Close Up and Far Away:
An Interview with Miguel Trelles
Miguel Trelles is a mid-career painter and draftsman working on the Lower East Side. Born in San Juan, the artist came to North America to pursue his college and professional education. (But he maintains close ties with his native Puerto Rico, where his family resides.) Trelles is an accomplished artist whose studio is in The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, a former public school building on Suffolk Street. He is part of the community there, and can be seen as one of the stalwarts of the Latino art-world in New York. The series of questions posed here will help the reader gain not only some sense of Trelles’s esthetic, but also his deep connection to the under-recognized Latino art-world, which functions in New York City on the margins of convention--in showing, in art writing, in collecting--and which, consequently, deserves greater attention.
Trelles is also the executive and artistic director at Teatro LATEA at The Clemente, where programming is strongly oriented toward Latin-American activities; additionally, his paintings now regularly reference both Mayan culture (he continues to take a strong interest in Chinese traditional painting). His commentary on this field tells us a lot about our current propensity for eclecticism, regarding which he delivers an informed, complex opinion. His thoughts are wide-ranging and introduce us to his many-sided art, as well as focusing on some of the issues facing contemporary artists from the Caribbean. --Jonathan Goodman
Goodman: Please describe your upbringing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Your father, still an active writer now in his early 90s, reviews film, while your mother writes about Spanish-language writing, novels in particular. One of your sisters studied film at Harvard and now teaches at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. How did so literary and intellectual a family result in your becoming a painter?
Trelles: As my best friend and front-door neighbor Amaral describes, when I was growing up, our seven-member (five-sibling) family ensemble was always at church, the beach, or the movies. At home our parents turned us on to literature; and there were all these movie press kits (photos and posters) and books around the house. On the walls there still hangs a silkscreen print by Myrna Baez (recently deceased and one of our great printmakers), a photo of Paris, a print of Havana, and a beautiful virgin from the Escuela Cusqueña.
I have been drawing ever since I can remember: little figures, fights soon after, then autos and airplanes. But mostly people, especially faces. A fascination with comic books and science fiction/fantasy illustration led me to become somewhat literate about that genre, anticipating my subsequent foray into art history. During adolescence my Grandmother Carmen gifted me some incredible fantasy illustration books. Because my parents were humanists in the broadest sense, we were exposed to writers, filmmakers, and artists, but the writers/critics were the most prevalent among those visiting. (I still remember going to a lecture by Jorge Luis Borges at the University of Puerto Rico,) Even so, a heavy-weight artist friend of my parents, Franciso Rodón, suggested my parents refrain from enrolling me in art classes and just let me do my thing.
Goodman: You went to Brown University for undergraduate studies and to Hunter College for an MFA. For a semester, after college, you studied historical Chinese painting at Yale. How did these experiences influence your art? You have remained in North America, living in New York City. Why have you stayed? Is New York City still a place to be an active artist?
Trelles: I came from a University of Puerto Rico household, so my U.S. experience was unexpected, challenging and inspiring. Upon arriving at Brown, I first heard, “You don’t look Puerto Rican”--some kind of puzzling prologue to my experience in the States. A fellow student, Julia Martin, was instrumental in helping me explore culture beyond my Caribbean brand of Judeo-Christian, Western cultural assumptions, turning me on to Chinese civilization. Art Department Professor Edwards encouraged me to cross register at the Rhode Island School of Design where I learned about the craft of painting. At the same time, Professor Bickford shaped my criteria on Chinese painting. At Yale, Mike Hearn from the Met Museum shared actual masterpieces with us. I even met Professor Richard Barnhart, the famous art historian of Chinese painting. This exposure would subsequently transfer my figurations into the “Chino-Latino” series.
