The Garden For Beauty's nothing but the beginning of terror we're still just barely able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.

Rainer María Rike
 

Paisaje secreto (Secret Landscape) is an excellent sample of the work done by painter Rafael Trelles in the last six years. El jardín del poeta (The Poet's Garden), his most recent show in Puerto Rico at Botello Art Gallery, presented fourteen important oil painting to the public. Some of them are included in this exhibition. The painting of Rafael Trelles continue to express albeit with significant variants the same motifs and obsessions underlying the creation of the pieces in The Poet's Garden, which reveals to us a body of work possessing deep structural and narrative cohesion.

These oil painting preserve ambiguous memories of Medieval and Renaissance gardens, inspired by a flow of motifs and themes populated by images from classic writers such as Pliny, Virgil, Cicero, and Dante, among others. These scenes, however, stand in a rather ambiguous relation with Trelles paintings. In contrast with the vision of peace and harmony of the Renaissance "locus amoenus", a fabled world with paradisiacal fountains and gardens, Secret Landscape portrays Nature as violent and convulsed. The inhabitants of these gardens do not enjoy the kind of sweet bucolic pleasure that one would find in Garcilaso de la Vega. These garden depicted by the artist are lonely spaces whose mythical inhabitants do not resemble the amorous shepherds playing lovely melodies on their syrinx while a soft autumn breeze caresses the trees in a sweet and peaceful landscape. The nouns garden and landscape, as used by Trelles to label his fantastic visions are in some measure an irony and a parody, since gardens are Nature tamed and constructed by a rational desing imposing order on the cosmos. Gardens are method personified, where flowers and fountains have a predetermined space. By contrast, Trelle's garden is anarchic, bordering on the irrational and the magical. Evolution and change are his most salient traits. His painting are a recreation of Nature in constant tension, with its creatures submerged in a hyperbolic, unbridled solitude. His garden is an eclosion where Nature devours itself.

When contemplating these pieces, we are overcome with terrible dread for the final destiny of their inhabitants. Nature is presented to us as the dream of a mythical creature: the poet. It is the background against which we see these beings advance or retreat on a spiritual plane. Evolution or involution, it gives us a feeling of chaotic movement, of Nature's incessant systole and diastole, where everything converges, alive and fragmented, unmoored from the natural order to which we are accustomed. Harmony or chaos? It is Nature, trapped in the foreshortening of its own destruction, or its own innermost regeneration. Trelles seems to tell us that everybody's destiny is our own, that we are both the worm and the star that exalts it, the murderer and the victim that redeems him, horror and happiness in one.

Trelles knows that the artist is in a way a god in his own universe. Hence his pleasure in constructing objects, games, boxes promising all kinds of possibilities his magical and cabalistic attempts at subverting destiny, at deciphering a situation or the intricate twists of a personality. There on the canvas is the root of that game of chance and destiny. He knows also that once chance is invoked, it will forever be part of his desing. That is why game playing, chance, the invocation of the unusual so enthrals him that he has preferred to paint these hallucinatory and visionary stories starting from stains. They will be the source, the inception, and he will be the god doing battle with primeval chaos. We are at the gates of a beautiful and terrifying cosmogony.

The Garden of Chaos

The newly invoked chaos, that precarious and confused larval world made of stains, gives way to clusters of shapes and colors full of suggested meanings. Occasionally the tracing of a wing, a crosscut of a coleopteran, a heavy chelonian - like stone takes us back to taino mythology. Now and then a bird's beak and perhaps its flight are just barely suggested, shaded off into a stain. Once more chance gives birth to chaos. Trelles takes as his starting point that prehistory of dreams, those terrible depths where nightmares lurk. A way of conjuring chaos that is his alone.

This technique of working with stains reminds us of the work of German artist Max Ernest and Puerto Rican artist Roberto Alberty. In 1925, a year after the birth of surrealism, Ernst started using frottage, a technique consisting in rubbing objects to obtain textures and images that he would then make part of his paintings. By this means he achieved a series of images from Nature that he grouped under the very descriptive title Histoire Naturelle. Many of the pieces created by Ernest using frottage show fantastic figures of animals, birds, and natural spaces suffused with a truly wondrous mythical and oneiric atmosphere. The procedure employed by Trelles, however, is even closer to the decalcomania method created by Spanish surrealist painter Oscar Domínguez. This technique consists in transferring areas of fresh paint to a canvas and working the paint to obtain the stains that will cover it. The resulting textures and images are nuanced with multiple suggested meanings. The subsequent treatment of the surface gives the painting a tactile richness that intensifies the esthetic enjoyment of it.

