by Charles Donelan

The announcement for John Nava’s upcoming exhibit of portraits
at Sullivan Goss gallery in downtown Santa Barbara arrived at the
homes and businesses of the gallery’s mailing list in early October
wrapped in clear plastic. No sooner had some of the 1,000
addressees received it than the gallery’s email inbox and voicemail
were inundated with messages — more than 50 as of press
time — running approximately three-to-one against exhibition of the
work. In addition to the “dissenting” messages, as Goss refers to
them, there were anonymous threatening phone calls. One caller
asked Goss if his insurance was paid up. Another said simply, “This
is a bad idea,” and added, “You won’t get away with it.”

The work in question appears mild enough at first glance. The
style is contemporary realism and the subjects are mostly
adolescents dressed in casual, everyday clothes. The controversy
arises when one looks more closely at the messages emblazoned on
these clothes and the political buttons some of the subjects wear.
The cover image of the mailing was likely the cause of most of the
negative reactions: A blonde girl of about 16 stands in front of a
plain backdrop with her hands at her sides, looking straight ahead.
Red block letters on her T-shirt spell out the statement, “AMERICA

Whether it is the whiplash effect of such a stark political
statement bursting through an otherwise pleasant image of an
attractive person, or — as some detractors would have it — the
exploitation of adolescents in the service of a partisan political
message, the pictures, which go on public exhibit today (Thursday,
October 19), have got people talking. For Robert Bijou, a Santa
Barbara art dealer and collector, that is the point.

Bijou said that he first noticed the flyer because of his son,
who attends Santa Barbara High School. A fellow student in an
introductory art course arrived at school with a copy of the flyer
for the Nava show, which is called Neo-Icons; an intense classroom
discussion ensued. Bijou said his son noticed two unusual things
taking place. “First of all, he said that the scheduled
conversation about portraiture suddenly became more animated, and a
lot of students who didn’t ordinarily say anything began to join
in,” Bijou said. “Apparently, many of the students in the class
were not aware of some of the recent developments regarding
constitutional rights and habeas corpus, and they started asking
questions about that. The art class became a place where there’s
learning going on about the world and current events. The kids
ended up deciding that they would go to see the show, which is the
first time that has happened.”

Bijou added that, from his point of view as a collector and
dealer, the show is a gamble. “Portraiture doesn’t often do well
financially,” he said. “Why would you want to own a portrait of
someone you may not even know? For portraiture to succeed, it’s
usually a slow sell that is motivated by a sustained emotional
response that the piece somehow elicits.”

For his part, the artist, John Nava of Ojai, is dedicated to
getting his message across in a lasting way. He explained, “The
phrase ‘America Tortures’ is one I made up myself. It’s just so
piercingly sad that these words are true.” When asked about the
genesis of the series, he cites the inspiration of Colombian artist
Fernando Botero, whose Abu Ghraib paintings have yet to be
exhibited in this country. “Botero said that nobody would remember
the atrocities at Guernica if not for the Picasso painting. It made
me realize I had to do whatever I could to give voice to the
unspoken sense of horror that I know so many people feel about the
way America has been corrupted by this administration. I don’t do
baroque or expressionism, but I can make a beautiful painting of a
real kid, so that’s what I did.”

It remains to be seen what the public response will be now that
these images — already controversial as simple flyers — are on the
walls of the gallery as full-size paintings.


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