I have made New York my home because as a Puerto Rican I feel paradoxically both culturally at home (the Nuyorican ethos and esthetic are inspiring, thanks to poets like Miguel Algarín and Pedro Pietri and to venues like the Taller Boricua art gallery) and because of the international diversity the city offers. Perhaps I would have moved elsewhere if Ed Vega, a Puerto Rican novelist and the founder of The Clemente, had not offered me a studio here. Opportunities like the one he afforded many visual artists have grown increasingly scarce, but if a place like The Clemente can renew itself and live up to its mission of encouraging and supporting Puerto Rican and Latinx visual artists, we may be able to continue being a part of New York’s cultural milieu.
Goodman: Many, many legal and illegal immigrants--some of them artists--from Spanish-speaking countries now live in New York. As a bilingual Puerto Rican artist, where do you stand in the art community here? Do you identify as being inside or outside the American community? Does your identity play a role in your art?
Trelles: I belong to the Puerto Rican/Latino art community and am glad to show in any space when invited. I am bilingual but, linguistically and culturally, I revel in Spanish; I actually teach Spanish at Baruch College. Because of this and because my upbringing and exhibition travel have exposed me to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and to Latin America, I easily relate to and am conversant with legal and so-called “illegal” artist immigrants from our America “en español.”
Most important, my association with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter has allowed me to research, write, and be published regarding the Center’s splendid Puerto Rican print collection. Additionally, several of my initiatives at The Clemente have led to the creation of programs meant to increase the presence of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in the institution. For the past 15 years I have been chief curator of BORIMIX, an inclusive yearly exhibition promoting the work of Puerto Rican/Latino visual artists while addressing Puerto Rican culture. Still, however important these associations may be, my cultural identity has been manifest in my printmaking output, which enables me to reflect on and reference the rich Puerto Rican printmaking tradition that spanned the second half of the 20th century.
Goodman: One of the very interesting things you do is to run Latin American Theater Experiment Associates (Teatro LATEA), the original theater at The Clemente, a community-oriented, former public school turned cultural center. You also have a studio there. Can you talk about your role in the organization, and how it has affected the way you work and see the New York art-world?
Trelles: Since 2016 I have been Co-Executive/Artistic Director of Teatro LATEA. As LATEA board members established in writing in 1993, The Clemente’s mission “is focused on the cultivation, presentation, and preservation of Puerto Rican and Latino culture.” Since setting up shop at The Clemente in 1995, I have been an active participant in its community. I have strived to produce work, and to invite fellow artists and others to join me for a drink and a visit, all the while encouraging Loisaida neighbors, downtown community inhabitants, and the NYC public to attend our exhibitions, initiatives, and efforts.
As a resident visual artist my aim is to safeguard the Puerto Rican/Latinx ethos within the institution as well as promoting a certain Clemente brand. When I served for some time as a board member, I was invested in balancing mission and management, promoting our unique Long Term Studio Program and art exhibits showcasing Puerto Rican/Latinx visual art. Currently I paint in my studio on the third floor of The Clemente, manage and program the theater, and remain active in efforts to promote the institution as a Puerto Rican/Latinx multicultural beacon.
Goodman: Despite the considerable number of Hispanic artists in New York, the amount of attention paid them is relatively small. How much of a need is there to develop an infrastructure supportive of Hispanic artists? How can this be done?
Trelles: Even though the attention paid to the considerable number of Hispanic artists in New York remains underwhelming, I am an optimist. Currently, I see two kinds of movements coming up to raise awareness and improve prospects for Hispanic artists.
On the more grassroots level there is a resurgence and dynamic push by existing arts organizations to provide exhibition opportunities. Some institutions I know of are the Local Project, En Foco, El Puente, Bronx Arts Factory, CCCADI ,and Taller Boricua. Then there is the phenomenal New York Latin American Art Triennial, which is growing and gaining momentum, thanks to partners like the Longwood Art Gallery at Hostos College.
The other movement raising awareness stems from the Cultural Diversity Initiative, begun in 2015 and initiated by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. Its purpose is “to promote and cultivate diversity among the leadership, staffs, and audiences of cultural organizations in NYC.” The leadership issue is important because many cultural organizations making a good faith effort to diversify, by organizing exhibitions by Latinx artists and by reaching out to Latinx publics, often lack Latinx folk in leadership positions. And then Latinx institutions have sometimes assigned top leadership positions to folks who are, at best, marginally conversant with Latinx culture.
