Unstretched Facsimiles: Mateo Nava
Mateo Nava shipped his paintings rolled up around tubes via USPS. They sat in our storage for a couple days before I was able to unroll them. Months prior, we had a digital studio visit over Skype where he showed me what would ultimately be included in Encuentro and I was hooked immediately, encouraging him to make more of these bodega paintings. We had conversed back and forth about the scale, he had sent me images, and I was familiar with the imagery before I saw them in person. Upon seeing Miledy for the first time, I was immediately reminded of the inherent lack of nuance that can sometimes come with photographing artwork.
Experiencing the distorted sense of perspective in person, the incredibly plastic surface treatment, the collaged elements -- even the glitter created an incredibly visceral feeling I was not anticipating. Our Communications Specialist Tom Bittel said it before I could -- “photos just don’t do them justice.”
Aesthetically, the imagery launches an attack on our nostalgia. In addition to collaged and transferred imagery that appear taken from a photo albums, various hues hint at history, a time back when. The wooden paneling in Fotos De Pasaporte takes me back to sleepover at my great uncle Herman’s farm in Plymouth, Nebraska. The blue tints of Miledy feel like posters faded due to sunlight, while the bright orange and pink in Dos Por Uno feel like a 90s display of pop albums in a Best Buy (and rightfully so).
The bright colors and shiny objects seduce the viewer, encouraging them to stay and explore. Upon doing so, we get a chance to see layers of detail, ranging from the precise textures to small collage moments. Sequins adorn the work, adding another layer of synthetic energy to the already tarp-like objects. These are whimsical scenes, full of love but unafraid to examine the history and social forces that make these shops exist in the first place.
One of the aspects of Nava’s paintings that I enjoy most is the purposeful rejection of historic painting modes. There isn’t a single stretcher bar in this show. While these bodega-esque compositions remain rather boxy, he allows the composition to bleed outside the expected format that traditionally stretched canvases create. Moments of the fictional supports for Miledy, complete with painted on screws, allow for space for the wall behind to come through, engaging the gallery space in the work itself. Rays of glittery sound emanate from the boombox in Dos Por Uno go all the way to the varied edges of canvas and paper, suggesting they travel even further out than what we can perceive. Fotos De Pasaporte allows the just the shutter release button of a 35mm camera to jut out beyond the rest of the painting. He frees himself of the traditional, expected box of the rectangular stretched canvas and allows his compositions to be what they need to be.
Yet at the same time, Nava is actively engaged in traditional aesthetic and visual tropes. Aesthetic references to Latin American art and design can be seen throughout the pieces, from the wooden paneling of Fotos De Pasaporte to the bright pink tarp structure housing the shop portrayed in Dos Por Uno. Photographic transfers as well as collaged prints throughout the entire series add a flair of Rauschenberg to his intricately detailed pieces.
But there is a sense of playfulness occurring in these paintings, directly connecting the content and imagery to the format. Knock-off perfume brands like “Pool” and “Versatile” line the shelves of Miledy, Dos Por Uno totes an impressive array of almost certainly burnt CDs from famous artists (most of which have their faces painted in glitter, further obscuring their authentic identities). To an extent, these might even be knock off paintings. They look like paintings, they act like paintings, and they certainly feel like paintings, but the lack of stretcher bars tells us they aren’t paintings.
Of course, to anyone with a remote sense of critical thinking skills, the label of “knock-off painting” is itself a joke. But there is something worth exploring in these images surrounding the pirated objects for sale at bodegas, kiosks, and other small stands. Nava’s references, while specific to Latin American cultures, remain relevant and relatable outside those niche conversations. Most people familiar with urban environments have seen the almost-real-too-cheap-to-be-true products that fill Mateo’s scenes.
Ultimately, these paintings show a deep investment in their subject matter. Nava has created deceptively complex scenes that live somewhere between pure fantasy and trompe l'oei. Every day since hanging I’ve come back to his work and discovered a new detail or moment I previously missed. This engagement as a viewer makes me wonder about the process in putting so much into the paintings, proving sincere care for his subjects and his viewers.
Ed Note: I originally wrote this text as a filler for Mateo Nava’s Encuentro. As a Real Art Awards recipient, he receives a commissioned essay about his exhibition. However, we require essayists to visit the exhibit before writing, so as a result a filler essay is needed in the gallery book until then (trust me, it’s easier this way). I had the privilege of working with Mateo to curate his exhibition and was more than happy to write about it.
Encuentro is open from April 18 - June 30, 2019. Real Art Ways • 56 Arbor Street, Hartford, CT
More info about Mateo Nava can be found at his website.