Robert Nava - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips
  • "I think painting is a place you can go slow. In the face of speed, it can help instigate change, and it definitely can lend itself to a different angle of perspective and perhaps hope."
    —Robert Nava 

    Robert Nava is a painter who challenges artistic convention. He intentionally reacts against ‘the orthodoxy slapped into him in Yale’s master of fine arts programme’, presenting us with paintings which encapsulate the creativity of the childhood imagination in an equally unrefined style which test the ingrained notions of ‘high-low’ art.i Before Minotaur does exactly this as a large, energetic canvas, from which bright, phantasmagorical forms explode out of a jet-black background, in the same way, that a tangibly real dream jolts us awake in the middle of the night. A collage of different paint surfaces; a crudely sketched horse's legs and body rendered thick black lines over blank canvas, a bold, horned head coloured in primary, blood red pigment, and shiny, robotic arms from which sprout dangerously sharp yellow claws, all create a hallucinatory, metamorphic effect. His trademark combination of acrylic and grease pencil adds to this. Nava manipulates the glossiness of the pencil to create vivid, lustrous markings, most notably, the forks of lightning protruding from the robotic arms, and the more targeted laser beams which are shot from the being’s upper arm. Compared to other parts of the canvas which are more abstracted, these appear graphically real, cementing the notion that we are witnessing some phantom or have been consumed within a video game console.


    Nava, who earlier painted anthropomorphic, sentient trucks, inspired by his job as a delivery driver, works with a diverse selection of source material which includes the animal kingdom, religion, ancient artefacts, cave paintings, video games and monsters, among others. Engrossed by a past theory from his childhood which has reappeared, in deep thought whilst looking out the window, or drawing inspiration from the colours and forms of the city, the artist begins with a lengthy internalising process before turning to his sketchbook. Mountains of these books populate his studio and form the basis of his physical artistic process. Whilst listening to pounding dance music, Nava enters an intuitive trance state during which these drawings are supplanted onto the canvas rapidly. Whilst he notes that one painting once took him just twenty-seven seconds to make, his works are carefully thought out and obsessed over before their energetic transferal to the linen.


    Mythmaking in the 21st Century


    Pablo Picasso, Minotaur and Dead Mare in Front of a Cave, 1936, Musée Picasso, Paris. Image: © Peter Willi, Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2022
    Pablo Picasso, Minotaur and Dead Mare in Front of a Cave, 1936, Musée Picasso, Paris. Image: © Peter Willi/Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2022


    Mythology ‘is (and always was) a mirror image of life in the present’, a means to deal with the truth, and in this way, it is a dominant force behind many of Nava’s paintings.ii By linking Before Minotaur to the ancient myth of the half man half bull, he includes himself within a rich tradition of artists who have studied this motif to express their current contexts. Picasso integrated this subject into his work to allude to the ‘savagery that lies beneath the surface of civilised life’ and the political tensions of the 1930s, and Mary Reid Kelly and Patrick Kelly gave the minotaur a sex change in their 2015 work Minotaur with Skull to deal with modern notions surrounding gender.iii Comparisons can be drawn between the raw detail and bold colour of Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaë and Nava’s work, Pasiphaë being the mother of the minotaur and a continual subject of interest of the Surrealists.


    Jackson Pollock, Pasiphaё, 1943, The Metropolitan Museum, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © 2022 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2022
    Jackson Pollock, Pasiphaё, 1943, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2022


    Unique to most before him however, Nava links classic mythology to an unbridled and guileless way of imagining, one which we all experienced during childhood. He is transfixed by liminal states of being, so Before Minotaur portrays a hybrid monster, a part Minotaur, part Centaur, intergalactic warrior with a dragon’s head and flaming wings. Such as in Angel Shark, which juxtaposes notions of pure, angelic nature, with an animal widely associated with violence, Before Minotaur combines distinctive traits to build something completely new, a modern mutation of popular myth. In a rapidly changing, modern world, one afflicted by mass culture, the internet, and fake news, Nava’s works act as portals into the art of mythmaking in its purest form. And so do they act as portals into our society. When asked in an interview what his work would reveal about our society to a future onlooker, hope, chaos, beauty, imagination, and possibility were some of the qualities with which the artist responded.iv

    "...if you remove meaning, feeling gets a chance to raise its hand higher."
    —Robert Nava 

    Nava’s paintings reject categorisation and take comfort in a lack of explanation. By avoiding narrative and by creating unanswerable questions with which the viewer then runs off, they materialise adolescent nostalgia. Art ‘is a place you can go’, ‘where possibility happens, where imagination lives’, in the artist’s own words, and Before Minotaur instantly transports us to this place where we can feel, see, and interpret however we want to, whether it be a recollection of playing Dungeons and Dragons in a school bathroom, a half cow half fish drawing which our primary teacher told us was incorrect or the first time we watched a horror film when our parents were out of the house.v


    Collector’s Digest


    • Originally from East Chicago, Robert Nava was awarded his MFA from Yale School of Fine Art in 2011 and is currently based in Brooklyn, New York.


    • Since his graduation Nava has exhibited widely and has been the subject of solo shows in New York, Brussels, Los Angeles, and Copenhagen. His work also belongs in the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection.


    • Having joined Pace Gallery in 2020, Nava has already presented several international shows with the gallery, most recently celebrating the opening of Thunderbolt Disco in London, his first solo exhibition in the city.


    • Nava had his auction debut with Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in July 2020.


    i Nate Freeman, ‘Painter Robert Nava is hated by art world know-it-alls. So why are collectors fighting for anything from his studio?, Artnet, 19 April 2021, online.
    ii James Cahill, ‘How Picasso, Pollock and Blake saw the Minotaur’, in Flying too Close to the Sun: Myths in Art from Classical to Contemporary, London,2018, online
    iii James Cahill, “How Picasso, Pollock and Blake saw the Minotaur”, Phaidon, online
    iv Robert Nava, quoted in Heidi Suckerman ‘Conversations about art’, 3 May 2022, 30:09, online
    v Robert Nava, quoted in Heidi Suckerman ‘Conversations about art’, 3 May 2022, 27:24, online.

    • 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 Prominent Private Collection


Before Minotaur

signed and dated ‘“Before Minotaur” Nava 19’ on the reverse
acrylic and grease pencil on canvas
213.4 x 182.9 cm (84 x 72 in.)
Executed in 2019.

Full Cataloguing

£180,000 - 250,000 

Sold for £639,600

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Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
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+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022