In Puerto Rico, avant - garde painter Roberto (Boquio) Alberty also produced a series of frottage pieces using a similar technique. Many of his works, such as the black paintings, are likewise executed starting from stains. There are significant differences, however, between the work of Boquio and that of Trelles. As soon as Boquio achieved his stains he proceeded to give the work a title articulating the painting's suggested forms and message. The title, which would be both clever and illuminating, would give the work a new meaning. It was like bestowing full citizenship on the newly invoked chaos. Only through this act of identification would Alberty pronounce the stain consummated, transformed at last into a finished piece. Through the decalcomania technique, the canvas becomes like a snapshot of the chaos that is gradually taking shape, becoming defined a fleeting glimpse of a vision captured by the artist's hand. Thus, images appear as if frozen in their silent evolutionary process, as though a primeval apparition has been captured (or created) and given back to us in all its intense and magical splendor. Alberty preferred a game in the dark. El Boquio lures the shadow and then names them. In Trelles, chance is conditioned. A profound mythical and religious vision places his work inside a narrative that gives it meaning within the deep syncretism that characterizes it and permeates it with a particular world vision. In the work of Trelles, as opposed to that of Boquio, there is more definition chance is distilled to its pure form. The artist takes pleasure in baroque detail, in making a goldsmith's piece of work out of an insubstancial wing, or a barely suggested face looking out from the inceptive stain, the original chaos. The artist's brush then begins the trace outlines, to capture astonishment, to illuminate obsessions that are struggling to rise from this canvas genesis. Trelles brings back into the light, in very defined contours, the spectre that lies dormant in the stain. His use of complementary colors gives his work its rich charge of tension, producing that labyrinth of light and shadow that characterizes his plastic discourse. That colourful dynamism, that tension axis, is also achieved by the artist in the piece's dynamic composition, with which he gives us the illusion of movement or stillness, as for example in the Jardín Acechado (The Stalked Garden) triptych.

Some paintings, as the ones in this triptych, are done on a cedar panel prepared with rabbit - skin glue and calcium carbonate (blanco de España). Together with magical realism and the mythical world, Trelles shows a predilection for Renaissance painting and its techniques, which leads him to experimenting with the original materials. An important technique used by Trelles is that of glazing, which allows him to bring out of the primary chaos all the different planes that he divides in the original vision, and then superpose reality upon reality, thus adding tension and dynamism to the piece. These oil paintings show the presence of an intelligence that is very meticulous in the disposition of the elements in the piece and the surrealistic narrative. In any of his paintings, the wise and ingenious use of visual counterbalance is evident in the elements geometrical disposition. Chaos gradually yields to order, spinning the narrative thread and constructing the myth.

The artist's technical mastery goes hand in hand with a deep knowledge of old traditions that have survived outside of the Western and Christian canon. His paintings are full of symbols from esoteric and cabalistic - tradition, tarot, Greek and Egyptian mythology, Medieval iconography, and Oriental philosophy, in particular Buddhism and Brahmanism. The influence of Taoism and Zen must also be mentioned. In Zen philosophy, the satori represents the culmination of an inner process in which character is instantaneously revealed. Zen art is not concerned with copying reality but with approaching the act of creation through the implementation of technical concepts that imply the use of controlled fortuitous occurrences. This alliance between chance and the artist's control defines the techniques used in the inner gardens of his secret landscape.

The Garden of Mutations

Among the most important characteristic of Rafael Trelle's plastic discourse stands out a wide range of characters from the animal and plant worlds, Astonishing and unusual beings, many of these characters are an extraordinary synthesis of both realms, of two planes that in the actual world are set apart by their specific biological nature. Trelles creates those characters by fusing plant, animal, and mineral worlds into one.

Each entity, each mutation that appears in these visions lives in its own hell. This explains the air of surprise that these characters project. The garden does not belong to them, they are not the placid courtiers in the garden. They are the garden. They are the flower and the thorn, the worm and the clepsydra, life and death. Like frozen images, these characters are entities trapped in their astonishment at their own existence the unknowing existence of that which Ruben Darío, in his poem Fatality, would call the "scarcely sentient."

These are not the usual metamorphoses of Greek and Roman mythology, but half way mutations, trapped by the artist in the middle of their Calvary. Trelles becomes a part of that fate, the master of both victim and murderer. All this as part of a natural process, without the traditional Manicheism opposing good and evil. Therefore, when violence emerges and transforms then, devours them, or debases them, these creatures do not seem to suffer from such torment, they are but one dream devouring another. Life and death reward and punishment are the essential components of a game or opposites making up an organic vision of the world. They are Natural in turmoil, where human forms are on occasion condemned to their fate as plants or animals. And Nature in turn is condemned to having a more human face. Consider for example El milagro de los peces ( The Miracle of the Fish ), or Los gemelos divinos ( The Divine Twins ), El muchacho de Cataño ), and Nuestra Señora (Our Lady), among others.

