New York

Joseph Nechvatal

Brooke Alexander

In a manic proliferation of communication, Joseph Nechvatal’s overmediated language streams across the viewer’s info-fried consciousness as a miasma of fuzzy, fleeting, and overlapping images. The result is something like receiving television signals from several stations and data banks simultaneously on a single screen and trying to read the tangled web of electronic blips and blobs for whatever subliminal truths can be found there. One way to look at Nechvatal’s development since his first shows in alternative spaces in 1979 would be in terms of the various media with which he has chosen to work, making major shifts in presentation without markedly altering his art’s complex graphic structure (which is based primarily on telecommunications and its technology). However, the succession of pencil drawing, photocopying, photography, rephotography, sculpture, and computer-assisted painting tells only a part of the story. Over the past few years, Nechvatal’s art, while remaining stylistically consistent with his earlier work, has undergone a transformation of no minor significance. Although his post-Modern tea leaves will always be open to different interpretations, he appears to have moved away from direct sociopolitical assault and more into hypersensory sublime.

In 1984 Nechvatal described himself as “an agitator in the information war.” As an artist, he saw things in terms of sociology and anthropology, and what concerned him most were reality, ignorance, and the psychic numbing that has come about through the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Of his process of art making he said, “I tend to degenerate images. . . . I rip off images from the media all the time. Then I destroy them, transform them. It can come out beautifully.” This involved appropriating photographic images, entering them into his “visual datapool,” and then transforming them by breaking them down, contaminating and sublimating them, to make “pictures that do not look like pictures.”

In his recent work, the degenerated images (now in “computer/robotic assisted acrylic on canvas”) form a vibrant surface that is less legible than ever. Its self-consuming intensity digests its own content, which has become tangible only as a transmission of unconscious ideas that never quite come into focus. The social issues end up as sediment left in the cathartic rinse. As a reaction against the soullessness of contemporary simulation art, Nechvatal has deliberately sacrificed his polemical armor to find his own notion of freedom. He has abandoned diatribe and irony in favor of mystery, thus finding a way out of the ideologically oppressive dead end of post-Modernism. The too-hip criticism in the arts media today only thinly disguises the redundancy of long-exhausted and facile material. His alternative is not a conservative regression into the clichés of romantic expression but to build from the rubble of our deconstructed signs another “higher” state of consciousness. What matters is the viewer’s play of the imagination—a point that Nechvatal once made by quoting the TV character Edith Bunker on modern art: “It’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see.”

Over the years Nechvatal has exposed and examined the infrastructure of our contemporary information network, and with his latest efforts he has begun to seek a deeper understanding of its underlying mysteries. The seven paintings in this exhibition, all from 1987, showed an even greater tendency toward pictorial saturation than before, and a gothic self-referentiality that transmutes the banal into a baroque fugue of intoxicating excess. This was apparent in the titles—for example, Wide Ecstatic Courage and Transcendental Saturation. Nechvatal’s spirituality is a union of faith and science anchored in sensory experience. And, for all his technological, semiotic, and esthetic virtuosity, his greatest weapon is ecstasy itself.

Carlo McCormick