Dennis Nechvatal

From his studio in Madison, Wisconsin, removed by choice from the currents and vicissitudes of the art world, Dennis Nechvatal extends his idiosyncratic vision. He is both ambitious and indefatigable, churning out a multitude of huge and often aggressive paintings, sculptures, assemblages, and altered photos. Like many Midwestern artists, he knows no pictorial fear: boldness is the unrelieved note, the effort to confront and delight and astound through scale, variety, paint handling, and expressive figuration.

Titled “Brotherhood: A Concept in Images and Objects,” this exhibition highlighted two differing approaches to the figure that Nechvatal has been using over the past few years. In the first, the artist employs a kind of pointillism, made up of restless squiggles that cohere to form descriptive images of laconic, immobile faces. These can be mesmerizing, almost annoyingly hypnotic instances of extraordinary technical focus and labor used in the service of passivity. The causal disjunction between means and ends found in this group of works also informs Nechvatal’s more totemic images: large staring heads that suggest moody primordial warriors. Here, in a style that seems to combine elements straight out of Picasso with pattern and decoration gone berserk, Nechvatal obliquely touches on the cult of primitivism, suggesting in images such as Force II: Warrior III, 1988, the myth of the archetypal male force.

No matter which stylistic approach Nechvatal chooses, his figures are always presented without a defined narrative context. They stand and stare, strictly posing themselves parallel to the picture plane, grimacing broadly or beginning to explode, overtly displaying some psychological state or gazing stupidly into space. But they are never shown doing anything; it is as if their very presence were sufficient—in their accretion and variety lies meaning enough. In Bad History, 1988, 16 wide-eyed disembodied male heads are rendered, each on its own wooden wine crate, stacked four across and rising some seven feet high. The piece is an irregular monument to Babel, an oddly touching paean both to human irrelevancy and to the seemingly inexhaustible resources of the artist’s own imagination.

In Nechvatal’s altered life-size black and white photographs, such as Witness, 1989, the artist himself appears for our scrutiny, dressed in a suit that is literally. covered with thousands of tags reading, “I want to be just like you.” The rest of the photograph is painted in gray monochrome, with a forest at the left and a cityscape at the right. In freehand lettering over the suit some 20 things are listed—“A Reason, A Stage, A Mirror, A Day,” etc. Elements here come fast and furious, too jumbled to coalesce and congeal. Invention becomes its own reward, indexical thinking its own delight and end.

James Yood