Finally, there is the “critical” issue of criticism. We need more and more approachable and direct critical discourse, especially about Latinx art; it would be fundamental for NYC to have a Spanish-language critical forum.
Goodman: Drawing is a strength of yours. How did you develop your drawing skills? Would you go so far as to deplore the lack of skill in much of today’s art? Or is that simply a way of concealing conservative feelings about culture?
Trelles: Drawing is fundamental to my practice. Of course, I tremendously enjoy painting without drawing, and yet I often choose to draw. My flat files attest to a robust output of pencil, chalk, and pen and ink drawings. In meetings, or on the phone or in any situation where I find I can hold a pencil and a notebook, I gravitate toward drawing.
After some experience teaching introductory drawing at the college level, I found that many students are experiencing a new regard for drafting skills when they encounter an encouraging mentor to help address the challenges and pleasures of mark-making on paper. It must be stressed that few if any students today have as significant and constant an acquaintance with paper (due to virtual reality) as did students in the 20th century, when paper was still a universal medium.
As for claiming that to deplore the lack of skill in today’s art is “simply a way of concealing conservative feelings about culture,” I don't agree. But I understand the frustration. If drawing on paper can be said to have previously been the tool for visible thinking and the conceptualization of architecture, design, and engineering (the basis of so much in our contemporary world), it is true that all that is worked on in a computer. So the regard for hands-on drawing skills as part of the professional tool kit has disappeared. Invariably this paucity of material aptitude has extended to visual art, which has gained many hands-off two-dimensional tools: the craft resides in the algorithm.
Realizing this, those who regret that we are absorbing and reflecting the world and our life experience in an increasingly hands-off manner may have broader misgivings than conservative feelings about culture. Ultimately, it can amount to taking a philosophical exception to the way world civilization keeps going. Then again, perhaps a balance can be struck, and actual people can prepare machine-processed food (or machines can produce organically grown food). As for art, perhaps many would agree that an autocad diagram is tremendously enhanced, not diminished, by a few gestural strokes--the result of the hand--in just the right place.
Goodman: I have written on your “Chino Latino” series, a group of paintings strongly oriented toward your interest in scholarly, historical Chinese landscape painting. How did you make the leap from being an artist from Puerto Rico to being an honorary Chinese painter? You have since moved on to other themes and subject matter. Why did you make the change?
Trelles: After being introduced to Chinese civilization, history, and culture in college, and then pursuing Chinese art history, there was a disconnect. After all, many Westerners have expressed their admiration for Chinese civilization. Regardless of my honest and genuine appreciation of the art, in my case there was an emotional detachment. It took a lot of looking and learning to get to that vicarious sense of accomplishment that I experienced at the time when admiring the drawing of DaVinci, the brushwork of Velázquez, or the compositions of Lam. My studies in Chinese painting could not keep up with my familiarity with the Western canon until I took the plunge and jumped into the Chinese landscape by crudely attempting to paint it.
Ink was my ultimate conduit to Chinese painting. Thanks to my fascination with the comics, I had grown up drawing with ink, and even when the monumental landscapes I was studying seemed very cold, I couldn’t help grabbing brush and ink to try and copy a passage or borrow a texture for another drawing. Back then, while learning, experimenting, and becoming a painter, some sort of fin de siècle Puerto Rican painter, one question kept coming up: What to paint? Beyond that, another art historical concern kept popping up: Why was landscape in the West relegated to secondary status?
Landscape soon became a potential subject deserving attention, especially since, by the mid-Eighties and throughout the Nineties, the destruction of the biosphere was becoming, belatedly, a growing concern. As an artist from a region known as an ultimate landscape attraction, becoming a Caribbean landscape painter made sense. And yet, how could the ubiquitous and picturesque bohio along the stream become urgent, formally engaging? I realized that historical Chinese landscapes were just as folksy as those in the Caribbean tradition, only that time had tremendously refined them.
