Battle of Olympus by Robert Nava

Robert Nava in Conversation with Guillermo Solana

Published Tuesday, May 21, 2024

On the occasion of his retrospective at the (opens in a new window) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, on view through September 22, 2024, Robert Nava joined the museum's Artistic Director Guillermo Solana for a conversation about his interest in madcap iconography, his technical approach to painting, and more. An excerpt from that interview—originally published in the exhibition catalogue—follows below.

Guillermo Solana:

Let’s talk about your wild and lively iconography. Your paintings have been full of terrible beasts, like open-mouthed sharks and bloodied alligators; fantastic creatures, like winged horses and dragons and angels; and impossible combinations of horse and shark, dragon and wolf—hybrid monsters that are difficult to describe. There is a very natural sense of humour in your work.

Robert Nava:

The creatures came after the truck paintings that I was making. The trucks morphed into faces or souls. They were personified. They became gods. That led me to be interested in making a room full of monsters. I had already started with the alligator imagery when I was at Yale, which was about throwing the viewer right into that moment of violence — having instant recognition, so you knew what it was immediately.

It had to do with mythology, but also semiotics, reading Charles Sanders Peirce. The elasticity of the sign, the signifier, and the signified. This ambiguity — it’s about exploring the space between seriousness and playfulness. Early on, I became interested in nonsense and the absurd. The point when things don’t add up. The limits of reason.

Robert Nava and Guillermo Solana In Conversation

Watch an interview between Robert Nava and Guillermo Solana—Artistic Director of the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza—filmed on the occasion of the artist’s exhibition opening.


This cultivation of the impossible and the absurd also extends to your technique. You can start a figure with spray paint, continue it with oil stick, and finish it with coloured pencils or markers. This discontinuous technique reminds me of Schoenberg’s and Webern’s Klangfarbenmelodie, which involves splitting a melody between different instruments.


I would agree, although to me, oil stick and crayon are not far apart. They can work together, or they can work against each other. Contrast is definitely a part of it. After postmodernism, the fact is that you can do whatever you want. Everything is possible. You can’t contemplate all the things you might do — that would be a big prison. You have to hone down, give yourself parentheses, define a space to work in. The materials and techniques are part of that. I’m limiting myself to these mediums. By doing that, they give me what I need for what I’m trying to do. Sometimes a painting calls for moments of harmony, other times it needs clash.


An exhibition of yours in Copenhagen was titled Mythologies, and, indeed, your figures and scenes seem to evoke lost mythological worlds. Some Abstract Expressionists saw themselves as mythmakers. What relationship do you see between your work and theirs?


Certainly. Abstraction is a big part of what I do. I think about cave paintings, Egypt, Sumeria, Mayan art. So did the Abstract Expressionists. Maybe that’s the biggest link.

Red River Storm by Robert Nava

Robert Nava, Red River Storm, 2023 © Robert Nava


Some of your creatures, like sharks, seem to come from popular movies and contemporary visual folklore, while others, like your angels, come from much further back.


It depends on how you think about age. Sharks are quite old as well. Millions of years old, I think — long before people. Did angels exist before people? Maybe that question is inside the paintings.


Your painting has always had to do with increasing scale in that you transfer the small drawings from your sketchbooks to the large format canvas. But lately you’ve been working on an even larger scale. One painting of yours in this exhibition is five meters wide. What are the difficulties and advantages involved in this?


I am getting addicted to working at a larger scale. It’s been making me slow down. The larger scale involves a lot of looking at blankness — and I love that. An advantage would be that there’s more room to work with. For me, the open space allows me to open up the mind. There seems to be more possibility.

  • Essays — Robert Nava in Conversation with Guillermo Solana, May 21, 2024