El Veterano: The duke of Kelly Field

Jesse Treviño’s ouevre is puro San Anto landscape, no matter who you are; as a kid I absorbed posters of “La Raspa” in the Blanco Café alongside the sexy wall mural of the Aztec warrior carrying the princess, and the faux-wood sign reading “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.” I loved his 1981 Fiesta poster with the smiling, stylized folklorica dancer; it thrilled me to see the sketches for this as part of Jesse Treviño: Mi Vida, on view through February 28 at the Alameda — in part because the general outline of his work is so familiar that the impact of seeing the real thing comes as a shock: To be faced with the graphite marks made by the person is to face the person himself.

The posters you’ve seen don’t do Treviño justice. Viewed with the naked eye, Treviño’s paintings bear deliberation, appear more painterly than you’d expect, feel more direct, look both more and less photographic than they photograph. Neither Treviño’s remarkable eye nor his compassionate perspective is lost in the reproductions of these images; their emotional warmth and rigorous line come across. But their scale can only be appreciated in person, and scale is crucial. Where Treviño’s alchemies of detail and light can convey love, memory, and honor, scale has fuerza, it confronts. Scale is clinical and cerebral, commanding attention. Scale keeps things from going soft.

I enjoyed looking at Treviño’s juvenilia — he imbued a portrait of LBJ with suitable gravitas, gave Ringo Starr loads of sparkle, and made an affectionate, modish portrait of his pretty sister that’s both fun and fine. The heretofore unshown wall mural “Mi Vida” is replete with mural tradition, and Treviño’s big hits — “Mis Hermanos,” “El Carro en La Calle Zarzamora,” and especially “Señora Dolores Treviño”— can make you fight back tears. But it was another painting, one I’d never seen before, that grabbed my focus and wouldn’t let go.

Treviño painted “No Te Acabes Kelly Field” in 1976, the same year as the better-known “La Raspa,” “Mis Hermanos” (which resides in the Smithsonian Collection), and “Los Camaradas del Barrio.” The ’70s were a mind-bogglingly fruitful time for Treviño. He’d survived Vietnam, lost his right hand and taught himself to paint with his left, studied at San Antonio College and at Our Lady of the Lake — had, in fact, already painted the mural “La Historia Chicana” there, in 1974. As is often mentioned about Treviño, upon his return and rehabilitation from war, he set about fulfilling a near-death vision he’d experienced on the battlefield; he decided that if he had another chance at life, he’d paint the people and places back home.

Treviño’s lush and dappled San Antonio is seen through the longing lens of a wounded and homesick soldier. Its architectural and physical contours are captured by someone who’d studied with William Draper at the Art Students League in New York, and who was up for a prestigious fellowship in Paris at the time he was drafted. Treviño, not yet a U.S. citizen, earned his Purple Heart and his citizenship instead of taking off for Europe, and was severely wounded after just three months in-country, in February of 1967, at age 21. His painting hand was severely damaged by an explosive booby trap, as a sniper shot him in the leg. His recuperation back home at Fort Sam Houston was protracted and painful; excruciating pain in his right hand resulted in its eventual amputation. But Treviño started painting again, and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to return to formal study.

Ruben Cordova, curator of Jesse Treviño: Mi Vida and author of Con Safo: The Chicano Art Group and the Politics of South Texas (UCLA Press, 2009), about the pioneering Chicano art movement founded by Felipe Reyes and promulgated by Mel Casas, wrote via email that “each of Treviño’s teachers taught him what was of importance. The existing literature — which is esentially newspaper articles — usually mentions his teacher in New York, where Treviño paint`ed` from life with large brushes in a very painterly style. While he learned things about light and color from this teacher that were of lasting value, what he learned from his various teachers upon his return to San Antonio was more relevant to his mature work.”

