Robert Nava - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, November 30, 2021 | Phillips
  • “I know what I’m doing. It’s carefully done wrong.” 
    — Robert Nava  

    The artist and his cat, Jumanji, 2020
    Photo Courtesy of Michael Kusumadjaja


    American artist Robert Nava once referred to his childhood drawings and paintings as bearing the same skill and realism as Diego Velazquez, and yet, despite the premature mastery of his medium, 'it took [Nava] a lifetime to learn how to draw like a kid again'i. Defying the elitist pretensions of high-brow and low-brow distinctions within art, Nava's fantastical beasts inspire both adoration and criticism, wrenching their way into the hearts of those eager to relive their days of youth while simultaneously causing noses to upturn in disgust at their apparent naïveté. Celebrated for expanding the possibilities of his medium, his vibrant and mischievous approach to figurative painting has garnered impressive international recognition in recent years. This includes the global mega gallery Pace, which announced its representation of Nava in November 2020, and debuted his work in a sold-out solo show in Palm Beach just two months later. 


    “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” 
    — Bob Dylan

    Deceptively Simple



    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dog, 1982
    © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


    Radiating an energy and delight almost infantile in its slick application of paint, Nava’s works build on the gesturalism of artists such as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Spritzes of neon curl and twiddle across his canvases like flashes of lightning divulging a remarkable speed. In fact, Nava has cited his quickest work to have taken a mere 27 seconds. Nonetheless, despite the slapdash appearance of the finished product that draws comparisons to the deliberately cartoonish aesthetic of Philip Guston, just like his predecessor, Nava’s process is one of rigorous discipline. 


     An accomplished draughtsman, Nava spends hours drawing and redrawing his chimeric creatures to refine their curious forms before placing brush to canvas. Turning to both art history and popular culture, he seeks influence in sources that range from prehistoric cave paintings to contemporary cartoons, however, also notes how his imagination is spurred by the random snippets of conversation overheard in his day-to-day life. Then, when inspiration strikes, he attacks. Art must be rampage, and whilst it may appear as if Nava’s paintings are churned out in a flurry so intuitive to be almost thoughtless, the artist has asserted that ‘sometimes you need to go slow in the face of speed to make it look like speed,’ii explaining it is music that helps him to set the tempo. 


    From the Depths of the Deep Sea


    The current work, Angel Shark, is a prime example of Nava’s interpretation of the aquatic creature. Gifted with four legs, gill-like wings and a tail, the lopsided predator looks straight out of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Exquisite Corpse series, though not quite as nightmarish with Nava’s intentionally childlike touch. Juxtaposing the creature’s sharp teeth is a glowing halo that floats above their head, a feature included by the artist to ‘make the shark more angelic to rid the notion of the monster’. iii


    Indeed, although many of Nava’s works describe violence, with crocodiles chomping onto limbs and felines mashing grubbily together, the effect is rarely morbid, instead hinting at only a slight disturbance beneath the more humorous surface. As such, through conflicting elements Nava explores the dualities of good and evil, pointing to the commingling of these moral forces within our own lives. But at the same time, driven by his urge to ‘create new myths’, there is a reminder at the forefront of every Nava work of the importance of play, and the importance of letting your imagination run free.




    Jake and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse, 2000
    Collection of the Tate Modern, London


    Seriousness in Play


    In line with the style of the Brutists of the 1950s and 1960s, Nava disgorges the prim orthodoxy forced onto him in Yale’s Master of Fine Arts program with a view that art ought to remain unscathed by culture. In what he refers to as ‘seriousness in play’iv, Nava returns us to a childhood world of infinite possibility. Sword-brandishing heroes, fire-breathing beasts, roaring chariots – these are the figures one expects to see only in mythology and story books, yet as Nava engages in his process of resurrection, the creatures reappear as pastiches of hazy memory, vibrating with an electric magnetism. 




    Jean Dubuffet, L'Arbre de fluides, 1950
    Collection of The Tate, United Kingdom
    © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris


    Whilst one can undoubtedly trace a romanticisation of the ‘primitive’ in his paintings, Nava’s work is playful and ironic. A comparison can be made to the doodle-like line work used by Jean Dubuffet, such as in his Corps de dame series of women portrayed with gnashing teeth and alarmed stares. With their misshapen bodies appearing almost scrubbed to the bone and hammered into submission, as if they have been lain out to dry, each harsh representation is utterly unforgiving. In contrast, Nava’s creatures explode from beneath the canvas as if aching to escape, their very essence pushed forward by the bold strokes of the artist’s fervent hand. 


    As exemplified by the striking shark in the present work, the mystique that Nava’s subjects communicate is not one of misery and torment, but a crafted clumsiness that becomes almost virtuous in their shameless honesty. Through his distinct and critically acclaimed style of ‘naive’ figuration, Nava succeeds in unleashing the child within, teaching us to appreciate the world anew with courage and wonder.


    Collector’s Digest


    A month after his first solo-show with Pace Gallery, Nava made his New York debut with another sell-out show hosted by Vito Schnabel Gallery. Titled Robert Nava: Angels, it ran from 25 February - 10 April 2021. Shortly after, Nava’s current auction record was achieved in Hong Kong when a work titled Untitled (Birdie Lovers) more than quadrupled its pre-sale high estimate, selling for HK$2,357,000 in May 2021.


    In addition to solo exhibitions presented at locations including Night Gallery, Los Angeles; V1 Gallery, Copenhagen; and Sorry We’re Closed, Brussels, Nava has recently been honoured with another solo show hosted by Pace Gallery, which ran from 12 - 29 August 2021 in their East Hampton spot. Works by Nava can be found in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the ICA Miami, and Zuzeum Art Centre in Latvia. 



    Keith Estiler, ‘Robert Nava’s New Mythologies’, Hypebeast, 19 March 2020, online

    ii Robert Nava, quoted in Nate Freeman, ‘Painter Robert Nava Is Hated by Art-World Know-It-Alls. So Why Are Collectors Fighting for Anything From His Studio?’, Artnet News, 19 April 2020, online

    iii Robert Nava, quoted in ‘Interview with Robert Nava’,

    iv Robert Nava, quoted in Lance De Los Reyes, ‘Robert Nava’s Secret Friends’, Office, 22 April 2020, onlin

    • Provenance

      Sorry We're Closed, Brussels
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Robert Nava

      Robert Nava (b. 1985) is a contemporary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Using a rough and
      free-flowing hand, Nava recreates the innocent and unlearned art of childhood. His works are
      “carefully done wrong,” subverting the rigid fundamentals of painting and conventions of
      completeness that Nava learned as an MFA student at Yale University. Nava’s paintings often
      feature imagined mythological figures and histories of the artist’s creation whose drama is
      brought to life with the frenetic energy of the artist’s brush. 

      View More Works

Property from a New York Collector


Angel Shark

signed, titled and dated '""Angel Shark"" Nava 20' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
182.7 x 213.8 cm. (71 7/8 x 84 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2020.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for HK$4,410,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021