Don’t put Henry Navarro in a box. The multidisciplinary artist who is trained in fine arts (sculpture, ceramics and drawing) as well as fashion design has exhibited his fine art in galleries and museums internationally, taught at the college level and organized site-specific fashion projects around the globe. His current exhibition, Mis-Measured Structures: Paintings and Installations by Henry Navarro at Bromwell’s Gallery, is conceptually based as well as craft driven.
The former visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP Fashion Department (current Assistant Professor of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto) has returned to Cincinnati for Mis-Measured and a site-specific fashion-based public art project inspired by Cincinnati itself.
Mis-Measured includes 11 large-scale paintings on canvas and seven “fashion-based installations” and the two elements play off of each other in unexpected ways.
The artist paints with a spatula using tar and cement on his canvases, caking the mixture on in chiseled edges that resemble concrete timber formwork. Many of them have aged as the material has matured in the eight years since they were created. Inspired to view urban environments as living organisms, Navarro’s pieces are reminiscent of cities as seen from above and the microscopic patterns of growth that naturally occur in living organisms. And while the paintings are beautiful texturally and compositionally, the artist draws the viewers’ eyes to the spaces in between.
Navarro leaves large swaths of off-white unprimed canvas empty in his paintings and, even in works such as “Subjective Structures 2” in which the grey rectangular structures dominate the canvas, because the unpainted space feels so comparatively minimal, it seems that much more important — like visual breathing room. In the aforementioned piece, the artist crowds his canvas with three leaden grey rectangles and one white square of clear primer — the only of its kind within the series.
Whereas in “Subjective Structures 2” the juxtaposition of white to concrete mixture feels like viewing crowded city blocks from above, in “Subjective Structures 1” the artist paints only one long horizontal two-and-a-half inch stripe across the expanse of his canvas, dividing it into two parts like a wall might. On either side the eye is drawn to the untapped potential of space on canvas, and in doing so the artist reminds the viewer that this is merely a painting, an object.
And although his installations of fashion-based art objects initially look like uniforms, upon closer inspection the subtle details of color, fabric, cut and size become apparent. “Fashion is one of the few creative outlets that reference humanity directly,” Navarro says. “When you see a garment, you imagine the person in it.” And these pseudo-garments, as the artist calls them, are merely the quantifiable measurements of the various persons that modeled for the artist. Diverse men and women allowed the artist to create a “sloper” (the basic fit for a pattern without any seam allowance) based on their physical dimensions, yet there is no opening or fasteners for entry.
The pale taupe disembodied figures hang like ghosts, clustered around the gallery as if they were acknowledging the artwork hanging from the walls; present yet empty of any soul. Like Navarro’s paintings we are drawn to the spaces around them: the emptiness they delineate, and the absence of humanity.
That’s not saying that this is a bleak exhibition — on the contrary. One of the interesting things about showing the work in a place like Bromwell’s, where furniture and high-end fixtures share space with fine art, is that — at least for Mis-Measured — all of the objects on display become a kind of historical artifact: an object with a past, present and future.
The larger than life 18th century mahogany bay window at the front of the gallery alone has seen enough life that it has probably outlived its many owners several times by now. One cannot look at that façade without imagining the faces of people sitting inside the windows of a café or pub, once upon a time.
Navarro’s objects, with their own implications of human presence, also refer to the spaces of social livability, and this is clearly an important issue for the multi-hyphenate. In an interview, the artist said that he sees all of his work as a way to understand the human relationship with our surroundings. Not only does he successfully address that lofty question with Mis-Measured, he also leaves room for viewers to decide for themselves what the answers may be.
MIS-MEASURED STRUCTURES is on display at Bromwell’s Gallery, 117 W. Fourth, Downtown, 513-315-4622, www.bromwellsgallery.com.