New York

Joseph Nechvatal

Brooke Alexander

Joseph Nechvatal creates his illusory psychological effects by piling image upon image until a dense visual smog is created. The images are familiar yet obscured—bankrupt—which increases the gloomy, overcast look. This murkiness can be misread as the sign of a vitally rich psychic fabric, but rather than a ripening field of images, it is a graveyard. Nechvatal once wrote an essay entitled “Epic Images and Contemporary History”; it is full of the usual morale-lifting proclamations of manifestos, like the heroic poses body-builders strike to convince themselves they are Herculean, but two of the proclamations illuminate Nechvatal’s simulation of the psychological dimension, its complete absence yet illusory presence in his pictures. Nechvatal writes, “Image and ideology are inseparable.” This means that the image is social and nothing but social in origin and end, a public event rather than a sign of intrapsychic experience. He also writes, “The sensibility of [my] simple images can be characterized by its preference for blunt and fast sensation and its indifference and hostility to interior experience.” Speeding up already fast images by orgiastically multiplying them in a superficial complication of the simple, Nechvatal creates an allover expressionistic aura, which can be mistaken as psychologically profound but is really the mirage that remains after the psychological has been expropriated for the sake of social commentary. We project the fullness of the irrational into the psychological vacuum that results, for even human nature cannot tolerate a vacuum, particularly in itself.

Nechvatal’s images are tracings of other images, and their near-familiarity makes them seem “memorable” and thus unmistakably intrapsychic in origin. They exist, however, in a gray zone, the objective correlative of what Nechvatal calls the “psychic numbing” that is the consequence of our “being held nuclear hostage.” This psychic numbing reflects the futility of feeling, of having a troublesome “psychology” that refuses to lie down and die before the inevitable atomic disaster. In a sense, Nechvatal’s images are like the memory of everything one has seen that is meant to flash before one’s eyes when one is dying—and, after all, one is perpetually threatened by nuclear death. This is the state Nechvatal depicts, and it is postpsychological, for it implies that psychological response is futile in the face of apocalyptic social reality.

While Nechvatal’s graying of the world is stylistically an admirable testing of what he calls “the limit on picturability” (a testing not unrelated to Nancy Grossman’s attempt to convey an “excess of emotion”), on the psychological level it implies the abolition of all feeling. The gray is the ground of the psyche after destruction in a scorched-earth policy, leaving the enemy nothing. Ironically, this is all the enemy wants. It is as if in attempting to represent psychic numbing, Nechvatal has actually incarnated it; as if he were mithridatically rehearsing the aftermath of the nuclear holocaust, but the rehearsal has turned out to be the realdisaster, the one that actually happens. Nechvatal may articulate an aspect of the anxiety of our age, but it is really a submissive anxiety.

Apart from that, on a simple esthetic level the work suffers from an Etch A Sketch look. The surfaces have the uniform slickness of media texture, invitingly transparent yet rigidly excluding. I haven’t decided whether I think this smoothness is part of Nechvatal’s sense of the simplistic, public character of his images, or whether it represents psychic numbing at its most insidiously manifest, and thus the purest form of the futility of the psychological. If the latter, it only shows just how in touch this age is with its own psychology, with the expectation of disaster, which has almost become its mechanism for obscuring its deeper pathology.

Nechvatal’s omnipresent gray has something gullible, exploitative, and naive about it. It makes it easy for him to achieve an undifferentiated epic effect. The gray is a kind of glacier full of the debris of civilization, but with no suggestion of the attitude that is leading us through self-destruction, unless that attitude is the lack of feeling aspired to in the first place. Nechvatal offers us a facile apocalypse.

Donald Kuspit