“Doug Navarra: Marking Time,” Manifest

By Karen Chambers

Doug Navarra’s exhibition at Manifest Gallery is called “Marking Time.” It might also be called “Connecting” or “Making History Now.”

Let me begin by describing some of the 11 drawings and two books* on view. On reclaimed antique documents, which are the support (literally and figuratively) of the drawings, Navarra overlays geometric marks. They are in response to the condition, and hence history, of the paper. In conjunction with a 2005 exhibition, also called “Marking Time,” at the Radford (Virginia) University Art Museum, the curator, Preston Thayer, called them “interventions.”

In the Manifest gallery statement, Navarra’s drawings are described as “reminiscent of Christian and Islamic manuscripts, Indian Mughal painting, and perhaps Medieval cartography.” It’s an apt description, but let Navarra illuminate his artistic process:

I have always defined drawing as making marks on a surface, which leaves the door open for what is a mark and what is a drawing surface. In my case, I have chosen to work on old “found paper” documents. Being more than 100 years old, I inherit a history of mark-making circumstance on these found documents in regards to stains, tears, smudges, folds, color of paper, design elements, stamps, gesture, and a narrative, just to name a few. It is a vocabulary of preordained aesthetics that I must react to, develop a relationship with, choose to enhance, delete, adopt, or obliterate, while imposing new layers from my own time and interval of space. In a sense, it (the drawing) becomes a metaphor for how we deal with our past, and our collective history, whether we choose to ignore it, change it, embellish it, and/or bring its more important components into the light of day.

I can’t put it any better.

Just to elaborate, material from Navarra’s solo show at O. K. Harris in Soho in 2004 states, “When his own personal history is added to a 200-year-old piece of paper, it transforms the context of the page from a minor historical record into a contemporary and self-expressive work of art.”

In the works in this show, the documents range from telegrams to obscure certificates to books. They are the kind of ephemeral memorabilia that might have been stored in a trunk in an attic and passed from one generation to the next, “treasured” until the “heir” decides they have no value and throws them away or perhaps puts them in a lot to be sold in a garage sale or auction. They might also find their way on-line where Navarra now trolls for examples that attract him formally; he’s not interested in their content. That’s made clear because the artist does not title these works when it would be so easy to take one from the document.

These discarded records have little historical value (although scholars researching ancient cultures find interest even in grocery lists). However, one drawing might have some historical significance. On a sheet headed “Indian Posts and Telegraphs,” there are 10 vertical columns of typewritten words (all the same length) that are gibberish, which suggests they might be a code of some sort. That’s reinforced by a stamp inked in the purple hue produced by old-fashioned mimeograph machines. Located in the lower right corner, it reads “Office of the Australian High Commissioner in India, Australian office, Connaught Place.” Above this is another stamp with all cap letters that are dropped out of a purple block commanding “BURN AFTER READING!” Obviously, it wasn’t, leading me to wonder why it was supposed to be destroyed and how it escaped burning.

Over this Navarra has laid down ribbon-like strips of color that seem to be folded illusionistically into zigzags that float above the undated telegram. Although done in opaque gouache, they don’t redact sections.

In only one drawing do Navarra’s marks seem to correlate directly to the content. On what appears to be a spread from a book (the right-hand side is headed by “Extract from (is it?) Herapaths”; beneath it is a line reading “Journal of the Railway Magazine”), the artist has painted a series of lozenges and circles, some filled in with red and others simply outlined in blue ink. They are lined up horizontally in parallel lines. I think they might be Morse code, but it’s only a guess.**

For me the standout drawing pairs two of what Navarra reveals are Russian invoices with printed headings and handwritten notes of what has been purchased.

In the upper left corner of the drawing, a circlet of coins surrounds what must be the name of the company but which before knowing the original purpose, I interpreted—not translated since I don’t know Russian—to be something like “Treasury of the Czar.”

Also on the left side and migrating to the upper right, Navarra has scattered segmented circles and rectilinear and faceted diamond shapes over a honeycomb field. The marks are far more profuse than those he’s made in other drawings. They look like scraps of paper being blown away, a sense of movement reinforced by a couple of flourishes sweeping across the bills, making a potent metaphor for the ephemeral.

