New Haven, CTDa Silva Gallery
November 10 – December 1, 2018
Miguel Trelles’s paintings are an amalgam of strikingly different cultures and traditions. Inevitably, the work concerns the borrowing of other painting histories. The subject matter is the Caribbean landscape and the indigenous culture of Trelles’ native Puerto Rico, as well as the Chinese landscape legacy of mountains, streams, and trees. Formerly, his art followed the formal legacy of Chinese painting quite closely, but now Trelles is producing imagery that not only incorporates the Chinese depiction of nature, but also imagery associated with the Caribbean, where Trelles grew up. He does so by merging the particulars of Chinese landscape painting¾its collapsed perspective and its poetic view of nature¾with the details of Caribbean people. The combination may seem odd at first, but given the formal cohesion of Trelles’s paintings, the experience, which begins with awareness of appropriation, quickly becomes appreciative of their cultural autonomy as art.
In Contraband for the Coast Guard (2018), we see a dark-green sea and a strip of rocks variously colored tan, olive green, red, and blue, painted on a horizontal canvas. The outcrop stretches across the length of the painting, but the individual shapes, mostly rough horizontals, are crammed together in a deliberately irregular, unorganized fashion, are hard to read. Several small boats approach the stony strip, ostensibly delivering the contraband¾given the title of the work and the presence of small boats approaching the shore, it appears likely that the Coast Guard is searching for drugs. On the right edge of the painting there is a massive tan cliff strewn with small abstract effects. The painting hovers between abstraction and figurative imagery; its inclusion of two different styles, enhances its visual force.
Son of Siboney (2018) is a remarkably complicated work of art, in which Siboney and Chinese references are found on the edges of a large inchoate vermilion form. The Siboney allusion occurs in the placement, on the painting’s left, of an indigenous figure writing in a book, and the Chinese allusion is found in the portrayal of a Chinese woman in traditional robes, playing a Chinese zither, on the upper right. I was told by the artist that the painting’s primary reason for existence was its mass of reddish-orange color, which Trelles likes for its own sake. But the allusions to traditional Chinese music and paintings, along with the inclusion of a native person from the Caribbean, make the painting more complex than a mere mass of hue. The Siboney were a Taino people living in central Cuba during the 15th and 16th centuries, and perhaps for Trelles, whose background is partially Cuban, the painting pays homage to this extinct culture which is interesting to him for more than scholarly reasons. The rest of the painting is a compound of abstract forms, parts of buildings, a crow, and tropical fruit. Dead center is a yellowish mountain whose forms remind us of mountains found in Chinese landscape art.
The last painting to be considered is earlier, done in 2014. Hal’s Journey relates clearly to the Chinese painting tradition. Painted on an olive background, it consists of a sharply inclined mountain with a pointed peak, whose overall form is constructed with smaller abstract swatches of several colors. A ship with sails is entering a cove in front of the mountain, while in the very forefront of the composition, there is a strip of rocks and a few dark-green trees. Romantic in its allusion to a past painting history of another culture, the painting is overtly figurative, but its larger forms are made of smaller nonobjective shapes--rough rectangles and squares—to build the recognizable images we see. We cannot call Hal’s Journey a scholarly version of Chinese art. It is too fragmented, independent, and colorful, but we can say it exists in fellowship with Trelles’s academic studies (he spent a semester taking courses on Chinese painting at Yale). The painting is a sympathetic interpretation of a tradition he cares very much about.
This show is compelling not only for its individual works but also for the larger questions it raises. It opens up an issue we have been facing for some time: does the combination of traditions and subject matter result in a new style, or does it merely repeat, without genuinely merging, imageries of the past? Today, we are exquisitely aware of the provenance of visual styles, and many artists feel free to borrow across time, from places that have little to do with their particular background. This kind of appropriation, I believe, is something to be careful about because art traditions need to be treated as autonomous achievements. But, at the same time, it must be acknowledged that today imagery from everywhere is available everywhere, ready for use. Trelles employs this freedom unusually well, and we trust his quick use of images that do not belong together in a historical sense. This is because he has found a plausible way of fitting them together rooted in his technical expertise and personal biography.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.