The mountains in themselves were relatable to the Picachos of Jayuya in Puerto Rico or to El Mogote in the Valle de Viñales in Cuba. Their scale was far more ample, with a projection transcending the minute and the personal. At one point I even felt like the dead scholar painters of that tradition, artists like Bada Shanren and Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang. had extended me an invitation: Why couldn’t I leverage Chinese antiquity to pursue a Caribbean of the mind?
Goodman: An interesting, new direction for you is the inclusion of Mayan faces and culture. Has this been another way for you to include yourself within the traditions associated with Hispanic culture? Why does Mayan culture interest you so much?
Trelles: The Mayan drawings and some motifs bursting into landscapes and paintings have been the by-product of my experience teaching Baruch college students about the culture and civilization of Latin America. Almost always, texts, syllabi, and all else I consulted to prepare began with a brief mention of the pre-Columbian civilizations. And then things started in earnest. . .with Columbus & Co.
I delved into our America’s pre-Columbian history to look at the issues and, to some extent, the continuity of some of those same issues even after the incredible disruption/destruction/reconstruction carried out by Europeans. As with my Chinese landscape epiphany, my studies resulted in a profound engagement. I have opted for the Maya because I find the ceramic codices and other drawings to relate to some gestural sleight of hand that has some (very limited) parallels with Chinese drawing and because perhaps they resonate with the comic books of my youth. Because the drawings are done with black, and with a very modest palette, they transmit a very lively court reality with great economy.
Goodman: Clearly, you jump from place to place in your imagination. This makes your work highly interesting. But is eclecticism being abused today, in the sense that people feel they can borrow from anywhere and from any culture? How do you see the practice?
Trelles: Well, I imagine I am part of that orientation. But I gravitated to these cultures almost by accident; I was not really looking at them to make art. As I have learned about them, the fact that I am an artist takes over and leads me to borrow or in my case jump in to fully incorporate a different style or culture. As for the practice of eclecticism, I think, on the one hand, Why not? On the other hand, I feel it is incredibly difficult to pull off. Many who try eclectic practices as a shortcut to inspiration might just as well try introspection--it might be faster to achieve esthetic independence this way.
Goodman: There has been a tradition, since Goya, of strong political art in Hispanic painting. Yet your work does not overtly represent a social point of view. How needed is it for artists to be political today, in particular artists of your background?
Trelles: The more overtly political efforts in my work are found in the prints and some drawings. Other than a modest show currently up (but like everything else now, totally shuttered) at the Puerto Rican Family Institute on 14th Street, I really have not had a good opportunity to show my prints.
As for the paintings, particularly the “Chino-Latino” series, I believe they are political by invoking the landscape at a time when we are getting closer to destroying it. Personally, I favor a less overt and more subtle political commentary as there has been a surfeit of political art that doesn't allow the viewer to think or arrive at a conclusion. This kind of agitprop, whether from the Hispanic or any other tradition, does not appeal to me.
But, even so, prints calling for rallies and marches--that sort of advocacy--are the way artists of any background can join and assist in pushing for transformations that could take place toward a more equitable and eco-friendly world society.
Goodman: Please name another area of interest in your art. Figuration plays a major role in the way you work. Why have you turned away from abstraction? Is it mostly a matter of temperament, or is it a deliberate choice?
Trelles: I like abstraction; it's just there’s a limit to how much one can branch out. Also, with abstraction I sometimes get scared with how the formal takes over. I like to see a story or have it evoked or hinted at. Further down the line, I’d love to tackle pattern and figure out if it would be at all possible to play with/subvert that tradition. Potentially I’d look to combine Escher and Agnes Martin. . .
Goodman: In the next five years where do you want to be as an artist? Do you still want to work in New York City? Do you think there will be, eventually, a true place for a gifted painter like yourself in this city?
Trelles: In the next five years I’d like to be able to share my work and my efforts for the theater with more Puerto Rican and Latinx artists at The Clemente, and to spend some more time in Puerto Rico with my family. I don’t know if there will be a true place for me in this city, but I am excited to keep calling it home.