These marks are colored in sky and midnight blues, which made me realize I hadn’t given proper weight to the colors of Navarra’s marks in other drawings. Each choice is as premeditated as the shape and placement of the marks themselves and advances the formal dialogue.

I’ve known Navarra since the mid-1980s when he was making house- or reliquary-like constructions of usually thick and highly polished and, for the lack of a better word, sheets of clear, translucent, and opaque glasses. They were, for the most part, modestly scaled***. His craftsmanship was impeccable as he constructed sculptures by gluing or assembling the glass, sometimes with tiny brass screws. The pieces were incredibly time- and labor-intensive, and while I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that this conveys special merit, Navarra’s attention to facture is important to understanding all of his work, marking the passing of time.

Navarra began making the kind of drawings shown here around 1993 when he found handmade sheets of paper at the New York Central Art Supply store in Manhattan. (He had a studio in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood far from gentrification at the time.) Navarra describes them as having some “Arabic calligraphy work on them, very lyrical writing in the upper corner of each page.”

Navarra fell in love with them and began “juxtaposing the inherited calligraphic lyricism with my own geometric cross-hatched blocks.” When an interior designer bought up all of what were Arabic ledger sheets to wallpaper a bathroom, Navarra felt it meant an ignoble end to the series.

However, at a flea market in Chelsea, he encountered a dealer with some 19th-century American documents. And now, with the advent of on-line vendors, Navarra has turned to that source to find antique papers, and so the series continues.

The exhibition is installed in Manifest’s Parallel Space, which could have been named especially for this show because Navarra’s work can transport you to a place where past and present run on parallel tracks, where the artist and viewer connect with history and bring it up to date.

Karen S. Chambers
*One is a piano music book opened to “How sweet in the Woodlawn” and on the facing page “A favorite Song,” written in cursive, a dying art as the keyboard usurps the hand for personal communication. This is one of the five drawings made in the songbook. There is also a notebook with Arabic numbers and phrases in Cyrillic. Its purpose is unknown, but it is not the content that attracts Navarra but rather its formal elements. The books are displayed on a slanted stand and protected by non-glare plexiglass, very much like a valuable manuscript might be in a museum.

**In a December 19, 2013, e-mail to the author, Navarra wrote, “Some of the earlier drawings (in this exhibition) were done on old used telegram forms . . . (done) specifically for an exhibition (2010) proposal that was realized at Locus Grove, the house and former estate of Samuel Morse who once owned this Hudson River estate in Poughkeepsie, NY. The specific piece you mention was the only one from that series that was not a telegram but a handwritten magazine extract about the telegraph.” He goes on to write, “This was a way to honor the artistic and technical genius of Morse who in his life was also known as one of America’s most prodigious artists of his time . . . ”

***A notable exception is The Biggest Question Is Your Life from the mid-1980s, which is about 6’ x 4’. It is now in the collection of Washington Square Partnership in D. C.

“Doug Navarra: Marking Time” through Jan. 10, 2014, Tues.-Fri. noon-7 p. m., Sat. noon-5 p. m. Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, 2727 Woodburn Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45206, 513.861.3638, [email protected], www.manifestgallery.org.

• Doug Navarra, Untitled, 2012, gouache, pen, and pencil on found paper. Photo courtesy Manifest Gallery.
• Doug Navarra, Untitled, 2013, gouache, pen, and pencil on found paper. Photo courtesy Manifest Gallery.
• Doug Navarra, Untitled, 2011, gouache, pen, and pencil on found paper telegram. Photo courtesy Manifest Gallery.
• Doug Navarra, Untitled, 2012, gouache, pen, and pencil on found paper. Photo courtesy Manifest Gallery.
• Doug Navarra, Untitled, 2011, gouache and pencil on found paper. Photo courtesy Manifest Gallery.

One Response

  1. Excellent illumination of Doug Navarra’s work, but, having not seen these intimate manuscripts in person, I feel I must. If they are not all sold off the Manifest wall, then I look forward to paying a visit to Mr. Navarra’s to study them in person. Most intriguing! I particularly like #12 which the author surmises is Morse CODE. Curiously enough, my father was a Morse wireless officer in World War 2, but I’m sure that’s entirely another story.

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