In conversation with Robert Nava and Edgar Serrano.

Words by

Sofia Hallström

In conversation with Robert Nava and Edgar Serrano.

Sofia Hallström: You both met at Yale; what were your routes into the MA programme there and what was your relationship like during that time?

Edgar Serrano: I did my undergrad at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and I graduated in 2007. After I graduated, I felt like it was nice to go to art school, like a vacation or holiday. It was my first time being around an art community, art students, art teachers, so that was all new and exciting. But I felt like it wasn't part of the real world. So I took a year off after I graduated and just worked for a year. During that year I realised I missed the plush art bubble and so I applied for graduate school. I applied to Yale and was fortunate enough to get accepted.

I felt an immediate kinship with Robert because we're from the same area, Midwest Chicagoland, so there was a familiarity there. During the time at school, it was an intense environment and intense programme. I felt a lot of pressure to really produce and challenge myself. I knew how much of a luxury it was to have a studio and to have time to be in a studio. I was really immersed in my studio practice because of the environment at school and also from my past experiences of how hard it is to work and maintain practice and then having that luxury of time and just having a studio. That felt like heaven to me.

Robert Nava: Edgar was in a class one year ahead of me at Yale on the MFA. I had come from a very small grad school in Indiana Northwest University, which is about 20 miles outside of Chicago. I graduated in 2008 and I was kind of getting my life back together through the art courses and getting things back on course. My teacher suggested that I apply to a grad school. After undergrad I took one painting class a semester as an elective just to have the studio space to work and use the photography equipment to get a portfolio together, and that’s how I applied. I applied to six graduate courses and they were the only ones to say yes. I went from a really small school to a really big one. It changed the course of a lot of things in general; it was a big deal. The friends you make, like Edgar and the other classmates, we are still friends and we talk today and will carry on that friendship through life. The other important thing, as Edgar pointed out, was the tutor time and that you get to focus on your work in the studio.

Installation View, Edgar Serrano at PM/AM, 20 May - 7 June, London. Image courtesy the artist and PM/AM

SH: How have your practices evolved since your time there?  

RN: When we went it was very heavily critical, I feel like you should get a psychology degree as well as a painting degree because of how much is going on in your mind from all the criticism. In my case, I relearned to stick to my guns. When I started school I thought to myself “I think I’m okay at something, I might have something,” so I came out of the other side just being a stronger version of myself. Now it's just trying to stay in that lane and learning more about the confidence in it.  

ES: For me, like Robert was saying, there was definitely a feeling of high pressure at Yale, like a dysfunctional family it created an intense environment. There were a lot of head games, as Robert alluded to. A lot of experimentation, they're always pushing you to try different things. For me personally, so much of my work whilst in school and afterwards was trying to show everything that I wasn't, I was trying not to be pigeonholed. It was like a complicated puzzle. I was trying not to be labelled and to show dexterity and all different kinds of techniques and styles. Since then I’ve been much more accepting of what my real interests are and not being too worried about what I'm not, but much more genuine about who I really am.

Installation View, Edgar Serrano at PM/AM, 20 May - 7 June, London. Image courtesy the artist and PM/AM

SH: You both approach the canvas in very different ways. Robert, I’ve read about how important it is for you to channel confidence into your paintings particularly as you have spoken a lot about unlearning aspects of the art education that you went through. Do you engage with the vast history and tradition of painting as a conceptual basis of the work in any way?

RN: I’ve liked art history since I was a kid. I tried to draw realistically, as kids that was our goal. You’re not a good artist in seventh or eighth grade if you can’t do it. So, there was this self-taught by looking before school and then in school there were assignments but none of that was taught. At Yale, I think they assumed you knew how to do all that stuff before grad school. In undergrad they taught us maybe how you would in the Renaissance and elements of painting, like shadow etc. The second I didn't have to do that anymore, I completely ran in the other direction because there’s just a lot more room in what people would call the “incorrect” ways of painting. In the ways of ending what people would call the correct way to draw academically, there's a lot more room for exploration and finding more things. It was more exciting.

SH: You’re always told that there is no wrong in art-making…

RN: I remember being a teacher assistant in a school and these undergraduate students wanted to learn how to draw and paint the right way, and there is no right way. I remember this one time, a student really wanted to learn how to draw a glass with light going through it from real life, but the way she was painting it already, non-realistically, was an advanced painting. It was so good, it was like an A+. But she thought she wasn’t good at painting because she couldn't do it real. I was at a crossroads as a teacher: I have to show you how to look at something from life and draw it, but then I also feel like I'm taking away that natural thing that you can’t teach. It's a little bit of both.

