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History Lessons

Considering what makes a life in the company of René Treviño's men

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2010:07:20 21:15:36

René Treviño’s “Charles Darwin”

Size is René Treviño’s friend. Upon entering Battle Cry, the Grimaldis Gallery’s current exhibition of Treviño’s recent works, “From Barye’s Horse” dominates one entire wall. The large piece features a pair of horses—presumably modeled after French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye’s “Turkish Horse, No. 2,” included in the Walters Art Museum’s 2007 Untamed: The Art of Antoine-Louis Barye—rendered in stop-sign acrylic red paint on mylar. He’s certainly worked large before—his 2007 Grimaldis exhibition Saguaro Warriors featured his now signature portraits of historical figures in large scale—but “From Barye’s Horse” feels monumental in comparison.

The immensity of the piece enables you to get up close and personal with Treviño’s process, as the acrylic on the mylar surface is fascinatingly inconsistent. It looks more thickly applied in some areas, and it’s congealed into subtly different intensities of the hue. In reproduction these horses look like they have the quality of a print, that somewhat manufactured finish of something mechanically reproduced. In person the presence of the artist’s hand is undeniable, and that gestural element lends the red a certain tension.

Color is Treviño’s friend too. While Treviño has always liked color in his output—his ongoing “Propaganda” series of images loves hot pinks and golds—he often uses a singular color as a design element: as a finely drawn background to a scene, as the dominant emotional hue in a composition, etc. In his 2010 “Self Portrait” included here, color receives a more multifarious treatment. Treviño doesn’t render himself in this act of self-portraiture; instead, he paints a circular Aztec calendar in various shades of sunshine—orange, marigold, maize—and pairs it with a black rooster, that durable symbol of Mexican machismo and folkloric omen of luck. The painting only includes a few colors—various yellows, black, red for the rooster’s comb—but it’s the most playful composition here, a welcome indication of creative loosening up and relaxation.

Treviño’s output is meticulous, refined, and precise: You get the impression that no mark appears on a sheet of mylar or paper before Treviño knows exactly what he’s looking for and how he’s going to go about realizing it. That control and absolute focus is what lends his portraits of men their riveting photorealistic certainty. He has been making these portraits for a few years now, and they continue to fascinate. Treviño realizes these full-body portraits in black and white on slate gray background, a strategy that makes them feel a bit like old photographs. That’s certainly the effect with some of the historical figures Treviño chooses. Whether it’s the Native American chief Red Cloud or King Edward VII, Treviño’s confident treatment of them captures these great men with an air of dignity and grace.

Just why Treviño has chosen to capture these men in this way is the elusive, persnickety question in his work, one that grows more and more fugitive and important as he continues this enterprise. His portrait strategy certainly turns them into Great Men, but does so in a way that strips them of their historical context. There’s nothing about Treviño’s portrait of Emiliano Zapata that informs you of his role in the Mexican Revolution, but you still might find yourself mesmerized by the man’s defiant stare. There’s nothing about his treatment of General Marquis Gaston de Galliffet that tells you of the French general’s role in the 1871 suppression of the Paris Commune, but something about his well-manicured mustache and the way he rests a hand on his saber makes you think he didn’t hesitate to do what he had to do. And there’s nothing about Treviño’s treatment of Comte Robert de Montesquiou that makes you know he was a poet and a dandy, but you can tell by the dramatic way he holds his hat and cane that he put great care into the cut of his jib.

In this way, history becomes Treviño’s friend too—not so much by whom he chooses, but how he chooses to envision them and what he leaves out. Treviño’s decontextualizing portraits aren’t so much the triumphant artist rendering, a document to hang in an important building that proclaims, “Yes, he lived,” but a visual questioning of what makes a man worthy of that documentation. It’s a suspicion that creeps up in Treviño’s willingness to include more contemporary personages among his historical figures: John Glenn in his Mercury space program silvery astronaut suit, a luchador in his masked glory, and Steve McNair, a football player holding his helmet but looking a little vulnerable without his pads. Treviño’s inquiring portraiture puts all these men in the same ahistorical space and asks you to look at them, sometimes with the tools of their trade or the uniforms of their lives, and ruminate on what goes on in the story of his life.

It’s a sneaky way to meditate on cultural and historical significance, which is, really, celebrity by another name. The Warhol influence on Treviño is undeniable—not only in his interest in the visual currency of human beings, but in his choice of materials. Mylar is primarily used for industrial purposes, just as silk-screening wasn’t really a fine art medium in Warhol’s day. Under Treviño’s inquisitive approach, the plastic sheet becomes vital to the look of the finished work. It lends his surfaces a slightly shiny finish, not so much a shimmery quality as something that makes the acrylic pigments really stand out—the way a photographic image sometimes appears to have an extra brightness about it. It’s a quality that gives Treviño’s imagery its perplexing edge. Photographs, prints, paintings—these are the media used to document and immortalize where we’ve been and who we are, and Treviño’s work straddles all three without comfortably fitting into any single one. His works borrow ideas and appropriate images to recreate people’s likenesses, works that gently ask viewers to consider, for a moment, what we’re looking at when we look at the men of these times. Treviño himself is still figuring out where he’s going with this work, but it’s a journey that has become genuinely illuminating to follow. ?

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