Focus on Installation: Karen Navarro
There are a number of reasons why viewers might be drawn to Karen Navarro’s multimedia-minded practice. Perhaps there’s joy to be found in the artist’s vivid color palette, or in the meticulous way she puzzles together her materials into ever-shapeshifting configurations (the work pictured above, for example, is comprised of 42 individual panels that can be rearranged). Perhaps it’s the surreal elusiveness of her portraiture—those who pose in front of Navarro’s camera are never rendered quite whole in the artist’s finished compositions. Perhaps it’s the attention to small details—painted edges, subtle textures, and disrupted patterns abound. Whatever the draw may be, the tactile presence of Navarro’s pieces is impossible to overlook. An interview with the artist follows.
Karen Navarro is an Argentine-born multidisciplinary artist living and working in Houston. Navarro works on a diverse array of mediums that includes photography, collage, and sculpture. Her image-based work centers around the topic of identity, self-representation, and belonging. Trained as a fashion designer and photographer, Navarro studied at the University of Buenos Aires and completed the certificate program in photography at the Houston Center for Photography. Her constructed portraits are known for pushing the boundaries of traditional photography, the use of color theory, surreal scenes, and minimalist details. In 2019 she received the Houston Artadia fellowship and most recently she has been shortlisted for the 2020 Photo London Emerging Photographer of the Year Award. Her work has been exhibited in the US and abroad. Selected shows include Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), USA; Galerija Upuluh, Zagreb, Croatia; Lawndale Art Center, Houston, USA; Elisabet Ney Museum, Austin, USA; Melkweg Expo, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Houston Center for Photography, Houston, USA; and Museo de la Reconquista, Tigre, Argentina. Navarro’s work has been featured in numerous publications, including ARTnews, The Guardian, Observer, Rolling Stone Italia, and Vogue Italia.
My work is informed by my experience of being an immigrant and the ways in which I see identity as a cultural and social construct. Through unconventional portraiture and still life imagery, my multimedia practice investigates the intersections of identity, self-representation, race, gender, and belonging. Using digital photography as a foundation, I transform traditional prints into three-dimensional, visual objects by cutting and incorporating tactile elements such as wood, paint, and resin. The labor-intensive techniques I apply to create these sculptural objects not only allow for a physical deconstruction of my images but also become a form of meditation that reflects my efforts in trying to reconstruct and make sense of my own identity.
At once colorful and minimal, my constructed portraits are meant to invite viewers in while touching base on sensitive issues. Diversity and equality are very important considerations throughout my work, which features a diverse range of subjects portrayed in similar manners. To refer to my subjects’ constructed identities and their multiple layers, each individual’s face is often depicted hidden, dissected, or blurry. These interventions reference elements from cubism and surrealism, genres in which I find an unexpected kind of magic and strange beauty. Through my practice, questions of identity sometimes take a philosophical turn. —Karen Navarro
I love the visual language that you have cultivated throughout your work; there is a unifying pop of color and texture throughout your portfolio that I feel I can immediately recognize as yours on sight. Will you tell us a bit about your aesthetic choices—i.e. your color palette, your geometric configurations, your attention to pattern, etc.?
Aesthetics is a way to seduce people into getting interested about my work so then they can, hopefully, start a conversation about the meaning of the work. Which is what usually happens. I cannot yet fully understand my relationship with beauty. I always feel drawn to objects that maintain a similar aesthetics and I see that reflected in my work. I believe this is a consequence of my background in design.
In essence, my work is thought-provoking and conceptually loaded. In order to make my work more approachable and capture people’s attention I create very compelling work. I think again I am playing with perceptions, people will see my work and say “Oh! That’s lovely,” but that’s just on the surface. The work—it’s deeper than that.
Your newest series The Constructed Self sees you creating pieces that take up more physical space than works from your previous photographic portfolios like El Pertenecer en Tiempos Modernos (Belonging in Modern Times). The new works are larger, more sculptural, more material, and more kinetic. How and why did this expansion come about? Are you naturally crafty with your chosen sculptural materials (wood, resin, paint), or was there a learning curve?
I am naturally crafty but my art practice slowly and organically has progressed. I found myself wanting to experiment more because of the ephemeral nature of the digital era we are living in today and because I also felt that the work was asking for different materials. It has been an interesting journey of experimentation, of trial and error, lots of hours spent in the studio. Now my work is a more process-oriented work. A type of work that is made with my hands with a craftlike approach.
Who appears in your photographs, and why?
I see my work as self-reflective even if I don’t appear in the pictures. I see models as vehicles to communicate ideas of identity that traverse me and that could also apply to others. When choosing who will take part in the photographs, diversity is a very important factor that I consider. I believe I have the opportunity to use my medium to portray a diverse range of subjects and I am using it for that.
The premise behind much of your work is the notion that the ways in which we identify ourselves may not necessarily align with a) how we present ourselves to the world, and b) how others perceive us. How are you and your work thinking about this complexity? Is it liberating that our identities can shapeshift and be rearranged like your photo-sculptural pieces, or does this ability make it harder for us to connect with one another?
I think it has a little bit of both. It can be liberating or it can make it harder to connect with one another. For example, it could be difficult to truly connect if the identity we are performing on social media is not our fullest and honest self. But on the other hand, the ability to shape-shift our identities could be liberating. It’s part of who we are.
Identity is a complex thing. We contain many identities that continually intersect and overlap. We don’t stay the same all our life, we are continually evolving. And if that evolution is a positive thing, I believe we become better and more understanding, which can make us become more empathetic and connect more.
While working on The Constructed Self, have you found yourself rethinking elements of your own identity and sense of belonging?
Definitely, when I am creating a piece there is something in the process that mirrors my process of trying to reconstruct my identity; how I try to puzzle the pieces together, how I accommodate and rearrange trying to make sense out of it, or maybe just trying to reflect the confusion it causes me. I think all of this has a lot to do with being an immigrant.
Before migrating to the United States, I never had to question myself about how I self-identify. Being an immigrant and seeing how I am identified by others has posed questions about my own identity and my sense of belonging.
When living in Argentina this issue never mattered to me, was not even present, then and there I was just Karen, an Argentine living in her country. This situation has opened a new door that led me to want to know more about my ancestral history and invited me to try to reconstruct my new own identity. This is still in process and it’s more evident when I am making a piece, all these questions that come from missing information about my own identity are reflected in the work. It also applies when we form an impression of others, we are meeting just one facet of this person. We can’t judge it all and besides we also hold our own biases.
What is one of your favorite reactions that someone has had to your work?
How surprised white people are when I tell them that people of color will surpass the white population in the U.S. by 2043 while I explain my new work.
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