John Nava, one of America’s pre-eminent realist artists, is the subject of a small show of twelve portraits — paintings, monotypes and Jacquard tapestries — now on view at the Vita Art Center in Ventura. Sober, affectionate and keenly observed, his portraits display what Nava recognizes as a “consistency of attitude” that has persisted in his work for many years.
I recently interviewed John Nava and asked him about the Vita exhibition, his politics, and his views on art and modernity.
John Seed in Conversation with John Nava
The show in Ventura is at the Vita Art Center which is small non-profit arts program. They work hard in a pretty tough neighborhood to serve the community with ambitious art experiences and presentations. The work I put together for Vita is a selection of pieces in different media — all portraits — that range from some monotypes I did in 1992 to paintings I just did this year.
In going through things to put in the show I realized that to a great degree everything I do, no matter what the project, ends up as a sort of portrait. This is true even if it’s a 20 minute figure drawing.
Mostly I do tapestries for commissioned projects. However, this show includes some woven portraits done with different approaches. One (R.E. II) uses a sort of mosaic-like weave structure to render the face with a very strong surface “terrain.” Another, (Chloe) is a purposely made fragment with unfinished edges that is mounted and framed rather than conventionally hung.
I haven’t received a great deal of negativity about the political work. More often people are quite supportive. Maybe it’s the art world or maybe it’s California. Ironically I kind of consider myself as a critic of “conservative” representational painting. I’m thinking of what seems to be a vast amount of work being done that idealizes what I consider second rate 19th century art. It seems to lead to unquestioned conventionality and a general lack of imagination.
The obsession with certain kinds of technical mastery seems to eclipse everything. Bouguereau and Gerome and Alma Tadema are all quite fascinating in many ways but nothing in their work approaches Goya.
I have not seen the show but I have seen Kelly’s work going back many years. The work in the cathedral would contrast most significantly to your hypothetical MOCA visitor in that it lacks irony. The intentions and meaning of art within the “sacred” space are utterly sincere. Every bit of the work has unquestioned meaning and unquestioned importance to the faithful. From the sacred point of view, the modern, “profane” world suffers the crises of unreality.
The anxiety of the modern artist resides in the attempt to somehow, out of a blank canvas, invent meaning, invent something true, to speak something of import. At every step of this process we are plagued with doubt and uncertainty. This is the world I was familiar with when I first began to work at the cathedral and this drastic reversal of the dilemma of modernity was what struck me the most.
I’m working on a number of commissions all of which are in process at the moment. I just completed a great project at Princeton University for the Firestone Library.
It’s a small show but because it covers work of different sorts from different periods it was kind of a revelation to me. I can see a certain consistency of attitude that surprised me and also a persistence in trying to find different surfaces.
I liked the last show by my old friend Mark Stock who suddenly died very recently. It was at Lora Schlesinger Gallery. I also recently spent some time with David Jon Kassan in New York. He is doing wonderful work.
Selected Portraits: Paintings and Tapestries
May 2 — May 30, 2014
The Vita Art Center
432 N. Ventura Studio 30
Ventura, CA 93001
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