Joaquin Navarro’s landscapes in the exhibition “What Lies Beneath: Western Pennsylvania Forests” reverberate with color that is both seductive and disconcerting.
The large oil paintings are inspired by nature but contemporized by the use of unnatural color that signals that things may not be what they seem. The solo exhibition continues through Nov. 9 at Christine Frechard Gallery in Lawrenceville.
Mr. Navarro, 53, was born in Santander, Spain, on the Bay of Biscay and not far from Bilbao, home of the famed Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
“The Old Masters used to unify the base of their paintings with a color like crimson or dark brown” when preparing a canvas, he said. “When I started to use magenta as the undertone of my paintings, it was magical.”
The searing pigment courses through waterways, up the trunks of trees and through the canopy. It suggests, he said, “what is happening underneath the foliage. It looks beautiful but there is something lurking underneath.”
“Green and magenta are complementary colors, weird to find together in real life, but we are drawn to them,” he said. “I think that’s what makes the painting work as a decorative object.”
“The more I explore this the more whimsical they become, Dr. Seuss-like.”
Mr. Navarro and his husband, Patrick Moore, who is director of The Andy Warhol Museum, live in the Highland Park. He finds inspiration when walking along the nearby trails and in Frick Park. He and Mr. Moore also enjoy hiking on the grounds of Seven Springs and Fallingwater when they can get away. But he is not a realist painter.
“For the most part – 80 percent – they are forests that have evolved from my imagination.”
He moved to Pittsburgh from California where, he said, “the idea of fracking was foreign.” Since his arrival, he’s become versed in the potential problems of hydraulic fracturing, including pollution of the water table.
“When I was a teenager I wanted to be an artist,” Mr. Navarro said.
He was given his first exhibition by a Santander gallery when he was 19. He also studied architecture for five years in Santander followed by film school in Madrid.
In 1992 he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree at UCLA in art direction for film and television. Shortly after he became a set designer for Warner Brothers, working on television shows including “Suddenly Susan,” “E.R.,” “The O.C.,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Family Matters,” “Step by Step,” “Presidio Med” and “Pretty Little Liars.”
“I miss the old days when I started working at Warner Brothers in 1994. It was the last studio that had a central art department. All the shows were in the same building. We fed from each other. We helped each other. I learned from the illustrators, the old timers.”
Things began to unravel during the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike. Mr. Navarro and Mr. Moore had already purchased two houses in Bloomfield and were using them as rental properties. When the writers strike began, he had nothing to do in California and spent three months in Pittsburgh looking at real estate.
“I told Patrick, ‘You know, I could live here,’” he said.
He started a new show when he returned to California but “it was not the same.” Reality shows had become popular during the strike and studios had lowered salaries and increased hours to compete.
“It was much more stressful. There was no money, long hours. We wore many hats. We were working all night in Los Angeles painting sets. The younger producers didn’t know how to produce the old-fashioned way…. I don’t miss it at all.
“I asked Patrick ‘What if we move to Pittsburgh?’ and he said yes. We sold our house in West Hollywood and with the cash from our house bought seven houses here.”
“We are very happy here. We have been embraced by everyone here.”