Todo Trevino

Those acquainted with Jesse Trevino’s work might find it surprising that this seminal Chicano artist just got his first comprehensive retrospective. They might be even more surprised that Trevino, at 62, has yet to be catalogued, an important step in a major artist’s career.

The answers might be in Trevino’s own dramatic life story. The amputation of his right arm as a result of being wounded in Vietnam, his painful recovery, and his journey of learning to paint with his left hand have overshadowed every story written about him, every show mounted, every honor received.

“Jesse Trevino: Mi Vida” at the Museo Alameda in San Antonio until February 28 is thus the first full look at the artist’s work from beginning to now.Viewers will see a pencil drawing of his sister, looking like it could have appeared on a McCall’s sewing pattern; an LBJ portrait done while the artist was still in high school; the “Sweetheart pictures” Trevino painted of his buddies’ girlfriends; and his most well-known works. Those include paintings of the Progresso building, the historic Alameda Theater, the iconic “Senora Dolores Trevino” (described as “one of the best paintings of an artist’s mother since Whistler’s”) and scenes of San Antonio and the West Side, the Chicano neighborhood from which so many other Chicano artists have arisen. All are accompanied by descriptive, lengthy wall text.

“San Antonians and Tejanos will recognize many of his subjects,” says curator and art historian Ruben C. Cordova, a visiting scholar at the University of Houston, “but even those outside will find familiar iconography.” These include portraits of barrio vendors (“La Raspa”), fieldworkers (“Los Picadores” and “La Fe”) and people such as “Mis Hermanos,” a big group even though several brothers are missing, and “Los Camaradas del Barrio.”

Trevino’s story is indeed rich, and how he dug himself out of a deep depression and physical rehabilitation is depicted in the retrospective’s centerpiece, a mural titled “Mi Vida,” that many had heard of but few had seen. Painted on a wall inside a house Trevino rented, “Mi Vida” (1972) is a large-scale mural that includes images of a Purple Heart hanging from the artist’s prosthetic hook, his green Mustang purchased with his disability pay, a can of Budweiser, a painkilling pill, a pack of cigarettes and, at the center, the image of a young woman killed in an accident. Trevino does not remember her name. Acrylic on gypsum board, the mural was painstakingly removed from the wall and mounted onto canvas. “Mi Vida” comes complete with the electrical socket that Trevino painted over – crooked, as installed.

The show, says Cordova, covers the highest quality work of each of Trevino’s phases---early work in sketchbooks, art presented to teachers and relatives, his New York portraits painted before being drafted and many of his high-end commissions for private collectors. Throughout the show, the artist’s use of reflection and light give his photorealism strokes of impressionism in Trevino’s deft reflections on glass, on cars, in the light filtering through trees.

“Mi Vida” also includes models of several of Trevino’s giant public art sculptures such as “Our Lady of Guadalupe Veladora,” an almost three-story work outside the Guadalupe Theater. The artist’s largest work, the nine-story “Spirit of Healing” mural on the façade of the Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, is only a block away.

For those who’ve wondered why Trevino chose photorealism, a style that dominates his work, there may be several reasons. In part, it’s a promesa the artist made in a rice paddy in Vietnam. “He thought he was going to die,” says Cordova, author of “Con Safo: The Chicano Art Group and the Politics of South Texas.” He vowed to come back and paint the images of his West Side.

It’s no secret that Trevino, like many other painters, takes photos of his subjects. (he takes them at noon to capture the greatest saturation of color). But until this show, Cordova didn’t know Trevino also projects his photos onto canvas. After viewers make their way through “Mi Vida,” even knowing that won’t matter much. Trevino is still an accomplished master, and this long-awaited retrospective finally puts all of his greatest work under one roof.

Elaine Ayala