Installation View, Robert Nava: Thunderbolt Disco, May 13 – June 25, Pace Gallery, London © Robert Nava. Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery

SH: I wanted to ask you about your influences. When I visited both of your recent shows in London (Robert at Pace Gallery and Edgar at PM/AM Gallery), I encountered a new dimension in the paintings where the fantastical and reality collide. This tension carries through in the materials you use, for instance Edgar, you use wood, leather and sheepskin that disrupts the slickness of the oil paint on the canvas. Can you expand on your influences and how they inform your material decisions?

ES: Before art school, my influences were just reproductions in cartoons, magazines and postcards. When I started art school, my first experience with something highly influential was a Gerhard Richter exhibition that I remember visiting in Chicago. I couldn't understand how this one person did all these various paintings, I kept thinking it was like a big group show but it was just one person. Since then, the influences are varied and vast, Kerry James Marshall in Chicago is a tree that casts a big shadow. When we were in school, Carrol Dunham was somebody that I really responded to, particularly the way he used lowbrow cartoonish imagery but talked about it in such a painterly and sophisticated way. Recently, I’ve been looking at Janiva Ellis, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Robert Colescott in reproductions on a screen or print. Georg Herold too in terms of his use of various styles, application and collage.  For me, all these influences carry over. The materials I use are very specific, I like these in-between materials, such as wood, leather and sheepskin; materials that are no longer living but are very much present. One of the things I really enjoy about painting is that it is like a time capsule, or like a mosquito trapped in amber with dinosaur DNA; you can look at a painting and you can see all these various speeds on the painting surface. For me, it's about painting something looser or to have something that is highly rendered, meticulous and visibly labour intensive and then have something that takes a few seconds, like glueing a piece of leather to the canvas. I like the medium specificity of painting; seeing the different speeds on one painting surface.

SH: Robert, you borrow from a variety of source material in the paintings, from prehistoric cave paintings, Egyptian art, and ancient mythology. How does your research process begin?

RN: These days I like looking at ancient work, that's where I’m at right now. There are so many painters that I look up to and admire too. But I don't think I look at something and then go paint. It's more just something in you. It's definitely more the music that is important to me, getting a certain energy going and taking that into the studio. Sort of going into a trance where it's not even real. Lately it's been a lot of electronic music, often with no lyrics, it's very much about the beat. A lot of house and techno music. Honestly, all kinds of music, I think I just try to get into those zones. Even in ancient artefacts that have been carved in stone, there’s movement there. Just as the sky of a Van Gogh or Cy Twombly’s lines move and get activated, just as much as something carved in stone. Joan Mitchell’s work has an aggressiveness and Helen Frankenthaler has soul in a certain kind of way. I admire the energy in painting.

Installation View, Robert Nava: Thunderbolt Disco, May 13 – June 25, Pace Gallery, London © Robert Nava. Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery

SH: You have introduced a new material, mica dust, into the paintings presented in your show ‘Thunderbolt Disco’ at Pace Gallery. How did you arrive at using this material?

RN: I saw it in the paint store and I thought about the topographics of it. I am able to go from the raw canvas into something that a pencil would do. I wanted it mainly for texture and to see what a kind of dust it would look like. I really wanted to try it, so I tried it and I think it turned out pretty cool.

In the future, I want to try to shave pieces of crystal into the paint and I'll see what happens with it, just as an elemental thing. I heard that someone was making paintings with gunpowder and I’m like if someone is doing that, someone else in another part of the world has to do something opposite to create another type of energy so I guess the mica dust is a little preview before working with crystals might happen.

I’ve always liked to spray paint, I do it outside so that the wind can take it onto the painting. I like that it's drawing with the air. I like that you can create a glow, or you can create a line that’s faded out or like a ghost.

SH: Edgar, can you expand on your painting process in the studio? You use a variety of analogue and digital technologies before starting to paint…

ES: In the past, I was really studio obsessive. Since having a kid I've had to rearrange my painting practice and where I spend my time. Working on the computer has allowed me to be much more time efficient when I'm in the studio because I don't have time for that. I have to get up really early in the morning to get my son ready for school and various other things that come with having a family. I have learned to adapt and embrace by any  means necessary, if it's a VR computer or software. I mean I’m open to anything as long as it continues my painting practice and saves me time when I'm in the studio. I am an efficient machine.

Installation View, Edgar Serrano at PM/AM, 20 May - 7 June, London. Image courtesy the artist and PM/AM

SH: Robert, you’ve spoken about your time working as a truck driver and how this experience feeds into your work. How have your personal experiences influenced your work?

