In a time where software allows us to render impossible scenarios in a hyperrealistic manner – a time of deep fakes and face filters – looking at Robert Nava's work feels incredibly refreshing. Through an energetic and gestural brushstroke and his use of spray paint, acrylics and oil sticks, the Brooklyn-based artist creates worlds in which hybrid monsters play the main act. His paintings take us on a discovery trip that also offers us the opportunity to forget what's possible and what's not.
We enter a playground where sharks may well have four mouths, angel-aliens are up to some mischief and the grim reaper rides on the back of an alligator. The sun shines from the top right corner – of course. Navas' pursuit of drawing realistically at a really young age later led him to explore a visual language that offered an infinite pool of possibilities. Following his BFA in Fine Art from Indiana University, the Chicago-born artist earned his MFA in Painting from Yale. After a few years on the bumpy roads of New York (literally), Nava is now represented by galleries like Pace and Vito Schnabel. Some weeks ago, on a late Friday morning in March, we talked with him about sketching, hieroglyphs, and being in a room surrounded by the work of dead people.
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Half Angel, Half Alien 5, 2022. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.
Hi Robert! Where are you right now?
I'm in my apartment. It's a mess in here, but it's the price to pay when working on several shows – one after the other after the other.
Your work invites viewers to reconnect with their own childlike imagination and curiosity. So let's first go back in time. Do you remember how you were drawing as a child? What were your artistic beginnings?
I remember drawing since I was very young. I was given crayons and pencils from 2 years old onward. Around 6 to 8, I was really into cartoons and animation and wanted to do something with comic books, though I didn't read them and just looked at the pictures. Somewhere along in middle school, I started to draw realistically. If you were in my middle school and couldn't draw realistically, you weren't a real artist or worthy of anything. I was really influenced by Renaissance paintings and Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and I wanted to draw like them and be able to do what, fast-forward down the road, a camera can do. At around 13, I was pretty good at drawing realistically.
And once you could draw everything you wanted, you decided to break all the rules. Or when did that happen?
That happened in undergrad. There the teachers would stress about drawing from real life, but I could already draw like this before I got into school. People also say that Yale taught me how to draw. Yale doesn't teach you any techniques. They think you should already know how to do all that stuff. So in undergrad, the first 3 years were very formal drawing, life drawing classes, models, shading, lines, colour, balance, weight, form, composition, and all the formal elements. I did all of this, and once you know how to do it, they tell you that everything they had just taught you doesn't matter. Not only does it not matter, but it hasn't mattered for 400 years to draw and paint like that if that's the only thing you have to say through drawing and painting. That was only done because, back in the day, they didn't have a camera yet.
Going to the Art Institute of Chicago, I would see Francisco de Goya's, Edward Munch's and Eugène Delacroix's drawings. Their lines had a whole different look to them. Their work gets beyond what they're trying to show you. Their subjects are people and sceneries but what they mean, what their soul is doing, is a whole different story. So then I looked at more deep things that were way more deconstructed. I forgot who quotes this, but they said, “All my favourite painters couldn't paint.” All my favourite painters got that too, from Vincent Van Gogh to Cy Twombly to Joan Mitchell – they are all doing something not the right way.
It's still the predominant power to draw real and photorealistic. This whole hierarchy is still very alive. I just think there are more things to do in the other direction. Doing things ‘incorrectly.’ But what's correct?
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Hell Hounds Spirit Transfer, 2022. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.
So do you think it was necessary to first master all those techniques to develop your visual language?
I go back and forth with that. In my case, I learned the rules and then I broke them. There are things of the old rules that I still do care about, the composition or line. It could matter, but I also think you can beat that; it doesn't have to matter either. In my case, yes, I had to learn the rules first.
I went to a very small school in Gary, Indiana. We were maybe twelve people, but once we got to the point where we didn't get any assignments anymore, only four of us were left because I think some people needed to be told what to do. The teachers told us: “You are an artist now; you can do anything you want, everything off-limits,” and then people just had nothing to say or keep going with.
This sudden freedom can be overwhelming after all those years of following all the rules.
Yes, that's the thing. I think some people needed the assignment. For me, it was liberating. I was celebrating. I was like: “Oh, great, I don't have to do this; that's awesome!”
So what happened after that? I remember that shortly after finishing your master's, you made your Truck series, which was kind of a breakthrough for you.
I went from Gary, a tough place, to Yale – one of the best, if not the best painting program in the world. So from very low to very, very high. From Yale, I went to New York City, where no one looked at my work for at least 7 or 8 years. During this time, I was moving furniture and driving trucks in the city. I was sitting in a lot of traffic, looking at the back of other trucks. I wasn't spacing out, but I was always looking at those rectangles. So I began a series with those trucks.
At some point, I sold two paintings and earned some money that allowed me to spend more time in the studio and less in my day job during the following summer. That's when I had the time to make the whole truck series. From those works, my Instagram was slowly growing. Since nobody was showing my work, I used Instagram. I thought: ok, I won't ever get a show. So I will use Instagram as a tool and learn how to take good photos. I knew the algorithms at that time and became a little bit known around Bushwick. So those paintings started and Instagram began to rise at the same time. That was probably in 2016 or 2017.
