Friday, December 10, 2010

In Depth: Hercules Holding the Sun and Rainbow

René Treviño, Hercules Holding
the Sun and Rainbow
, 2008,
Acrylic on Mylar, Courtesy of C.
Grimaldis Gallery, MD
One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of a self-aware culture than the Ancient Greeks. They were people who were well aware of human virtues and vice and their vibrant mythology reflects that awareness. Indeed, many of the lessons found in greek mythology still apply today. After all, what is Twitter if not a real-world answer to the Narcissus myth?

Given the Greeks' penchant for self-reflection, it is fitting that artist René Treviño should adopt one of Greek mythology's best known heroes to examine his own identity and the society in which he finds himself. In Hercules Holding the Sun and Rainbow Treviño combines a black and white rendering of a bronze statue of Hercules with a vibrant Mayan calendar. These two images fuse traditional western culture with the less familiar and thus, exotic Mayan culture. In a nod to the myth of Hercules holding up the heavens, Hercules leans forward and cradles the Mayan calendar in his upraised arms.

To anyone who grew up after the revisionist history movement (the scholarly movement that was responsible for bringing Christopher Columbus down a few notches), the combination of these two elements suggests a rather obvious interpretation of the piece. Clearly, a student of this movement would say, this is an emblem of the crushing guilt western culture is forced to carry as a result of its  destruction of Native American cultures! While this theme is certainly at work in the piece, there is something else going on.

The injustices that resulted in the disappearance of entire societies and the disenfranchisement of others have been (almost) universally acknowledged. This piece, therefore, wouldn't be quite as interesting if it only addressed the wrongs of centuries past. It is Treviño's coloring of the Mayan calendar that makes the piece relevant to the here and now. Treviño, a self-described gay Mexican-American, has made the Mayan Calendar into a rainbow, a symbol that has long been associated with the gay pride movement and the LGBTQ community. It is the inclusion of this detail that moves the viewer's mind forward  a few centuries from Columbian times into the present day.

Like Native Americans, the LGBTQ community is often discussed as an exotic "other" that is inherently different from what is perceived to be mainstream society. Treviño's piece suggests that this need not  be the case. Though Hercules Holding the Sun and Rainbow is composed of two distinct--and--different elements, the separation of these two elements is not as complete as it seems. The curve of Hercules's arm complements the curve of the calendar and both elements are composed of fine, virtuosic brush strokes. The fusion of these two elements is most striking in the contrast between Hercules's arm and the Mayan calendar. Though the rest of Hercules's body seems bland in comparison to the calendar, the arm is energized by it's proximity to the ornate detail and vibrant color. One's eye is drawn first to the calendar and then to the arm, almost to the exclusion of the rest of the piece. The colors seem brighter and the contrasts more striking when viewed together. When viewed in isolation, the arm seems to embrace the sun, transforming the piece from an depiction of a burden to one of affection and acceptance.

Of course, to read affection into the piece is to ignore the story behind the image. At this point in the myth (and depending upon which of the three million or so versions you're reading), Hercules has been tricked into holding up the cosmos while Atlas takes the Titan version of a shore leave. Like the character it portrays, Hercules Holding the Sun and Rainbow is a tricky little work of art that allows for as many interpretations as there are viewers. Treviño has discussed his interest in exploring society and his own identity. One might say, then, that the two elements in the piece represent two different portions of our society. Or, alternately, both elements could represent Treviño.

This brings us back to the Greek talent for self-reflection. With so many different possible interpretations,   Hercules forces the viewer to make their own decision about what the piece means and, then, what that decision says about the viewer.


"In Depth" is a series of posts dedicated to taking a closer look at (and maybe completely misinterpreting) individual pieces exhibited by the DCCA. If you would like to nominate a piece at the DCCA for an "In Depth" feature, feel free to write a comment and let me know!

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