San Antonio native Louis Vega Treviño is currently exhibiting his recent paintings at the Musical Bridges Around the World (MBAW) Gallery through Aug. 12. Organized by MBAW curator Julya Jara, the exhibition includes a number of the color stripe abstractions for which Treviño is best known, as well as a new body of paintings related to the artist’s longtime drawing practice.
Since the early 1990s, the 44-year-old Treviño has been drawing obsessively on a daily basis, an affinity that he shares with a number of San Antonio’s younger Latino artists, such as Albert Alvarez, Alejandro Augstine Padilla, and Jose Fidel Sotelo.
At the age of 19, Treviño abandoned studies of art and architecture at San Antonio College to become a designer for Kell Muñoz Architects – now Muñoz & Company – a position he held until 2000, when he decided to go it alone. During his tenure at the architecture firm, he created models and renderings for a variety of projects, and designed carpet patterns for venues such as the San Antonio Convention Center and Trinity Baptist Church.
Treviño became serious about drawing around 1995, when he found himself impulsively drawing in pen and ink on napkins while dining at a local restaurant. Excited and intrigued by the possibilities, he started buying cocktail napkins in bulk. Usually working in the early morning or late at night, Treviño uses pen and black ink to embellish a white napkin with a spontaneously drawn pattern. To this day, he carries around a cigar box filled with blank and hand-patterned napkins and then, whenever the mood hits, he completes the drawings using markers to add in color.
Although miniature in scale, Treviño’s napkin drawings are optically charged with bold colors and rhythmic movements that to some extent recall the much larger scale configurations of the Op Art pioneer Victor Vasarely. The delicate napkin drawings also have a pleasing tactility that stems from their soft texture.
In 1998, Treviño started drawing on Post-It notes. While some of the Post-It drawings are hand-colored in the same fashion as the napkins, others are scanned, painted digitally, and then printed on paper. The compositions range from simple to complex, and most are very energetic and animated.
Over the years, Treviño has exhibited the napkin drawings in large grid formations, where each drawing functions as a section of a modular composition and endless possibilities exist for overall arrangements. In 2009, he was invited by the Public Art division of San Antonio’s Department of Creative and Cultural Development to use imagery from his napkin drawings as the basis for a site-specific installation in Main Plaza.
From 2009-11, kiosks in Main Plaza were wrapped on all four sides with Treviño’s compositions. The artist made the leap from micro to macro by scanning the napkins, digitally enlarging the scale of the imagery, and printing it on vinyl that was then mounted on the kiosks’ aluminum exteriors.
Around 2001, while experimenting with color on his computer, Treviño found that stretching an image in Photoshop produces patterns of vertical lines in different colors that reminded him of the poured paint canvases of Morris Louis and the stripe paintings of Gene Davis; both artists pioneered 1960s color field abstraction.
So, inspired by art history and interested in working with units of color, Treviño adopted a process of painting vertical stripes from top to bottom of a canvas in slow, steady movements, with the stripes positioned randomly. In the earliest examples, he limited his palette to only three colors, which he varied by mixing in black or white.
In contrast to Davis’s precisely delineated stripes, which mix optically in a viewer’s mind, those in Treviño’s paintings physically overlap so that one color merges with the next to create a glistening luminosity.
For much of the past decade, Treviño has followed the lead of another pioneer from the 1960s – Sol LeWitt. A major figure in the minimalist and conceptual art movements, LeWitt is known for sculptures and wall drawings where geometric shapes are governed by a predetermined set of rules, and can be rendered in various formats and configurations, as long as the basic rules are not violated.
So, like LeWitt, Treviño developed a system for making art which, in his case, involves painting stripes using a specified number of colors. To move beyond the confines of the traditional rectangular canvas, Treviño began painting triangular shaped canvases, as well as modules that can be joined together to construct circular, trapezoidal, or zigzagging structures.
The aesthetic result of such a move is that each painting contains a visual dynamism that emerges as the linear compositions abut against one another to create colorfully vibrant rhythms that move in divergent directions.
In Vectors (2012), our eyes tend to move rapidly from the top to the bottom as we follow the direction of lines painted on three parallelograms that are joined together to create the illusion of a folded-over ribbon. In Trapezoid Series III (2013), where five trapezoids are used as building blocks to construct a jagged inverted zee, most of the lines run counter-directional to the overall shape and each section is broken into contrasting colors, thus the rhythms are more like the repeating beats of a drum.
Such rhythmic paintings seem so perfectly suited to Musical Bridges Around the World, where the main course is music.
In the exhibition at Musical Bridges, visitors will encounter some recent large scale paintings where Treviño has broken rectangular canvases into geometric modules. Particularly memorable is Streaming Leaves (2015), where a composition of striped triangles arranged like mosaic tiles (thereby recalling the cross-hatch configurations of the conceptual art pioneer Jasper Johns) displays a prismatic interplay of light and color.
Additionally, a number of works at the MBAW Gallery reveal a new direction for Treviño. Over the past year, he has been adapting some of his napkin compositions to canvas and, in many instances, improvising directly on canvas as he does when drawing on napkins.
Although still working primarily with patterns, he has taken a bold step with his painting Helmets (2016). For the first time in his twenty-plus years as an exhibiting artist, Treviño has constructed a pattern using a representational image, a Mexican wrestler’s helmet.
By introducing into his work a cultural emblem that is closely connected to his identity as a Mexican-American, Treviño has effectively opened a new door for creative exploration, one that could lead to a most fruitful journey over the next twenty years.
Top image: Louis Vega Treviño with his paintings at Musical Bridges Around the World Gallery. Photo by David S. Rubin.