In this sense, the characters living in the secret of this landscape display an intense hieratic attitude, an air of perplexity, as befits someone who is part of a higher reality. Each one of these characters inhabits a fraction of their own world. The artist's gaze rescues a vision that has been confined to a primeval time. It is a ritual space where the gods make their existence and will manifest again.

These are silent spaces and beings, visions where one's gaze disturbs long silences filled with struggle and tension. The stories that Trelles tells us are a long plot of dissociated fragments, stories that seem unfinished at first glance. Nevertheless, in spite of the narrative's disjointed character, the artist always manages to tell us something, to invite us to a place of heightened intuitions experienced by the spectator at each step by virtue of the ceaseless polysemy conjured up by these visionary tales of his secret landscape. An example of this is his beautiful triptych Jardín acechado ( The Stalked Garden ). This piece reminds us of Medieval altarpieces and Renaissance paintings. In The Stalked Garden, vertical lines predominate as in a Gothic arch, converying a beautiful vision of a world where spirituality and creativity prevail. This piece is an impressive synthesis of Trelle's work, an example of the rich complexity of his syncretism. In it we find a profound treatment of the cabalistic tradition, with the three panels of the triptych evoking the spiritual aspect of the Trinity. A play on tradition and the symbols of numerology. At the center, an angel similar to the Archangel Michael defeats a demon and in the process pierces his own heart a symbol of the union of opposites and the duality of the cosmos. The three panels complement one another in a rich and complex weave of esoteric traditions and symbols. In this triptych, as in most of the artist's work, different aspects of the natural world combine in a surrealistic narrative. The sphinx on the left is a paradigmatic metaphor for the reconciliation of opposites. A bird or a winged coleopteran, a lion and a woman, it is also the embodiment of an enigma. On the left side there is a figure of a woman with a male form holding her, and behind them there is a kite, an image of both ascension and childhood. Is this a depiction of the terrible wisdom of innocence? Or is the artist a spectator of his own work ? In this triptych, the mango tree in the background reveals a human torso, and it bears hearts for fruit. The garden becomes a ravishing and enigmatic ambuscade of traditions and symbols, in which trees have a place of honor. El milagro de los peces ( The Miracle of the Fish ), El libro abierto ( The Open Book ), and El naufragio ( The Shipwreck ). That symbolic tree, center of the world, the Ygdrasil of Nordic mythology is no less than an allegory of the cosmos, a symbol of regeneration and immortality. This triptych also shows another essential elements in Trelle's plastic discourse: the game of opposites between Nature and the city. The natural world and the world created by man are placed in contraposition. For Trelles, the fundamental events that may change the world do not take place in man's precarious reality, in particular the city, but in the natural world. Hence his lifeless images of the city, a stiff and anonymous space. In his work, man is always at the mercy of a natural design that predates him and that he cannot escape.

The Stalked Garden is therefore not only an excellent piece where the artist shows his mastery of the plastic language, but one that represents a synthesis of a rich mythical vision of the world, in which the artist seeks elevation to richer spiritual planes and where victim and murderer, angel and demon in their age old battle speak to us of a longing for the reconciliation of all levels of life.

The Virgin. The Feminine Principle.


In the work of Trelles there are no male gods or masculine principle, but there are many virgins reminiscent of the Marian tradition, or enigmatic goddesses in whom a garden or an orchard is reincarnated, as in Juana Morales and in The Stalked Garden discussed above. The feminine principle which in the plastic discourse of Trelles is a synonym for humility and an initiation path through which the spirit can reach a spiritual synthesis with the active masculine principle tells us of old sacred beliefs, of times when the world was rule by matriarchal tribes following a vision of the Earth as a holy being. The world as the space of Gea. Oil paintings representative of this position are Según San Juan II ( According to Saint John II ), Andando de noche sola ( Walking Alone at Night ). In these pieces, Trelles proclaim that we must retake the path of the Earth's sacredness, give Nature its living character back, free it from the relentless mechanization that opened the doors to the exploitation and destruction of the environment. This theme is represented by his paintings Esfigia (Styx) and El muchacho de Cataño ( The Boy from Cataño ), where the artist echoes the belated modern concern for ecology and the environment.

