough, through American Pop.

RV: Are there are references you would say are key to unraveling the hidden meaning in these works?

MT: A Wikipedia search about the Aztec Sun Stone, the Maya sacrificial spine, the serpent skirt Coatlicue, and perhaps an Aztec sacrificial vessel would probably serve as an adequate “primer”.  For a more nuanced understanding of the Mesoamerican components a brief foray into a bibliography including some of the authors listed above would yield more in depth information.  As to the rock emblems, a cursory glance at any volume dealing with the music of the 60’s and 70’s would probably suffice.

And here we have it, a hallmark of contemporary Puerto Rican art with whom Conboca keeps a very close relationship, not just for the abundant wealth of references and anecdotes Miguel Trelles brings to the table, but for the commitment to reevaluating and reinterpreting history, which characterizes the work. His oeuvre inspires thought and analysis, and offers an alternative view to the iconographies associated with our hybrid culture, and links it with a very global condition. His work is a step towards a type of art which serves to unify rather than divide, and this optimism is what draws you into the alternative reality created by Trelles – a reality where hybrid is very fertile indeed.

For more information about the artist click here.


[1] The Master (referring to Confucius) said,

For teaching the people to be affectionate and loving there is nothing better than filial piety.  For teaching them propriety and submissiveness there is nothing better than fraternal duty.  For changing their manners and altering their customs there is nothing better than music.  For securing the repose of superiors and the good order of the people there is nothing better than propriety.  Propriety is simply respect.  Therefore, the respect paid to one’s father pleases all younger sons; the respect paid to one’s ruler pleases all subjects.  The respect paid to one man pleases thousands and myriads of men.  The respect is paid to a few and the pleasure extends to many – this is what is meant by the Essential Way.

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