John Nava makes his marks
Every so often we need to be reminded of what it is that makes us tick, as well as the elemental components that led us to where we are at any given point in life. In the arts, this seems particularly true. For visual artists, picking up a pencil, a graphite or charcoal stick, a pen, or some other drawing tool and putting it to paper can do wonders for the artistic soul. That directness of mark making— that feel of something held in the hand leaving its residual identity on a blank support— can be rejuvenating, physically and emotionally. The fundamental activity of drawing sustains hand-to-eye coordination and informs creativity.
“For me, drawing is very real in the sense of being authentic,” said West Coast artist John Nava, whose exhibition of figure drawings opens at Klaudia Marr Gallery on Friday, Dec. 11. “Each drawing is a new encounter that demands full engagement if it is going to have both density and make a vivid connection to the actual experience of scrutiny and the touching of the page. I love such drawing just because there isn’t a sort of official program to the work— as in a more formal painting— it’s just a direct record of vision, pure and simple,” Nava said via e-mail from his studio in Ojai, California.
Nava sometimes draws from a model in his studio but most often attends life-drawing sessions “after work” at various locations in nearby communities. “It is a pleasant outing to be out of the studio, and I don’t have to wrangle the logistics of arranging for the models, setting up poses, lighting, and so on. It’s also a challenge just to deal with whatever comes up,” he said. In addition, Nava keeps his materials to a minimum, his favorite drawing tool being an H pencil. “For years, I drew only with pen and ink. I was schooled that way, and it really makes you commit to a line. But out of admiration for Degas and especially his hero Ingres, I began drawing with pencil and was hooked. Why? Well, you can erase for one thing.”
Originally from San Diego, Nava did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Villa Schifanoia Graduate School of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy. “I was and still am interested in Italian Renaissance art, and the opportunity to live and study in Florence was great. The form-sense of the Italians— broad, grand— and the humanism of the art are still meaningful to me,” Nava said. Although he did not come from an artistic family, both he and his brother, filmmaker Gregory Nava, constantly drew as kids. The artist cites an exhibition of work by Pierre Bonnard that he saw in his childhood at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Michelangelo’s Pietà, which he saw at the New YorkWorld’s Fair, as inspirational to becoming an artist.
Nava is best known as a painter and tapestry maker who gained notoriety in 2006 for Neo-Icons, a series of large-scale frontal portraits of adolescents made in opposition to President GeorgeW. Bush and the Iraq war. First exhibited at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, the paintings feature casually attired subjects wearing T-shirts and buttons with such statements as “Our Torture Is Better Than Their Torture,” “One Nation Under Surveillance,” “Stuff Happens,” and “WhoWould Jesus Bomb?” After the exhibit was mounted, the gallery received more than 100 phone calls in protest, including a few death threats. In response, gallery owner Frank Goss posted extra security personnel and hired a personal armed guard to accompany Nava to the reception. (There were no problems.)
In 2007, Marr showcased part of the Neo-Icons series at her nowdefunct Shack Obscura on Canyon Road. A year later the series was exhibited at the Fresno Art Museum, followed by a showing at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York City. All these exhibits evoked no protests. At the other extreme from Neo-Icons, in terms of Nava’s subject matter and content, are the numerous religious tapestries he has produced, including those commissioned for the chapel of the Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, California (2003); the Corpus Christi University Parish in Toledo, Ohio (2004-2006); and the St. Stephen Deacon and Martyr Parish in El Paso (2009).
The group of drawings currently featured at Klaudia Marr, however, are far removed from anything politically or religiously motivated. They are tame, by any stretch of the imagination. In the context of his other work, Nava sees his figure drawings as “directly personal” and not about a formal or thematic program. This body of work “presents activity that has preoccupied me since childhood but has almost never been exhibited,” the artist said. Male and female models are rendered
standing, sitting, bending, and reclining in small-contour studies capturing not only a range of physical attitudes but also a variety of distinct personae. “Unlike more elaborately developed drawings, these pages are full of imperfections,” Nava said in an artist’s statement. “I like to try and make each drawing a sort of portrait— a portrait of the body and the model’s manner as well as the face. The generalized figure doesn’t interest me— I want to see Rachel or Nuria or Charles [all models employed for these sessions] in those lines. I like to get the qualities of the different models as precisely as I can within the short time limit. If they come through vividly in the drawings, I treasure it— the obvious mismeasurements and errors of proportion notwithstanding.”
In the catalog to Nava’s show, John O’Hern— former director and curator of the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, and now a Santa Fe resident— writes: “John Nava still draws because he enjoys it. John’s facility and practiced eye allow him to make drawings that are spontaneous, full of life, and full of insight. The models emerge from the quickly drawn lines that build up the figures as real, unidealized people with grace and bulges and faces formed by their stories.” For Nava, putting pencil to paper has a grounding effect that informs his art and his life. “For me, drawing is a way to understanding, a way to learn, to register and rationalize experience, to process reality.”
John Nava: Irmgard Sitting 2, 2007 to 2009, pencil on paper, 9 x 12 inches
Mark Sitting 1,
2007 to 2009, pencil on paper, 9 x 12 inches
Rachel Reaching, 2007 to 2009, pencil on paper, 14 x 8.5 inches