The spirit coincidence and the profound syncretism that permeate his oil paintings do not prevent Trelle's art from being deeply Latin American and Puerto Rico. Within those strange and terrifying images we find fragments, luminous glimpses of Caribbean color and magic. His work presents prima facie a world newly trodden upon. The inquiring eye finds itself a witness to the construction of a world which, albeit pervaded by a complex syncretism, is founded upon contents, shape, and colors that are essentially Latin America. Here, in a corner of El poeta y su sombre (The Poet and His Shadow), lurks a taíno myth. And over there, that butterfly wing that transforms itself into a character with anthropomorphic traits like the guava in the Arawak myth of the dead, the artist has seen it in his own garden. The palm trees, the beaches are those of the Caribbean. The Virgin's apparition to the shipwrecked people in the oil painting Nuestra Señora (Our Lady) is an image from the Marian Tradition. This canvas has some points in common with Our Lady of Charity at El Cobre, so dear to Cuban iconography. Walking Alone at Night also evokes images and ideas characteristic of the Afro - Caribbean tradition of our region, which gives the work a new dimension of meaning.

The New Garden of Earthly Delights
The City


These visions full of such dissimilar worlds and diverse religious traditions do not shrink from criticizing a society that is losing its spiritual moorings. Whether in a few brushstrokes or in whole canvases, Trelles unleashes a vigorous criticism of social, political, and ecological situations that obsess him. On occasion it is just a brief note where a very deep moral and environmental awareness can be glimpsed at Isug, la nave de los locos (Isug, Ship of Fools), La nave de los locos and La nave de los locos III (Ship of Fools III) show images alluding to a social context marked by violence and crisis. In Isug, a truck can be seen in the background scattering solid waste in the city. One of the characters displays a gun, a clear allusion to the crime problem in the country, whereas another creatures has a television set for a head. An offensively obese monk in Ship of Fools accompanies the ship's crew in this nightmarish painting, which represents a voyage throught the lowest planes of our collective and colonial insanity, and which reminds us of the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Sebastian Brandt's famous poem Ship of Fools.

In many of Trelle's paintings, the city emerges in the background, or can be perceived on a secondary plane with its cold and desolate outline, its grid like architecture. It is a dehumanised, lonely, and at times infernal place, as in Babel, El arpa imagianria ( The Imaginary Harp ), El octavo círculo ( The Eighth Circle ), and Encuentro de amor ( Love Tryst). The city appears also as an intricate maze and many of its inhabitants are cockroaches, insects that even in this state of degradation retain a trace of hope, since they have not lost all their humanity and can still be redeemed by lover or by Divine grace. Examples of this are Encuentro de amor ( Love Tryst ) and Estfgia ( Styx ).

 
The Shipwrecks

It would have been better for the Earth to be a deserted sphere or never to have come forth from its nebula. To be or not to be. Not to be, not to be. Ghost ship filled with skeletons, with your flag of rags floating in foul air.
Vicente Huidobro


In the oil painting God's Glass we find ourselves in front of a double shipwreck. Inside a water pail, Trelles reclaim a detail from José Campeche's iconography specifically from El salvamento de don Ramón Power ( The Rescue of Don Ramón Power ) together with other elements from the esoteric tradition. God's Glass alludes to the institutional crisis in Puerto Rico. But is it also a glass in which God drinks water that is impregnated with tragedy, the country's historical and moral crisis. In this polysemic work, we are faced not only with the historical shipwreck of our civic and political enterprise, but with a shipwreck at other levels of conscience: a cosmic shipwreck. Another work akin to this one is Styx. In the latter, another vessel which could also be emblematic of the Puerto Rican experience with its passengers arranged in a group reminiscent of La Rogativa sails, or rather travels as a crew member on a bigger ship that sail over putrid waters. This could be the voyage to Hades of our historical development. In Trelle's vision of the world, the shipwreck and its prelude the terrible journey fraught with danger are the metaphors that take us on a tour of the artist's secret landscape where nightmare reigns supreme. But God's hand is not absent. Even in his work's most infernal scenes we can find a breath of hope. In Styx, an insect that is part of the crew is touched by the Holy Ghost's flame. The artist takes great care that these spaces do not attempt against the lyrical and baroque sensuality and the magic of his gardens. He achieves a communion between his magical world and his social and ideological concerns, without falling into the trite conceptualisation of social realism or political art.
 
Coda

Laistrygonians, Cyclops/ you'll never find things like that/ as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, / as long as a rare excitement / stirs your spirit and your body. / Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon you won't encounter them / unless you bring them alongside inside you soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Constantin Kavafis
 
Five hundred years after the so called discovery of America, Rafael Trelles invites us to a new encounter, or even better, a confrontation, in which he appeals to us to escape the spiritual Middle Ages that still enslave us and encourages us to discover a New World, the one that lies unsuspected at the center of our spirit. In these oil paintings full of such amazing lyricism, the doors are flung wide open for this voyage. We need only undo the cruel bonds of reason and logic, and go beyond the horizon of our historical senselessness no matter what abyss, what terrible chasm may lie in our path.

Jan Martínez
Poet & Spanish Professor at the Polytechnic University and the University of Puerto Rico
Director of La Torre magazine at the University of Puerto Rico