The “lessons of lasting value” Treviño learned came in no small measure from Casas himself. Casas was well-versed in Pop Art and Warholian sensibility, in flatness as a virtue and in the stark rhythms of Rothko and the collage-like improvisations of Rauschenberg. So, too, became Treviño, who began experimenting with not only a different artmaking hand, but a radically altered vision.

“No Te Acabes Kelly Field” depicts a man seated at his desk in a looming, converted hangar — a subject ensconced in a military-industrial complex, that of then-Kelly Air Force Base. The pallette is gray, gray-green, tan, brown, beige, the surroundings utilitarian. The man turns his head to gaze at the viewer. His pose in his office chair is at ease, but self-aware and composed, his hands folded contemplatively like those of a Holbein or Gainsborough. The man wears civilian clothes of the period, but he may have been a Vietnam vet — like Treviño; there’s something officer-like in his bearing. He is life-size, and regards us with steady self-possession and slight inscrutability.

We’re not sneaking up on a man in a moment of unguarded intimacy in “No Te Acabes Kelly Field,” not gazing upon a picturesquely rustic peon heavy-laden with maiz, not objectifying the ruby red of a martyred Aztec’s blood. Here’s a guy with a government desk job, in his cubicle, manning his part of the federal territory, meeting you face to face. You’re forced — challenged — to meet his eyes, to meet this portrait’s subject on his terms. It’s a bracingly powerful image, and Treviño knows it. This is Jesse Treviño post-Vietnam, university-educated and battle-tested, politicized by his war experience and the experience of de facto segregation common to all Chicanos of his generation. As a result, Treviño paints revolution as much as he paints any color. Flat as the color scheme of “No Te Acabes” seems, there’s power in the U.S. Gov’t-issued green paint (and unseen green money) to be found at Kelly Field in 1976. It’s been a long painful road to get this man to this job. Another painter might’ve made of this subject and setting a depressing workaday scene out of Kafka; Treviño instead paints this man’s face with the understated triumph of a Velasquez.

And what draws your eye, reluctantly, away from his gaze and toward a rectangle of gold is a rectangle of white, upon which is printed the painting’s title, “no te acabes … Kelly Field.” Kelly Field, before it closed in 1995, employed thousands of San Antonio civilian workers, many of them veterans, and in doing so gave thousands of families a leg-up into the middle class, enabled the acquisition of houses and cars, college for their kids. The military has always been a mixed blessing for Tejano San Antonians, and nobody knows this better than Jesse Treviño. It offers educational and economic opportunities, benefits, a crack at a decent job after service. It also risks your life, abroad and back home (Vietnam may be over, but the battle over the Kelly Toxic Triangle cleanup drags on). But whatever you may think of wars past and present, of the heavy losses Chicanos have suffered serving in them, of the lingering PTSD and dubious recruitment practices and flaws in foreign policy, the dignity of the individual veteran meets you face to face.

I first encountered Treviño’s work in the catalogue for CARA Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation; I was away at college and missed the opportunity to see the actual show in Los Angeles. Over the years, as I have flipped through the book — a frequent occurrence — Treviño’s work always draws me in.

I also think of his importance in light of artists like Salomon Huerta and Christina Fernandez who share that need to detail the surfaces and contours of the Latino landscape. It seems a shame with the recent resurgence of interest in photorealist painting internationally in the last few years (from the touring exhibition Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s to the retrospective of Robert Bechtle) that Treviño’s work has remained undocumented and underexposed.

— Rita Gonzalez, assistant curator for special exhibitions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and curator of the traveling exhibition Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement, which appeared at the Alameda this spring

I am fortunate and honored to have written a book called Arte Latino: Treasures From the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Most of the artworks have text on one page and an image on the facing page. However, three artworks really called for a two-page spread. One of these, “Mis Hermanos,” is a colorful acrylic painted in 1976 by the internationally renowned artist Jesse Treviño. The image is truly captivating and reveals the talent of this extraordinary artist. Painted in a photo-realistic style, it depicts seven men who look directly at the viewer. One is the artist himself.  Each man is an individual and strikes a relaxed pose, yet they are visually (indeed, personally) inter-connected, much like the large tree behind them, with its many branches and foliage spreading like a protective canopy — perhaps symbolic of the strength that the artist derived from the deep roots of his family and friends.  

