Miguel Trelles: Trámite – Hsiao at the Gabarron Foundation Carriage House Center for the Arts
September 10 to October 15, 2008
149 East 38th Street, between Park and Lexington avenues
New York City, 212 573 6968
Miguel Trelles is, culturally speaking, a very complicated artist. Born of a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, Trelles grew up in Puerto Rico but received his college education in fine arts and art history at Brown University. From there, he enrolled in several graduate courses in Chinese art history at Yale University, eventually foregoing the route of scholarship for the life of a painter. Much of his earlier work has been involved in reconciling his interests in Chinese traditional painting with his very contemporary reading of his own outsider status as a bilingual Latino artist in America.
Interestingly, Trelles turned to historical Chinese writings for his recent show, “Tramite: Hsiao” (translated at “Enterprise: Virtue”). The origins of Trelles’s current body of work stem from a handscroll painted by an 11th-century scholar official named Li Kung-Lin. This scroll, entitledXiaojing tu, or The Classic of Filial Piety, is an adaptation of a far earlier Confucian text, which extols filial piety and is dated to 350 to 200 B.C. According to Trelles’s notes, in his show, itself a version of Li’s version, the faces of Li’s figures turn grotesque; additionally, they are also derived from a later Chinese handscroll, Chung K’uei Traveling, painted by Kung K’ai in the 13th century. So Trelle’s art has three precedents. Part of the charm of Trelles’s sequence comes from our knowledge of its background; his paintings show us that the assimilation of culture in the beginning of the 21st century is a pluralist affair; artists may choose quite freely what they would like to be influenced by. It is also clear that the artist is an avid scholar of Chinese culture.
As the artist points out, Latinos are now a significant other in America; he draws inspiration in his work from the irreverence of Chung K’uei Traveling, seeing in that work the caricature of ethnic foreigners. Viewers can see the misshapen faces in Desfile (Parade) (all paintings are from 2008): in this painting, a crowd stands around Chung K’uei, who is in an open carriage drawn by four horses. The figures around them have rather gross physiognomies—they look as much like demons as they look like people. One of the pleasures of the work, in addition to its humorous presentation of caricature, is Trelles’s command of line drawing; it is in the Chinese manner, so much so that it is initially hard to believe that the style has been picked up by an outsider.
In Domingo Tilingo (Family Room), coarse-faced servants tend to a royal couple seated on a pedestal; in front of the pair, a monkeylike personage with a dramatic headdress that seems more Mayan than Asian begins to paint the scene. The raw humor of Kung Kai’s handscroll comes through nicely in Trelles’s hands because the artist is not closely copying so much as he is interpreting a tradition that has already had a long history. We know that in Chinese painting, exact copies are made of masterpieces by young artists who want to internalize the rules of good art. In Doming Tiling (Family Room), we experience the spirit but not the letter of Chinese traditional art.
In Guateque (Filial Piety in Relation to the Three Powers), we see in the upper-left corner a group sitting outside on a white blanket. One of the six wears the Mayan headdress we have encountered before, as well as a Mayan-like mask. The rest of the scene is serenely rustic, with servants standing beside a stream and a row of trees. It is a wonderfully realized vista, complete with the eccentric inclusion of a figure with a hat from Mayan culture who rides what looks like a crocodile. Trelles’s audience cannot but enjoy the slightly comic scenes in his survey of good government; the addition of Pre-Columbian touches only emphasizes the long reach of the artist’s vision, which finds inspiration in different backgrounds. His technical skill makes it clear that he has mastered the Chinese linear style, an achievement that is intensified by his command of the literary materials serving as the basis of the show.