THE BLOG
03/23/2011 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

These Saints and Rascals Look Familiar

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The forecast for last weekend was rather grim, so I was crossing my fingers and praying that the group of art aficionados I was scheduled to lead on an art tour in downtown L.A. would not be caught in a storm. Somehow, my prayers were heard. Thanks to spring break, the USC campus on Saturday afternoon was eerily empty. The only person we encountered in front of the new Ronald Tutor Campus Center was John Nava, well-known California artist, who agreed to come all the way from Ojai, where he lives, to take us on a tour of his artworks on campus.

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A few months ago, his gigantic, 22 x 22 feet tapestry was installed in the lobby of this new center and now John was telling us about this project -- clearly a labor of love -- which took him two years to complete. The lower half of the tapestry is occupied by a procession of students, all of them busy with chatting and tweeting, checking messages and hurrying to the next meeting. Only a few of them, as if acknowledging our presence, are looking in our direction. Some youngsters are wearing the university's red and gold uniforms, but the rest are dressed very casually.

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Inspired by Renaissance art of Florence, John Nava presents a procession composed of real people, a procession which becomes a metaphor for, in his words, "the passage of humanity through a real world." The background for this procession is a dense compilation of pages from a variety books in various languages culled from the collection of the USC library.

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Just a few hundred yards away from the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, there is an appealing and informative exhibition revealing the story behind and the process of the making of the Trojan Family Tapestry. There are dozens of exquisitely painted figure studies of students who posed as models for the final composition. Included also is a portrait of two distinguished older gentlemen walking side by side: Steven B. Sample, retired USC president, and Ronald Tutor, generous patron of the campus center.

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Among the paintings on the walls, there are small, medium and large trial samples of tapestry, showing changes in palette and variations in composition. All these samples, as well as the final tapestry, were woven in Belgium in the city of Bruges, on hundreds-year-old looms operated with the help of today's computer technology. The artist knows this city very well, considering his other high profile commission, the numerous tapestries for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which were also woven in Bruges a decade ago.

It's only a ten minute drive from USC campus to the Cathedral built by Raphael Moneo next to the Music Center. Once inside, we are surrounded by numerous tapestries depicting a seemingly endless procession of various Catholic saints, and some of them, surprisingly, look familiar. I am almost sure that I can recognize some faces. And sure enough, John Nava tells us that he asked many of his friends, relatives and even neighbors to pose for the studies he used later for his final composition. At the end of our tour, we all had a slightly surreal but wonderful sense of intimate connection with all the saints and rascals that John paraded in sacred and secular spaces in our City of Angels.

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM.

To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, visit Art Talk on KCRW.

Banner image: John Nava, Trojan Family Tapestry, 2010