RN: That experience really taught me how it feels not to show for a long time, not to be able to have the time to make work. There was a moment in Chelsea sometime and I was so concerned about this career that just wasn't happening and I just wanted to run alongside my friends careers. I wasn't envious but I wanted to run alongside them, but it wasn't happening. The career started happening when I didn't care about a career. The job got better, I started to have more fun. I said “let the directors in Chelsea watch me carry these boxes, and let them see how much I can carry and how fast I can do it.” I just got that out of my head and everything got better. It really taught me a sense about time, where to put my time and how to finetune it when you have a short window of time to work in the studio. It really taught me about ritual.

In terms of how it influenced the work, truck driving taught me, not so much with colour, probably subconsciously but not directly. Maybe more with shapes because the trucks are rectangles. Colour comes from the city, the things you see on the walls and streets.

Robert Nava in the studio. Photo: Axel Dupeux, courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
SH: Edgar, many of the titles of your paintings, such as ‘In Memory of Feelings’, suggest that you look to the past, and the cartoon animations suggest that you might look to childhood memories. How much of your personal experience is in the subject matter of the work?

ES:  My personal experience is embedded in the work, but I use a lot of stuff that's already out there in terms of reproductions, like cartoons. I have my own ideas behind it, but it's open for anyone to enter. In the way that somebody like Andy Warhol might paint something about Campbell's Soup in reflection of his mother and their relationship but there are all these other signifiers or meanings behind it. Maybe the same kind of way I learned to embrace reproductions. I didn't grow up with this high art appreciation, I just wasn't around it. For me, these low-brow reproductions or cartoons were high art. But when I look at them, I don't have a warm feeling of nostalgia.

SH: It strikes me that both of your practices deal with moments of transition, or states of transformation. Why are you both drawn to depicting these transitory states?

RN:  For the longest time I wasn't trying to use narrative in a linear sense. Just putting two things in the page, starting to make things happen. But I do like the moment of the happening, an in-between, when you don't know the before or the ending, it's just a present moment. I want them to be and exist. It's almost like watching a documentary about a new species of insect and you don't have a scientific definition but it just has a stomach that glows blue. It just has it. I like to be in that zone when I’m making the work. It allows things to hold a level of mysticism.

ES: For me, there are various reasons. If I pick something to paint from an animation or a cartoon, I never want the character to be easily identifiable. I like the in-between, translational space where it becomes much more of a morphing or has an abstract or uncanny aspect; where you can sort of identify that this is a character. I think that life deals with the in-between, as Robert was saying, so much of what happens in life happens in the in-between moments; moments that you can't really assign, like assigning a name to a new species. So much happens in these grey in-between moments. It's much richer to depict these in-between moments rather than, let's say, A or B, which is to be easily read or figured out, labelled and boxed in. It's a lot more free or at least, these in-between or transitional states which leaves room for new discoveries or surprises.

SH: What is enticing about painting as a creative material for you both?

RN:  The world feels like it's getting a lot faster, especially with technology. Painting just seems like one of those things where you can take your time. It's funny because I like to paint fast. But I think you can still go slow in a world of speed with painting. I also like that when you see paintings by people that have already passed away, it can be like a sort of portal with someone else's life from before. Even though your collective backpack of experiences won't exactly match what they were going through, I think that you can have a connection, portal-wise, with a painting if it survives past the person's life and you get to experience it.

Installation View, Robert Nava: Thunderbolt Disco, May 13 – June 25, Pace Gallery, London © Robert Nava. Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery

ES: For me I think I’m made to be in a studio, I really enjoy being in a safe space by myself. That's a big part of it. What I also like about it is how it can slow time. In my heart of hearts, I wish I could be a graphic designer, but, you know, a) I don't dress that well, and b) you can read information really quickly and clearly with design. I like how painting slows everything down, there's a magic behind it. It encapsulates time, various speeds on one painting surface. When I was in London, I went to the National Gallery and I stared at Rembrandt's ‘Belshazzar's Feast’ for two hours, without exaggeration. I think of this painting like a cartoon frame, with bulging eyes and all this movement and action happening. It's a strange painting where you don't know if it's indoors or outdoors, it is very enigmatic. I like how painting can hold your attention. It very much stops or slows down time. As Robert alluded, things have been really fast and I like how painting slows things down in the making and more importantly in the viewing. I’ve been thinking about something that Robert mentioned earlier: things that were carved out in stone but still have movement. I was thinking about Lamassu (human-headed winged bull) from the Gate of Xerxes at Persepolis, if you look at it head on it seems like it only has two feet and looks flat. But if you look at it sideways, you see that there are four legs and it depicts movement. They were still thinking about movement when creating something so labour intensive.

Installation View, Edgar Serrano at PM/AM, 20 May - 7 June, London. Image courtesy the artist and PM/AM
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Robert Nava, Photo: Axel Dupeux, courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery. Edgar Serrano, Photo: Alex Leav