And then, from there, it went pretty fast…
Almost a little too fast (laughs). At some point, a gallery contacted me and wanted to come for a visit. They're called Sorry, We're Closed, and they're from Belgium. In 2018, I had a show with them, and we continued to work together for a few more years. After that, Katherine Bradford curated me in a show with Night Gallery in Los Angeles. So I was showing between Brussels and Los Angeles for a few more years after that. From there, I wanted a New York gallery, but it took a while to work with someone there. Ultimately, Vito Schnabel and Pace were interested. I did a show with Vito, and when Pace was on the verge of saying they wanted to work with me, I said, of course, I thought you would never ask.
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Knowledge of Stars to Rain, 2023. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.
When you joined Pace in 2020, there were quite some critical reactions online. How did you deal with that critique?
Going to Yale really gave me armour and a sword. I learned how to defend myself there. I'm used to my work pissing some people off. It’s either that or people love it. It usually is that divide, and I'm ok with it. What they taught me at Yale is mental warfare. You should have a psychology degree coming out of there instead of a painting degree (laughs). So it's ok, I don't mind it.
Last year Pace also published your first monograph, which features a conversation with Huma Bhabha. I read that her work is very inspiring to you. What is it that particularly fascinates you about her practice?
I love her work. Her conversation is very old and very new at the same time. I'm a huge fan of ancient art, and a lot of it slaps the hardest. Whether it be old civilisations or something like hieroglyphs. I don't understand hieroglyphs but I can feel it. That taught me a difference in meaning and feeling and that I don't always have to know what something says or does in order to feel it. Huma's work is as ancient as it is a '90s sci-fi film or horror film. All of these are things that I'm very into and respect. Sometimes I can't look at the ancient stuff for too long at the museums because it's too powerful for me. Some of that is the best art, and it's the oldest, too, that we have. So yes, Huma is one of my favourite artists.
I agree; sometimes, not understanding the exact meaning gives more space to feel. It allows you to connect with the work on a higher level than just pure reason. How does that play out in your paintings? You weren't really working around a narrative so far. Is that still the case, or is your approach towards that changing?
It's still the case. If I get into the narrative, it'll slowly happen. I like to go to museums and look at artefacts and things that I don't know what meaning they had for people back then. That may happen with almost everything over time. I read a meme the other day that said people in the future will look at tanning beds as torture devices (laughs). The meaning of my work may change over time, but right now, I don't make my paintings thinking this dragon has this name and this purpose. I want to show people things and not tell people things. I want the feeling to be part of the meaning rather than me saying something or guiding too much. I do have something to say. It just can’t be too literal because then I should be doing comic books instead.
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Splash Cloud, 2020. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.
Have you ever considered working with a different medium? I heard you were thinking about doing sculptures.
Yes, I would love to do a sculpture and some other things with video and photography. I have some ideas; it's just going to take some time. Down the road, it'll get there.
Talking about ideas, drawing and sketching are vital parts of your practice. For me, sketching is something super private, it's like writing a diary. What happens to your drawings when you translate them from sketchbooks to large-scale canvases? Especially now that your work gets a lot of attention.
I've gotten away from my ritual lately but I usually take a sketchbook, get a coffee and find music in the morning. So I am in the coffee shop, listening to music, surrounded by people, and I am just drawing. Sometimes it's just pages of scribbling, brainstorming and a flow of ideas. So yes, the books are very personal. That's also because of the way they are sized. You have them in your hands and unless they're looking over your shoulder, no one can see what you're drawing. Whereas a painting, especially when presented in a gallery or museum, everyone will see. But it doesn't scare or worry me. I know this work is for viewers, but I also know those views will change with time.
As a young kid, looking at all the Impressionists at the Art Institute, I knew that I was in a room surrounded by the work of dead people, and I always thought that was a pretty cool thing, scary but cool. Art has a way of preserving time. So it's always very appealing that the viewer is on the other half of the portal when something is presented to the public. You do the work and they complete the experience.
Since you just mentioned music, what role does it play in your practice, and how, if at all, does it affect the outcome/ process?
It affects it, yes. It's based on the mood, and whatever the mood is will dictate the music. Sometimes I will get into nostalgia or something with more energy, like techno. Some of the techno sets that I listen to are up to four hours. It's that continuous kick. It's almost like a heartbeat, and there are no lyrics. The rhythm helps create an atmosphere, and then I'm in my studio and there is movement. I have several empty canvases, all in a circle, and I'm going around to each one, and while I am in this zone, something bigger than me is happening. Many painters and athletes talk about hitting the zone because they practice so much that their minds can shut off and they're not thinking. There is a quote that says, “An amateur practices until he gets it right; the professional practices until he can't get it wrong.” I want to get to something like that with painting.
So what about the future? What are your plans for the next months?
I have a show in Germany in June, and then after that, I'm going to be in Italy. I have a residency and another show there after that. So I'll be in Europe for a little bit.
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Fire Keeper VS Death, 2021. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Chemical Shark, 2022. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Whispers of Insides, 2023. © Robert Nava, courtesy Pace Gallery.