John Nava’s new show, Neo-Icons, has been in the news and attracted threats primarily as the result of the reproduction of one painting titled “Signing Statement Law or An Alternate Set of Procedures.” In a spirit of understanding and rational inquiry, let us spend some time actually looking at this picture. It’s a portrait, and yet it is square-a disquieting proportion for portraiture, as the figure fills only the central third of the canvas, with the background stretching out on either side like the wings of a triptych. The figure faces us straight on, as one might expect of an icon, and its colors are saturated, but only slightly, as if your vision had been turned up a notch. The artist has thus taken subtle pains to tell us that whatever happens within this space is significant.
It is, however, just one detail that has attracted all the attention-the message on the subject’s T-shirt that reads “AMERICA TORTURES.” Although these words are close to the center-and in red-the painting does not distinguish this detail as the detail. There are so many other things to notice: the ambivalent way the subject holds herself, her hands hang at her sides, the creases in her pants, the way her shirt bunches up around her armpits, and the expression on her face and in her eyes. One gets the impression that the artist knows how many strands of hair are on her head, yet this isn’t a fussy or even a particularly precise work. Nava clearly knows that illusionism works best when it is softened, and engages the eye in a way that details alone, even when slavishly reproduced, cannot.
This painting is the work of a dedicated craftsman who asks us to look at its human subject. It is neither baroque nor expressionist. If it were, it could be dismissed as the ranting of yet another overly rhetorical leftist. But make no mistake about this-John Nava does indeed take his place in the long tradition of protest painting. Here is what is truly radical about Nava’s work: If we could but approach its clarity and attentiveness, if we could learn to look carefully-as this art does-at what is beautiful and vulnerable in ourselves and others, there would be no place for slogans such as “AMERICA TORTURES.” What has happened in this country and to this world could not have happened. If we could simply live the way that this art sees, we would have no need to protest.