Foto: Raúl Belinchón

Juan Nava

From July 1 to September 15, 2021

In the world of letters – the letters that written words are composed of – there are signwriters, typographers, designers, historians, and then there are people like Juan Nava, who are a bit of all of the above, and then some.

Juan Nava is a captive of the charm of letters. In Valencian we would say he is, in a literal sense, a lletraferit. The Spanish language has also recently admitted the translation letraherido, which in English could be loosely translated as letter-wounded. Lletraferit makes reference to an avid reader, yet perhaps we should reclaim its most evident meaning: letters have pierced him deeply, like Cupid’s arrow. To overcome this, or, conversely, to feed this passion, Nava has invested long hours in hunting down the most unique letters that he can lay his hands on with the infallible instinct of an expert, pinning them down, becoming familiar with their curves and their straight lines, and collecting them in a project of pathways that branches out beyond all measure.

That being said, Nava only collects exotic pieces. By this, I mean adventurous letters that escape the silent, varied world of printed paper – where some letters lead the placid existence of nearly immortal tortoises – and choose the eventful world of signs, threatened by rust, woodworm, sunlight, and the rise and fall of temperatures, not to mention changes in the economic model or property speculation. They are almost always words without pedigree, with familiar traits, yet reinterpreted or reinvented depending on what the occasion demands, marked by flights of fancy and small domestic triumphs, or by discoveries that were born of necessity. In our ever-changing cities, many of these letters are in continuous danger, but Nava, rightly admired for his bravery, portrays them and pardons them in the only way he can: preserving their mark, restoring their nature of pure drawing.

Foto: Raúl Belinchón

Juan Nava doesn’t like giving too many explanations about his quixotic accumulation of signs and letters found at the edge of town. Each person can choose his or her own interpretation, and nearly all of them are valid. There is an anger at the neglect of heritage and the triumph of uniformity. There is a longing for community on a more human-scale, for a small-scale economy and the personalized commercial experiences offered by unique professionals: the “kilometer zero,” as we say in Spain. There is an admiration for the talent of the signwriter with only artisanal tools at his or her disposal to carry out a commission — either due to necessity or conviction — and who does so wonderfully, yet without boasting. And there is also an impulse in Nava that ties into his professional profile, that of an experienced designer familiar with Letraset, templates, Rotrings, the Repromaster, and naturally, pencil sketches on onionskin; a graphic designer who is restless enough to know that the inspired choice and combination of letters and typographic families is one of the arcane arts of his trade. 

For this reason, this exhibit doesn’t try to give any explanations. It presents a synthetic sample of the journey of a letter as it becomes a brand or a sign, along with the recovery of an ensemble of letters from existing signs, reanimated as though they were about to begin a new life. In the first part, Juan Nava resorts to his archive and discovers sketches and projects from his youth, in order to demonstrate to what degree letters are composed of strokes, of volutes, of gestures made with a pencil or a paintbrush, where color is a superfluous element, and how drawing skills reside at the base of design; it’s not happenstance that the Italian word for design, disegno, means drawing. The second part, conceptually much riskier, is an asymmetric collection – some letters are more present than others – of 279 letters, in which the only evident order is alphabetic, although an observant visitor may discover other key elements and internal rhythms. Here, the patient work of reinterpretation with current tools is as important as the clearance of any biographical mark, including color, until the letter is reduced to its purest essence. Pure drawing.

And at any given moment, the visitor may realize that the two walls facing each other maintain a cordial dialogue, and the letters from here and there seem willing to take each other’s hands and begin a new dance.

Jorge García

Originals. 1987
Graphite, stylograph and indian ink on plastered paper