Dennis Nechvatal

The overwhelming reason one is drawn to the idiosyncratic paintings of Dennis Nechvatal is the fact that he has the moxie to pull them off. They are unfashionably phantasmagorical, esthetically gauche, and highly imaginative. But it takes more than Nechvatal’s disturbing brand of courage to make such paintings work, and he has the raw talent to bring them to life.

Nechvatal, a young Wisconsin artist, completed the 56 oil and acrylic paintings and charcoal drawings in this show at a prolific rate over the last three years. Any doubts raised by his first one-person show here, in 1980—that this academically trained artist might simply be posing as a provincial primitive—have been erased by the current exhibition. In painting after painting Nechvatal grasps something of Wisconsin’s dark, rural underworld with a vividness that is genuinely unsettling. There is a psychological, almost pathological edge in his obsessive handling of lonely landscapes and the strange people who populate them.

Nechvatal cultivates a number of distinct styles and approaches, isolating or combining them within each canvas. Some works depict empty rooms in which frightening, anthropomorphic hallucinations undulate on the walls or form a painting within the painting. There are Rousseauian landscapes and forests of lush foliage which serve as either the subject or the background for figures. Pictured up close, each leaf and grass blade is meticulously delineated: as panoramas stretch to the horizon. quaint clumps of shrubbery and trees throw off melancholy shadows in different directions. While Nechvatal’s work has painterly volume and depth, it draws heavily on his training in graphics: objects and figures are strongly outlined and, in some cases, seem colored in. This apparent naiveté, combined with other exotic elements, recalls the work of certain Haitian primitive painters as well as the Chicago Imagists.

In the past, Nechvatal has drawn and cut out expressionistic masks reminiscent of African art and of gargoyles. Some of the faces were silly, some were scary, and some were just strange. Now he has incorporated these black-and-white charcoal faces into his paintings, in full color: in Venus and the Beast a native with a masklike face wraps a shawl around a beautiful maiden in a verdant jungle: Head shows a gigantic face painted with ribbons of patterns and studded with chocolate-kiss-sized daubs of paint. In Three Men three figures wear white coats and outrageous masks in front of country hills and trees receding in the background, one of the masks is a fairly traditional African-type one with pointed teeth, another is more cartoonish and asymmetrical, while the third has an oval mouth, gritted teeth. and a second forehead and nose growing out of the right side of the head. What can it mean? The white coats suggest that the man are doctors—with masks. possibly witch doctors? Grant Wood meets Picasso.

Some portraits in charcoal are rendered in an elegant Art Deco style, giving them an inhuman, statuesque remoteness. The biggest of these is a huge iconic face superimposed over hundreds of neatly collaged pieces of paper upon each of which is printed the title of the piece, I Want To Be Just Like You. It might all seem a bit hokey, except for the bizarre twists and references. Nechvatal presents coolly intense mind games. The characters are all mysterious strangers who seem to be saying, “We are different; let us into your world.” The manner in which Nechvatal paints, which is richly worked but still maturing and unsophisticated, is secondary to the charisma of the content.

Michael Bonesteel