Art in Transition
John Nava on the evolution of art and the place of realism in a digital world.
By Sally Rice
This fall some of the most influential minds in the art world will converge on Ventura to explore the direction of representational art in the 21st century. Among the keynote speakers at The Representational Art Conference (TRAC), 2012, will be locally-based realist painter John Nava, whose brilliant work places him among the most significant artists of our time.
Perhaps one of Nava’s most critically acclaimed masterpieces is the series of tapestries he created for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, commissioned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1999. The Communion of Saints consists of 25 tapestries depicting more than 136 life-size saints from around the world and spans hundreds of years of human history. These tapestries, some of which measure 50 feet tall, are the largest in the world and were woven in Belgium—a place with deep historical roots of weaving craftsmanship—using the most advanced digital technology.
Nava studied fine art at UC Santa Barbara under Howard Warshaw, who profoundly influenced the artist and was responsible for his career choice as a painter. Following graduation, Nava became a college art professor before heading to Florence, Italy to do his graduate work.
From the comfort of his home studio in the foothills of Upper Ojai, Nava shares some insight on his philosophy and his personal experience as an artist.
VENTANA: The focus of TRAC is to address the neglect of critical appreciation of representational art. Can you help us better understand that concept?
JOHN NAVA: I believe Michael Pearce and the others organizing the conference might feel that there is a great deal of work going on, of serious representational painters who are diligently working away and [creating art] with the traditions and skills of painting as they came down from the renaissance, for example, but they don’t get a lot of play. In the popular part of the art world, there is a great deal of focus on non-traditional technologies and means of making art, and non-traditional kinds of art.
I’m sure there are many people who walk into an art museum and see something bizarre, perhaps a piano hanging upside down from the ceiling, and they’ll ask, ‘What is that?’ It’s all part of the movement to expand the boundaries of art that began in the 20th century—and it’s been the focus of a lot of museum curators, art magazines, and exhibitions about the expansion of art.
But parallel to all of that, continuing in the background, are those artists who have continued to work in a traditional form. The TRAC conference serves to bring those people into the spotlight and give them some focus.
VEN: As a keynote speaker you will be discussing Painting in the Digital Age. Can you expand on that topic?
JN: I have to say, this is still forming in my mind. Did you ever see Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams? It’s this kooky doc about these ancient caves discovered in 1996. The point is, they are 30,000 years old, and in the caves you have the very first human image that was depicted, done with charcoal attached to a spear, almost identical to the way we would draw with charcoal today.
So the way we make pictures, and the way painters use brushes, is all very old; it’s a very primitive technique. In comparison, we all have digital cameras, and we go to movies and see 3D holograms, and there are all these special effects and image technologies, all these ways to make images.
Given all the power that those things have, it’s interesting to me that there is something about making a picture by hand, like a caveman, that continues. And we’re all doing it. All the painters are not making 3D movies, they’re engaging in this very ancient practice of making something completely by hand. It struck me that this was the key—the handmade process. I wanted to ask the question: What does it mean to continue on with this ancient process today?
VEN: How has art appreciation changed with these new technologies? How does this affect the viewer’s relationship with art?
JN: In order to appreciate something at Art Basil, or at the Whitney Biennale, for example, it requires an education, because it’s so obscure. What’s happened is that the definition of art has expanded to essentially be meaningless.
In the 19th century there was a very specific idea about what art was. But now, art is anything. This is basically the legacy of Duchamp. John Baldessari, a very important contemporary artist, said, ‘If you have a pile of concrete rubble with some rebar sticking out of it laying in the street, it’s just a pile of rubble with some rebar. But if you take that identical pile and put it in the middle of the museum of modern art, now it’s a sculpture, or part of an instillation.’ So the context makes the art. There is an interaction between the museum and what’s in the room to make the art. But if you have a Vermeer that was accidently thrown in the street, it’s still a Vermeer; it’s always what it is. That comes from a time when art had a different definition. So this idea of the artist as a designer, where there’s a concept and someone else executes it, is different from the old idea of craftsmanship, where you actually have the hand of Leonardo painting the mouth of the Mona Lisa. And that is the hand element that continues in handmade pictures, but it has been dislocated in a great deal of other art forms.
VEN: Do you find this evolution problematic for you as a contemporary realist painter?
JN: The thing is this: I don’t personally take all of this as a tragedy. As long as people are not doing harm to each other, everything’s fine. I mean, my brother is a filmmaker. He works in a technology that’s much newer than painting. My son makes video games. He does three-dimensional models. And I respect both of them.
The world now is vast. It’s a much bigger world. People are sitting with you at breakfast and they’re looking at their laptop, or at their phone. People have this very scattered consciousness now. It’s difficult for people to focus on anything for very long. And painting is all about the opposite of that. So painters may be a little nostalgic for the time when they were at the top.
Let’s face it, not too long ago, say, up until the middle of the 1800s, if you wanted a picture of something, there had to be a guy who would paint the image, or a drawing, or an etching. And if you wanted to hear music, you had to physically go to where instruments were being played. Now we live in a world of images. You watch TV and the screen is divided up with a gazillion images going by simultaneously. You drive down the street and you’re bombarded with images, readouts on the dashboard, moving images on billboards. We live in a world of image glut.
VEN: You had exceptional traditional training at Villa Schifanoia in Florence, Italy. Tell us about that.
JN: My wife and I moved to Florence for two years. It was a dream, an amazing experience. One of my teachers was Luciano Berti, the director of the Uffizi Gallery. We would have classes in the museum, in places that are not open to the public.
The whole experience was very inspiring. We had a car but we couldn’t afford gas, so we always had a horde of people come with us. We made a lot of trips to the countryside, going to Arezzo and Sansepolcro to see the works of Piero della Francesca. But for me, the most important and most inspirational artist in Florence was Masaccio, and the frescos in the Brancacci Chapel.
VEN: Would you say the fresco medium moved you more than other formats?
JN: I have always been a little bit restless, I think, and I’ve worked in a lot of different manners, but I always come back to that dry-surfaced, fresco style painting. It resonates with me the same way as the cave paintings. It’s very much about a wall, not a canvas. There’s something very ancient about it, and I respond to that.
VEN: Do you work according to a schedule, or wait for inspiration? Where do you find your muse?
JN: I work everyday, and I’m so behind; there’s always something I’m supposed to be doing. But things shift, and interests change for me. I’ve never been very interested in landscape painting. But in the last few years I’m finding it very inspiring, and I have an interest in doing big landscape paintings. I always focused on figure painting. But now I’m finding the figure in the landscape, and I want to look at that.
VEN: Where are you going now? What do you see in your future?
JN: I have several things I want to do: large projects that I can’t talk about. It’s a huge thing, on the East Coast. It would take me about two years or so. It’s not as big as the Cathedral project, but very close. I’m very excited about that, but I’m also happy to just go to my neighbor’s house and paint the Topa Topas. That’s nice too. That’s all I have to do. All I do is paint.
The Representational Art Conference, 2012, presented by California Lutheran University, offers three days (October 14-17) of lively discussion in Ventura, including keynote speakers, academic papers, panel discussions, and exclusive demonstrations by prominent artists, bringing together thought leaders and practitioners who share an interest in the practice of the traditional studio techniques of sculpture, painting, and drawing media in the 21st century. For details, log on to trac2012.org.