Jesse Treviño is an inspiration to me and so many others. I greatly admire the “snapshots” of his life in San Antonio, Texas, that he has created over the years, for they are visual testimony of a particular time and place not only of a Chicano community but also of the richness and diversity of the American experience.

— Dr. Jonathan Yorba, Arts & Cultural Affairs Director, City of Riverside, California

Although photo-realistic painting from photos is not my favorite kind of art, I think it’s important to start by saying that Treviño was the only local artist I knew by name as a kid. He was someone I could point to that didn’t make art as a hobby. I was wowed by the fact that he was from my hometown, and that art didn’t have to be made in some big exotic metropolis like New York City. (Of course, I threw those ideas away as a young adult dying to get out of here and then salvaged them later.) Now I take my students to SAMA, and a lot of them stop and respond very strongly to the portrait of his mother hanging laundry. I’ve always liked that painting and the memories it conjures. `“No Te Acabes Kelly Field”` is one of my favorites — the flatness of the file folders, the sort of candid pose, the framing, etc. I think the flyer on the bulletin board is really telling of the Chicano experience in a subtle way. This is a flyer printed (not handwritten) in Spanish on the bulletin board of a government employee working at a military base in a big military town. It’s the Spanish language and a Mexican American in the most patriotic environment possible, and there’s something even a little banal about it (looks like a pretty boring cubicle). I don’t know what he was originally thinking about that piece of paper, but it holds a lot of significance for me with the recent surges of English-only teabaggers and Minutemen. 

— Julia Barbosa Landois, U Penn grad, Artist-in-Residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute and Lademoen Kunstnerverksteder (LKV) in Trondheim, Norway

Jesse Treviño is a major American artist whose work is particularly important because he deals with one of the epicenters of Chicano culture, the West Side of San Antonio. There’s a historical and romantic quality to his work, in terms of the sense of community, the comrades and the people he grew up with, his family, a barrio atmosphere. I’d call Jesse Treviño a romantic social realist. `He embraced` photo-realism because he wants to capture the essence of brute reality, but there’s a loving touch in terms of remembered comrades and his family. He paints with a romantic, loving spirit, as opposed to a more harsh social realism. He embodies the images with a majestic quality of survival — they’re embattled, but they’re survivors.

— Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, independent scholar

I’ve known his work and his name literally since I was a kid — I remember when I was in fifth grade, I entered an essay contest, and the prize was “Meet Jesse Treviño.” You were supposed to write a 200-word essay. I didn’t win; I drew a picture instead of writing `laughs`. Probably somebody just took a look at it and threw it out. Later on, I saw the mural `“La Historia Chicana”` at the library at Our Lady of the Lake, and I knew, this was heavy stuff, important stuff. Jesse’s definitely one of the San Anto artists who’s a pillar of the art community, he’s part of … that lineage, of what’s so great about San Anto. You can see down the line from Jesse Treviño to Alex `Rubio` and me and on down to young artists after me who are working now. I don’t think he even knows how important he is in all that.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of the soldier, the veteran, that warrior culture that he’s always represented; he’s an infuence on the portraits I’ve done of my brother, as kind of an extension or new generation of that culture. … Two years ago, when Alex and I had our show at the Alameda, I was finally able to meet him. He came to the opening, looked at the work, told me I was a great painter. It was a great, great moment for me.

Vincent Valdez, graduate of Burbank High School and the Rhode Island School of Design. His collaboration with composer Ry Cooder, “El Chavez Ravine,” was exhibited at the San Antonio Museum of Art from March through August. He currently resides in Los Angeles.